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Colored Schools in Virginia

September 12, 1879 — American Social Science Association, Saratoga Springs NY


More than two hundred years ago, when Virginia was still covered by the unbroken forest, and the Indian was monarch of the soil, a feeble little colony of Englishmen were struggling to obtain a foothold in the dominions of Chief Powhatan. Reports of this settlement at Jamestown had gone over the civilized world of that day, and many thoughts were turned from distant lands to Smith’s colony.

About a dozen years or so after the little band of English had made their homes in the Indian country, the captain of a ship from Holland steered his vessel into the Virginia harbor, and invited the settlers to examine his stock, which, of course he warranted fine, durable, valuable in every respect. What did Mynheer have for sale? Men, perhaps women and children also, nothing less than human freight on that boat. After praising his goods, and chaffing over the price, and haggling about how much tobacco he would take for a man, and how many furs for a woman and child, and at last inducing the Virginians to buy about twenty head of his live stock he sailed off to some other port to dispose of  the rest of his cargo.

In that unenlightened era nobody thought there was any harm in this transaction. Many nations of the world then engaged in the slave trade, some do now. It was not very long before this time that the chivalrous Charles the Fifth led an expedition into the north of Africa, and released by the power of his sword twenty thousand captives, Christians from all parts of Europe, taken in the piratical wars of that cruel age, and sold into bondage by their conquerors. It was many years after the Dutch brig brought the first slaves to Virginia, that a New England minister sent a keg of rum to Africa, with instructions as to what kind of “nigger” he would take in exchange for it. It was much later than this that an English clergyman invested his funds in a slaver, and got his dividends, as the slave market went up or down. The savage Africans have always sold their prisoners, perhaps sometimes their next of kin, to the traders who came into their country in search of slaves for the evil traffic.

Many other ships followed the Dutchman into Virginia ports, bringing cargoes of slaves, and the trade was continued far into the present century. What sort of people were these Africans left among the pioneers in the Virginian forest, and from time to time reinforced by fresh instalments from tropical shores ? They seem generally to have been of pretty much the same description — savages in their own land, quite unaccustomed to wearing clothes, ignorant of all but the simplest arts.

A lady now over ninety years old, who lives near me, says that in her youth many slave ships came to our ports, and people from all parts of the State hastened on the arrival of a ship, to buy slaves; for raw Africans, like raw sugar and raw cotton, were much cheaper in first hands than the refined and improved article held by the middlemen. My old friend says she observed that there was a great difference among these Africans. Some were real savages, coarse, ignorant, degraded, almost brutal in their habits, worshipping idols, and only induced to labor by positive cruelty. Others had apparently come from at least semi-civilized nations. These were often people of intelligence, usually Mahommedans in faith, frequently possessing some knowledge of astrology and other occult sciences. My informant remarks: These Africans came here savages, but the children always showed a great improvement on the parents ; they soon learned our language and customs, adopted our religion, and after a few generations I could see no difference, except in color, between them and other people.” In his interesting Memoirs of “Old Churches and Families of Virginia,” Bishop Meade tells much of what he terms “the gentlest race of savages God ever made.” He records the story of a slave called “African Belle,” a woman of unusual intelligence and dignified appearance, who selected an amiable looking gentleman from among the purchasers at the slave market, prostrated herself at his feet, placed his hand upon her head in token of submission, and in the mute but expressive language of signs implored him to buy her. The planter purchased the willing captive, and she became a valuable and beloved member of his family, cherished to extreme old age by the white children she had nursed, and, at last, dying happily in the Christian faith.

Traditions of these African immigrants still linger among our Southern negroes, who are, however, very sensitive about their barbarous ancestors, and extremely reticent in regard to talking to white people about what they call outlandish folks.”

A very worthy and sensible old colored neighbor of mine, who owns a snug little property, keeps a horse and cow, sends his children to school, and lives like a Christian, recently gave me, with evident reluctance, some information about the “outlandish people” he knew in his youth. He says, “they were plentiful then, but he believes they have all died out now; they had mighty curious ways; they was fond of raisin’ big gourds an’ puttin’ their things away in them; they didn’t talk like folks, but had a kind of whinin’ speech.”

Negroes were not the only people held to bondage in the colonial days of Virginia. Not a few convicts and paupers from Europe were sold for a term of years, to repay the expense of their transportation, and occupied the same place in the society of the colony as the black servants of that day. Some highly respectable families among us could, if so disposed, trace their origin to such persons “held to service” by their. more wealthy neighbors; but pride being a natural element in humanity, such white families are no more prone to refer to their servile progenitors than are our modern Africans disposed to recall their barbarous ancestors. Fifty years after the settlement of Virginia the number of these indented white servants was 6,000, while that of the negro slaves was but 2,000. Prof. Tucker, Jefferson’s biographer, remarks: “In process of time, slave labor was found more profitable than that of white servants, partly because the negroes were more cheaply fed and clothed than the white laborers, who were of the same race as their masters, but chiefly because the negroes were less able to escape from bondage, and were more easily retaken. A conspiracy undertaken by the white servants, about 1660, caused much distrust of them, and the importation of convicts from England being thenceforth forbidden, this event greatly increased the trade in negroes, so that by the year 1790 there were nearly 300,000 slaves in Virginia.”

At the close of the war of the revolution, the United States, having thrown off allegiance to the British king, adopted the republican form of government. The world-renowned Declaration of Independence was framed by a Virginian, and the sentence, “All men were created equal,” entitled to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” thrilled the heart of the young Republic. But one class among its inhabitants had no part nor lot in the matter. To the black man, who had aided his white master to clear away the primeval forest, to till the soil, to plant habitations in the wilderness, to build up a mighty commonwealth, these high- sounding phrases were of no meaning. Neither he nor his children “were born free; the white man forbade him to call himself “equal” to his fellowmen. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” were blessings only to be enjoyed by him at the caprice of another. Even our glorious Jefferson, although not an advocate of slavery, was inconsistent on this subject, holding slaves himself, tolerating slavery in the professedly free government he had helped to form, and, in dying, giving human beings as property to his children.

The Africans thus incorporated into our system, and forming so large an element in our society, had for the most part come into our country in a savage condition, but were in the stern school of slavery fast becoming civilized. The negroes are an eminently amiable and imitative race, and very readily assimilated with the inhabitants of the land to which they had been transplanted. In favorable circumstances they rapidly developed character and intellect, and many noble specimens of humanity were to be found among our Virginia slaves. It was a favorite argument with far-seeing people, who anticipated the emancipation of the race by some means, and dreaded insurrection, that the negroes were fast becoming too highly civilized by their intimate association with an enlightened people to be held long in subjection.

An Englishman, who had lived many years in Africa before coming to the United States, tells me, after long observation in Virginia and Carolina, that it is very interesting to him to notice the great improvement of the Negro-American as compared with the native Africans. While he had seen many fine looking savages of strong, athletic form, there was seldom an intelligent expression of countenance among them, the features usually telling of brutality and cunning, in marked contrast to the amiable and sensible faces of their cultivated relations in America.

The attachment existing between slaves and their owners was often very great, and numberless instances might be recounted of the affection existing in families, whose fates had been united for generations. Time would fail me to relate the incidents which crowd my memory of the confidence reposed by slaveholders in their servants, and the faithfulness with which such trusts were kept. The wife of a slaveholder entrusted her children from their birth to the arms of the faithful nurse, who was often the loving guardian of two generations of babies. The master of a large estate often selected for his manager some well-trained and sensible slave, and placed in his charge all that he possessed. My husband’s father, whilst carrying on a large milling business, frequently sent his negro cooper, a man of fine character and great skill at his trade, through several counties in search of timber suited to his business. Mounted upon a blooded horse, and carrying several hundred dollars in his pocket, the trusty servant never failed to make satisfactory reports, and restore in good order the property he would have defended with his life. All the world has heard of the faithful negro who, when ordered by John Brown at Harper’s Ferry to unlock the doors of the Baltimore and Ohio depot, refused to disobey the positive orders of his employer, and was shot down by the men who came to Virginia to free the slaves, preferring to die rather than betray his trust.

Now that slavery with its sorrows and trials is a thing of the past, whilst we may see that to the Africans it has been a school of training, — just as centuries of bondage transformed the nomad Jews into a manufacturing people, skilled in all the knowledge of their oppressors, — it is melancholy to note the effects of a system, long since condemned by enlightened nations as unworthy of a progressive people, upon the slave owners and the country they occupied.

While we arrogated to ourselves the right to enslave a barbarous race, for the nominal purpose of its civilization, the admixture of such an element in our society, and the effort to preserve feudal customs among us, have left us generations behind our sister States, and the age in which we live.

There was a day, early in our history, when Virginia had a greater population than New York, when Richmond was a more flourishing city than New Amsterdam; but in an evil hour our law givers elected to perpetuate slavery within our borders, disregarding the voice of nature, the example of other commonwealths, the teachings of Christianity! All menial employments being left to the negroes, a contempt for manual labor soon marked the white Virginian. The slaves were fast acquiring skill in agricultural, mechanical and household arts, while the whites for the most part neglected such useful knowledge. With singular infatuation all legislation turned upon slavery, and southern politicians knew nothing but a perverted idea of State Rights, a doctrine in this section always synonymous with the wrongs of the negro. All progress was retarded, free discussion restricted, and anything tending to promote immigration regarded with suspicion. The religious sentiment of the land was distorted to suit the slave code, and ministers of Christ strove to teach the Oriental customs of ages gone in the New World and the nineteenth century. While the rest of the world was rushing on with great strides to carry knowledge to the dark places of earth, we were passing laws forbidding ourselves to learn the alphabet! While the philanthropists of other lands were striving to lighten the burthens of the laboring men, and elevate the masses of the people, we were trying to enforce the curfew regulations of the conquering Normans over the subject Saxons!

But whilst a people blinded as the Egyptians of old, struggled against the inevitable, a thousand causes were at work to destroy an accursed system, and bring liberty to the patient, faithful negro.

What blood and treasure were lavished on the Civil War, caused by slavery, can be but faintly estimated; its wounds will be unhealed in our generation, but out of its groans and tears have come the freedom of the slave, and at length the American people, cherishing no longer a system of servitude, wholly incompatible with their institutions, have truly a Republican Government with all its citizens freemen.

The black man went out from his master with but a staff in his hand, and the God who had freed him, for his guide. In several of the Southern States the property of our ex-slaves is counted by millions, and where they have had good opportunities their progress in education has been remarkable. The Virginia Educational and Historical Association, which met lately in this city, presents a body of colored teachers, ministers, editors and lawyers, who give a most gratifying assurance of the capabilities of the Negro-Americans and of their surprising advancement in spite of many obstacles.

The African in America as savage, slave and citizen has had a wonderful career, often pathetic, always interesting, and but little more remains to be done for his welfare, before he must be left to work out his destiny among his brethren. What is that little? First the repeal of all laws making distinctions against the negro.

We welcome to our shores the surplus, often the outcast population, of all other lands, and bestow upon them all the privileges which are the glorious heritage of the American citizen, yet our laws, founded upon prejudice, often discriminate cruelly against the Negro-American, whose race has existed for two hundred years upon our soil.

Mr. Garfield tells us, “Until there is one acknowledged law of liberty for white and black men alike, it is idle to claim that the amendments to the Constitution are obeyed either in spirit or in letter.”

Professor Hart, in an admirable treatise on the English language, tells us, “The laws of nature are stronger than the laws of man. It is impossible for two races speaking the same language, possessing the same religion, to maintain permanently a separate existence, when kept in constant contact and juxtaposition.”

In Professor Wayland’s lovely work on Moral Science, I find the following sentence: “If society be, as we claim, an ordinance of God, it follows that every man who conforms to the social laws of God has a right to it. No man can then be justly excluded from it, unless he have committed some overt act, by which he has forfeited this right.”

The next great want of the negroes of Virginia — of the South — is a system of education that shall include the mixed schools, — which are needed not only for their sakes but for that of the country,

First for their sakes. The experiment of separate schools, tried in many States during the past century, and in Virginia in the last nine years, proves conclusively that schools for the two races cannot be maintained with justice and efficiency. In the public schools of Virginia the colored children do not receive a fair proportion of the school funds; inferior accommodations are made for colored schools; those pupils who wish to become teachers are often excluded from positions they might worthily fill, whilst those wishing to procure a higher education must go beyond the borders of the State to secure it; for Virginia, possessing in proportion her people more classical institutions than any other State, sternly bars college doors against half her population. The tendency ofeducational institutions all over our land is evidently to have the door of the school-room open to all who wish to enter; and this is the only school-house fit for the youth of a Republic.

I do not know that I can do better for this part of my subject than to quote extracts from two letters, written in answer to my request for their opinions on the public schools of the State, by Mr. J. W. Cromwell, editor of the Washington Star, and Prof. J. E. Jones, of Richmond Institute, both colored, and the latter once a slave in my husband’s family, now a teacher and lecturer of reputation.

Prof. Jones writes: “I feel intensely upon the subject of mixed schools, and give you my reasons for thinking we should not have separate schools in this country. Universal education has become a necessity in the United States, hence the simple aim of the various States should be to educate all their citizens, and to educate them well, for the purpose of humanizing the vast accumulation of misguided force, which cannot be controlled while in an ignorant state. This brings us to the conclusion that since general education should be and is provided by the State, not only for the people but by and through the people, that the whole people should enjoy itsprivileges alike, and indiscriminately. This cannot be done under the present system of separate schools. The cause of this is, all the school functionaries are white, hence they will not make the same provision for colored children that they do for white. Instances confirmatory of the above conclusion can be found all over the South. Further, the separate school system tends, in many respects to thwart the very object for which public schools were inaugurated, viz., general education. There are certain localities in which a sufficient number of children, that is, of either race, of school age cannot be found (in Virginia the required number is fifteen), hence the school authorities, under existing laws, cannot establish a school. The law of the Southern States says that these people shall not have a school, notwithstanding they can get a sufficient number of children by combining the children of the two races in such localities ; in other words, they shall not mix, and thus reap the benefit of the taxes which they are both paying into the school fund. This we hold to be outright and downright robbery. Again, so long as the children of the two races are trained in separate schools, the spirit of superiority in the whites and of subordination in the blacks, which was the immediate outcome of the institution of slavery, will continue to exist. This, in its immediate and ultimate results, will tend to hold the races in the same civil and political relations in which we find them now; and this is wrong, because opposed to the genius of our Constitution and Government, which aims to bring about a spirit of amity instead of alienation.”

Mr. Cromwell writes, “It is impossible, in sparsely settled com munities, like the rural districts of Virginia, to have two systems of equal dignity for the races, and where the races are nearly equal, as in Richmond, Petersburg, Lynchburg, and other points South; to attempt to make the two systems equal, with the meagre amounts received from State and local taxation, would be to have neither system worthy the pride and admiration of the commonwealth.

. . .

Mixed schools already exist in all New England; in Albany, New York; in Western New York; Northern Ohio; Michigan; Northern Illinois, including Chicago; Colorado, and portions of California; in Newark, New Jersey, and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. In the cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Terre Haute, Indiana, colored pupils are admitted to the High schools, but excluded from those of lower grade.” The mixed schools are needed among us, not only to render our public schools efficient, and to harmonize the two races on our soil in their changed relations, but also for another reason. Such is the strength of the American malady known as color prejudice, now in the Old Dominion, that unless new comers among us accept our prejudices and treat the black man as we treat him, they are rendered uncomfortable, and sometimes forced to flee our borders. Consequently, immigration shuns our shores, and Virginia, presenting as great and varied attractions as any State of the Union, finds vast portions of her fair domain in the market with no buyers,and in many portions of the State, property yearly declining in value. In one of our rural districts not long since, a large tract of land finely adapted to fruit, grain and tobacco, well watered, accessible by railroads, and possessing a mild and agree able climate, was sold at twenty-six cents per acre. Such is the result of our slave system, with its bitter legacies of pride, prejudice and oppression, still bearing their evil fruit among us, blighting our land and making us a by-word for the nations, who, as they pass us by, write “Poor, proud and and decaying,” upon the threshold of what should be a great and prosperous commonwealth.

The negro has been our faithful servant for more than two hundred years; our dependence in peace, the protector of our families in time of war. Our tutelage as his owner is ended; by the will of God he is become our fellow-citizen. Let us truly accord him “equal rights,” and by “social toleration and social sympathy,” render him worthy the high privileges emancipation has bestowed upon him, with no excuse for his delinquencies in the proscription of his countrymen.



Source: Journal of Social Science, Containing the Transactions of the American Association, Number XI, May, 1880 (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1880), pp. 36-45.