Education for Liberation

Amistad Research Center

The Legacy of the American Missionary Association Schools

The Origins of the American Missionary Association
The origins of the American Missionary Association (AMA) date back to the 1841 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a rebellion of African captives on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad. The evangelical abolitionists, who had formed the Amistad Defense Committee to assist the Amistad Africans in securing their freedom, felt an obligation to continue their fight against American slavery. This sense of responsibility served as the impetus for the creation of the AMA in 1846. One of the AMA’s most enduring legacies was the educational institutions it founded for newly freed African Americans in the post-Civil War south. 

This letter of thanks to ex-president John Quincy Adams was authored by three of the Amistad Captives: Kali, Kinna, and Foole. It was signed by six others, including rebellion leader Cinque. Adams had argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Note that at the time these letters were written, the Amistad captives had been learning English for less than two years. Yale University Divinity students taught them to read and write in English.

Most of the surviving captives returned to their homes in western Africa. The donated cloth, shoes, and other provisions on this list supported the Amistad captives during their return voyage to Sierra Leone. The ship departed New York on November 27, 1841.

In 1846, the Amistad Committee merged with other abolitionist groups to form the American Missionary Association (AMA). This draft of their constitution described the guiding principles of the AMA, as initially conceived by the organization's founders.

The American Missionary Association (AMA) was a powerful force for the anti-slavery cause in its infancy. The organization employed several hundred agents preaching the abolitionist cause throughout the United States. Their popular magazine, The American Missionary, which began publication in October 1846, was published monthly. This publication also served as the AMA’s most valuable propaganda tool. Here, the publication describes the AMA’s founding of Hampton Institute in Virginia.

Fort Monroe and Freedmen Schools
 In the first year of the Civil War, the American Missionary Association (AMA) began its educational work among the freedmen. When Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861, Fort Monroe, located on coastal Virginia, remained in Union control.  As early as July 1861, there were 900 former slaves at the fort and two years later this number had exceeded 10,000. Initially, the AMA partnered with the Freedmen’s Bureau when it was established in 1865, in an effort to clothe, house, feed, educate, and employ freedmen. While the Bureau dissolved in 1872, the AMA continued their work educating former slaves and their descendants at Fort Monroe. The school marked the beginning of the AMA’s movement to educate freedmen.

In September 1861, Mary S. Peake, an African American educator from northern Virginia, became the first teacher for freedmen at Fort Monroe. Peake taught her first classes at Fort Monroe under the shade of a large oak tree. This tree, which later became known as Emancipation Oak, was the site of the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South. In this letter, Peake noted the death of two students. Ironically, Peake would die the next month of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

The tombstone of Mary S. Peake, the first teacher for freedmen at Fort Monroe in Virginia.

Despite her failing health, Mary Peake rejected her physician’s advice to abandon her education work or be “lost to earth.” Here, in one of several memorial tributes to Peake, Lewis Lockwood reflected on how Peake was committed to the mission of educating freedmen even on her deathbed. He stated, “It was beautiful, though sad, to see her as I did, when too sick to sit, lying upon her bed, surrounded by her scholars, teaching them to read, and by her sweet patient submission to the hand of God upon her, most earnestly teaching them that religion can support the soul even if the body dies.” In death she became the AMA's first casualty in this campaign.

William, Robert, and Cicero Harris, were African Americans born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. All three brothers taught for the American Missionary Association (AMA) in Virginia. Only twenty-three years old when he authored this report, Cicero’s school numbered over 200 students. Cicero and Robert soon established their own school in Fayetteville. It was pronounced the best school in North Carolina by the State Assistant Superintendent of Education in 1870.

Normal and Secondary Schools
Soon after it began establishing schools, the American Missionary Association (AMA) embraced the belief that the preparation of African American teachers was essential to the well-being of the Black community. Fourteen non-chartered normal (those that prepared teachers) and high schools had been opened by 1876. By 1888, the AMA had educated 7,000 teachers. In addition to training teachers, these schools had two other purposes.  They were to demonstrate conclusively that African Americans were capable of mastering higher education and they were to provide African American leaders who might assist their people in the struggle for equal rights. By 1879, 150,000 pupils in the South were being taught by graduates of AMA normal schools and colleges.

This lead article in the March 1908 issue of the American Missionary Association's (AMA) monthly magazine outlines the type of educational model it wished to promote. This philosophy is described at the end of this article: "Where schools are, the converts multiply; where converts increase in numbers, there the schools enlarge their scope; where schools develop, pupils become teachers and ministers for their own people. This is salvation; for every race coming out of darkness into light must have its own teachers and preachers."

Sallie L. Daffin was an African American teacher who began her career in a freedmen school of about 230 students near Norfolk, Virginia. In addition to teaching during the day, Daffin also conducted Sunday and evening classes. She later taught in North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia. This is Daffin’s employment agreement with the American Missionary Association (AMA). By 1864, 250 teachers and missionaries worked for the AMA in the South.

Teachers from the American Missionary Association (AMA) were required to complete monthly reports, such as the one here by Sallie L. Daffin. The AMA's records contain hundreds of reports from school teachers and superintendents affiliated with the organization.

In this letter to George Whipple of the American Missionary Association, Robert Harris discussed an early teaching post in Virginia. He also talked about the economic conditions of local African Americans and called for policies that would lead to self sustainment among the community.

This transcript from the Allen Normal and Industrial School in Thomasville, Georgia, illustrated the classes taken by a student seeking to be a teacher. The transcript included courses on pedagogy and practical teaching in the fourth year. As noted, Vera Donaldson went on to teach at a school in Bainbridge, Georgia, about forty miles away.

Students educated at the American Missionary Association's (AMA) normal schools supplied a steady stream of new teachers for the AMA's schools. Willis N. Pitts Jr. was educated at Ballard Normal School in Macon, Georgia, and at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. Both schools were operated by the AMA. Pitts taught history and social science at Ballard and later served as the school’s librarian.

This pamphlet published by the American Missionary Association (AMA) mentioned the percentage of teaching graduates from the Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, South Carolina. The discussion of a need for African American teachers displayed the overall philosophy of the AMA that it carried into the 20th century.

The Jubilee Singers & the Expansion of Fisk Univerisity
When Fisk University was founded in 1865, the institution continuously teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Beginning in October 1871, Fisk Treasurer, George L. White assembled a group of novice singers to raise money for their school as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Though they initially attracted only passing interest from Northern audiences, once they began singing mainly “slave songs” – spirituals mostly arranged for an a cappella choir – they sang themselves and their music into the consciousness of the United States and Europe. In the process, they raised funds for the construction of a permanent campus for the school and helped make Fisk the best known African American university. 

In contrast to burlesque and minstrel shows, which were also popular at the time, the songs of the Jubilee Singers offered a positive reflection of African American culture. This ensemble helped to introduce spirituals into the canon of American popular music.

This letter displays the relationship between George White and one of the original Jubilee Singers, Isaac Dickerson, before the formation of the group. It also portrays the problematic power dynamics between white educators and African American students. Dickerson remained with the Singers for years until the first European tour. On this tour, the Dean of Westminster Abbey offered to sponsor his education at the University of Edinburgh. Dickerson spent the remainder of his life in Britain, where he preached in the poor neighborhoods of London.

Most of the students of Fisk University and the other newly formed American Missionary Association colleges were born slaves. In this book, personal backgrounds were provided on the Fisk Jubilee Singers. One of the most poignant testimonies was that of Thomas Rutling. He described that his earliest childhood memory was being separated from his mother upon her sale to new slave masters.

A wood engraving of a Fisk Jubilee Singer from the printing of G.D. Pike's, "The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars."

This music newspaper conveyed the enthusiastic reception received by the Jubilee Singers on their first European tour of 1873 and 1874. On this tour, the Singers performed in the court of Queen Victoria of England to enthusiastic reception.

This financial statement shows the funds raised for a London concert that was part of the $50,000 raised on the Jubilee Singer's European tour.

In this letter, Benjamin Holmes, who sang tenor as part of the original Jubilee Singers, wrote to Erastus Cravath of the American Missionary Association (AMA). Holmes mentioned a prospective donor for the AMA and also expressed hope that the ensemble would return to the United States by May of 1874.

Student Life at American Missionary Association Colleges
By the turn of the 20th century, the American Missionary Association (AMA) had spent over 40 years establishing and maintaining African American educational institutions that would later become identified as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In addition to Fisk University, several AMA founded colleges and universities are still operating, including Atlanta University, Hampton University, Tougaloo College, Talladega College, Hutson-Tillotson College, LeMoyne College, and Dillard University. These schools maintained vibrant student cultures that positively reaffirmed the educational contributions and achievements of African Americans. 

Libraries are the center of academic life on any college campus, and the American Missionary Association's college libraries were quite unique. The murals in the background were by Aaron Douglas. The noted Harlem Renaissance painter formed Fisk University's Art Department where he taught for 27 years. Another Harlem Renaissance artist, poet, Arna Bontemps, was Fisk’s librarian from the 1940s until the 1960s.

The reading room of the LeMoyne-Owen College Library.

This page of an autograph book chronicled the active intellectual life of Dillard University during the presidency of Albert W. Dent. Visitors who signed the book included Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Martin Luther King Jr. Shown here are some of the visitors for 1958 and 1959, which included Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson, and NFL running back legend Jim Brown.

The towns surrounding several of the college campuses were often unwelcoming to the presence of educated African Americans. For example, female faculty and students from Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, were not permitted to go to town unless it was on Saturdays. The purpose of this was to avoid confrontations with rural whites hostile, “to Negroes of the type which the college students represent.” Yet, these campuses provided an oasis of culture and free expression to the students who resided there.

Here, opera singer Carol Brice described the sporting events, music lessons, and other student life activities that formed the cornerstones of her experience as a Talladega College student in the 1930s.

This is the first issue of the LeMoyne College newspaper titled "Truth." The students who published the newspaper frequently collaborated with professional writers and editors at the leading Memphis newspapers, "The Commercial Appeal" and the "Memphis Press-Scimitar."

Named after the Ohio cheese and butter manufacturer who gave the initial endowment for the school, Straight University was founded in 1868 on Canal Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1934, Straight merged with New Orleans University to form Dillard University. Pictured is a magazine photograph of Straight University in 1902.

The commencement program from the Straight University graduating class of 1892.

Common Schools
Following the Reconstruction period, the American Missionary Association (AMA) adopted the policy of divesting itself of its primary and secondary schools as rapidly as public authorities could be brought to accept responsibility for African American education. In an effort to encourage such acceptance, the AMA frequently turned over its buildings and grounds to local school boards without receiving any financial compensation for the properties. However, the South was slow to take command of these schools and as late as 1946, the AMA was still supporting seven of the region’s high schools and elementary academies.

Trinity School's building burned down three times between 1879 and 1913. Each time it was rebuilt by the American Missionary Association with contributions from the local African American community. This circular explains the fire that enveloped the school in 1907.

This record is typical of the process undertaken by the American Missionary Association to turn over its elementary and secondary schools to local and state municipalities.

A kindergarten class at Trinity School in Athens, Alabama.

The schools of the American Missionary Association (AMA) not only served as educational enterprises, but as community institutions. Publications, such as the one here, were produced by the AMA to assist with fundraising for its schools. This particular write up described Cotton Valley School in Fort Davis, Alabama.

Displayed here is the demographic and anthropological study of Cotton Valley School's community by noted sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Frazier served as the Director of the Atlanta School of Social Work. The survey was undertaken to “determine the future of the school and especially the future relation of the school to the community.”

Students at Cotton Valley School learned about nutrition and even started their own garden and chicken raising project. The verso of this photograph reads in part: “A demonstration program for the students and the adults in the community is carried on through the school garden [and] poultry and pig projects…the vegetables and chickens are utilized in the lunch program.”

The Question of Curriculum
One of the most debated topics following the U.S. Civil War was the type of education that should be provided for African Americans. The American Missionary Association's (AMA) primary concern was to provide a liberal Christian education despite public opinion favoring vocational training during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the AMA did not lose sight of the African American community’s need for economic independence. Consequently, manual labor departments enabled the students to pay for part of their educational costs. In the process, the schools often harvested their own food, raised their own livestock, and sometimes built and maintained their physical stock of buildings.

This letter from author Harriet Beecher Stowe to Otis O. Howard,the commissioner of the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau, typified the discussion of African American education following the Civil War. Written while traveling from Jacksonville, Florida, to New York City, Stowe talked of her discussion with the Superintendent of Education in Florida, C. Thurston Chase, about the need for industrial education, “where the pupils can be taught something that will enable them to get a living.”

Snow Hill Institute, located in Alabama, was founded in 1894 by William J. Edwards, a graduate of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. The purpose of the school, as outlined in this course catalogue was, “to prepare young men and women to go into communities where they mean to work, and by precepts and examples encourage the people to build better school houses…to beautify and dignify their homes and bring about the needed reform that is so essential to economic and upright living." The Academic Department at the school was divided into elementary, secondary, and normal classes. Evening classes were offered as well.

In 1936, the American Missionary Association launched an Adult Education and Community Service program at Bricks Rural Life School in North Carolina. The aim was to educate rural dwellers in the area in order that they may better their socio-economic situation. The program of the school is outlined here.

This issue of the American Missionary included the results of a survey of recent graduates from Straight University (later Dillard University) in New Orleans. It shows the range of positions and jobs obtained by Straight graduates.

An Expanding Notion of Education
While activities of the American Missionary Association were most extensive among African Americans, the AMA was concerned with the plight of other oppressed and impoverished people. It supported education and ministries among Native Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, the Inuit, and Appalachian whites. The organization supported schools and missions in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Siam (Thailand), Egypt, and other countries around the world.

The history of the Santee Normal Training School in Nebraska is outlined in this pamphlet. The student population was primarily composed of Native American students from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The school also included students from as far away as Arizona.

This booklet served as a vocabulary reader in the Santee dialect of the Dakota language. It was used at the Santee Normal Training School in Nebraska.

In this photograph, students at the Japanese Christian School in Los Angeles, California lined up to board the “bus” that transported them to and from kindergarten and Sunday school classes.

The American Missionary Association's (AMA) work in Puerto Rico included education, church work, and the establishment of Ryder Memorial Hospital. The Blanche Kellogg Institute in the Santurce district of San Juan opened as a primary school for girls in 1907. It became a high school in 1916, after enough public primary schools had opened on the island. When the Institute faced severe financial difficulties during World War II, the AMA decided to close it and divert funds to other projects.

A 1924 booklet detailing the stories of two Puerto Rican students.

Amistad Research Center
Credits: Story

Exhibition curated by Christopher Harter and Andrew Salinas. Digital exhibition created by Chianta Dorsey.

This digital exhibition was supported by a grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. It is an expansion of the exhibition “Education for Liberation: The Legacy of the American Missionary Association Schools” held at the Amistad Research Center in 2013.

The Amistad Research Center is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, and global social justice movements.

As the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive, the Amistad's holds 800 manuscript collections which include over ten million documents from the 1780s to present, 250,000 original photographs dating from 1859, 1200 audiovisual recordings, 40,000 book titles, 2000 periodicals titles, and over 400 pieces of fine art dating from the 19th century.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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