Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently called attention to the founding of African American Colleges during the Reconstruction Period while making a comparative reference to school choice.
African Americans, most of whom were referred to as freedmen during the years after the Civil War because they had only recently been freed from slavery, initially attended integrated schools during and after the war. Most of their teachers were white.
Most schools during the Reconstruction were sponsored by the Freedman’s Bureau, a Federal Bureau that fed both black and white war refugees with food, legal protection, education, and a bank. In many areas of the South from 1868 forward, the Ku Klux Klan attacked Freedman’s Bureau Schools, often threatening and murdering teachers.
One of the reasons that historically African American Colleges were founded in capital cities in the South was that these cities were the headquarters of the United States government during Congressional Reconstruction from March 1867 until the mid 1870s. These cities were garrisoned by U.S. troops and it was recognized that historically black colleges, also originally sponsored by the Freedman’s Bureau, would benefit from the protection of Federal troops. African Americans chose to attend these public schools because they had no other choices and because Federal troops were stationed nearby.
Many who attempted to attend schools in the countryside were subjected to Klan intimidation. The Klan did not accept the idea that African Americans should be educated at all; they wanted to continue the pre-Civil War prohibition on black education. This is why the Klan so often punished teachers who taught African American students: they wanted to maintain the pre-war caste system and white supremacy.
The following lesson is compiled from research culled from the record of testimony given to the Joint Congressional Select Committee that investigated the Ku Klux Klan in 1868,1869, and 1870. This report is published in several volumes called, The Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, but is known by most historians as the KKK Reports. A search of this link
access them. http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/metabook?id=insurrection1872
I put the following lesson together for the Illinois Council for History Education annual meeting in March of 2017. I field tested this lesson before I presented it to my history teacher colleagues and my students responded very well and wrote some very believable letters.
When they are finished writing, I distribute a copy of an actual letter of a gentleman who has been threatened by the Klan that asks for protection. The handwriting is pretty shaky.
The teachers who taught in these schools deserve a national memorial and those who died at the hands of the Klan should be seen as national heroes.
The Klan and Education
Read the following documents and answer these questions:
1. Why do you think that school-teachers were targets of Klan threats and violence?
2. Why would a Sunday-school teacher be threatened by the Klan?
3. List and describe the methods used by the Klan in these passages.
4. Why was the teacher in document 6 whipped?
5. How do you think local authorities should respond to the Klan threats and actions described in these documents?
DEAR SIR: Please allow me to say that I am yet here and it is about all that I can say. Since the election it has been so that I cannot stay at home in peace. On Friday night, there came a crowd of men to my house and after calling, knocking, climbing and shoving at the door they said that I was President of the [Union] League and at the head of the militia organization and if I did not stop then I would have to abide by the consequences. They said they intended to give me another call and they did, but I was not at home. I lay in swamps and woods.
…It is a plot to drive me out of the country because I am a school teachers. They say that I shall not teach school any longer in this country. Please your honor, send some protection up here.
-Letter from THOMAS H. JONES
to South Carolina’s Republican governor, January 14, 1871
They [the Klansmen] said that I had committed a great wrong; I had kept a Sunday-school which I was forbidden to do. They told me that this thing of teaching... was something they did not allow; that the church they belonged to never sanctioned [allowed] any such thing; that it was not sanctioned by the neighborhood or the country and it must not be done, and finally they told me it should not be done and when I proceeded on with the Sunday-school, they said to me, "We gave you orders to stop and you have continued against our orders; now you have got to stop."
--SAMUEL ALLEN, a church Sunday-schoolteacher, in testimony
before the U.S. Senate Select Committee, 1871
Many school-houses were burned through Northern Alabama, and marked hostility was shown to the school-teachers, especially in opposition to those who taught colored schools, (pp. 139, 140).
--KKK Reports, Vol 1, 7
In Pontotoc County, the white population, largely predominates. There were fifty-two white and twelve colored schools organized. The colored schools employed teachers of a lower grade of qualifications and at smaller salaries than the whites. The most of the teachers employed were natives of the South. Colonel Flournoy, the county superintendent, testifies that although he made no distinction in politics in employing them, he found, upon inquiry, that of the sixty-four teachers engaged but eleven were republicans, and but one of them a colored man.
In April and May, 1871, a number of the teachers of the colored schools were called upon by the Ku-Klux and warned that if they did not stop teaching they would be "dealt with.” (p. 821.)
A teacher named Smith had been twice called upon, and after the second visit abandoned his school, having, as was generally believed, been whipped, although he was too high-spirited to admit it. Having stated this (p. 86) Colonel Flournoy proceeded, (p. 87.)
Question. Did he communicate to you the reason he gave for making that demand upon him?
Answer. Yes, sir; they said they were determined that there should be no colored schools kept; that they intended to break up every one of them in the State; that it was useless to contend about it; that they should be stopped.
--KKK Reports, Vol 1, 74
In April two of the board of school directors of Monroe County who had voted in favor of imposing school tax were warned by the Ku-Klux to leave the board, and in pursuance of that notice one of them did resign. About the same time all the teachers on the east side of the Tombigbee River, in that county, were notified by them to close their schools, and did so, twenty-six schools being thus interrupted, (pp. 281, 282.) They went in a body at night and gave these warnings to the teachers.
Among those called upon was a Miss Sarah A. Allen, a lady sent by a missionary society from Geneseo, Illinois, and engaged in teaching one of the free schools. Eighty Ku-Klux came at 12 o'clock on a Monday night, after she had retired, entered her room, and told her she must close her school on Wednesday; that if they came again she would not get off so easily. She reported this to Colonel Huggins, who says: "Miss Allen made this statement to me herself. She is a highly educated and accomplished young lady.”
--KKK Reports, Vol. 1, 77
The last week of in March there was a raid made over several counties there. I had several warnings, in the shape of several school-houses being burned there; but inasmuch as I was on good terms with the people in the neighborhood where I was teaching, I did not apprehend any difficulty. There was a school-house burned down not far off from where I lived; Mr. Burt Moore was teaching the school there, and they threatened his life if he did not stop teaching. At Houston, several teachers of colored schools were attacked; one of them told me that they ordered him to leave in three days or they would take his life. His wife was about to be confined, but he had to leave. But I did not fear any difficulty for myself, inasmuch as I had opened the school there with the consent of the white people in the neighborhood. During the last week in March some of my scholars told me they had heard that the Ku-Klux were out after me, but I did not pay any attention to it. I boarded with Mr. Thomas Johnson, an old gentleman; he was then in Alabama, and I was alone in the big house, and I had no arms in the house. There were some colored people living in cabins in the yard, but there was no one with me in Mr. Johnson's house. Between 12 and 1 o'clock on Thursday night, in the last week of March, a body of men came to the house, burst in the doors and windows, and presented their rifles at me. I asked them, "What are you all corning here this time of night for, making this row?" The leader of the party said, "You God damned Yankee, come out here." Well, I realized my position at once; I knew it was a matter of life and death; I did not believe those men came there merely to whip me and then leave me, as they did colored men; I thought they meant to kill me, and I made up my mind to make an effort to escape. There were two men standing at the window with their rifles presented at me; I leaped out of the window, right between those two men.
Question. Were you in bed when they came there?
Answer. Yes, sir; I was in bed when they came. I jumped out of the window and ran to the house of a colored man in the yard, where there was a double-barreled gun; I was determined to get that, if I could, and defend myself. I had no time to wait for the colored woman to open the door, but I just burst right in. While I was running down the yard, they fired at me a number of times, crying out, "God damn you, stop, or we will blow your God damned brains out."
Question. Did any but the two men fire who were at the window where you jumped out?
Answer. I do not know; I expect that the whole party fired, from the reports; I do not know.
By Mr. BECK:
Question. Where you hit?
Answer. No sir.
By the CHAIRMAN, (Mr. POLAND:)
Question. Go on with your story.
Answer. While I was in the cabin trying to find the gun, these men came in before I could find it. There were two rooms in the house of the colored man, and I went into one of them and tried to hide. They came in and searched for me and got me. The colored people prayed to them, "O, don't hurt Mr. Mac; for God's sake let him alone." They said, “Don’t make that noise; keep quiet; we will not hurt you; hold your tongues." They took me out of the house and across the yard; I asked them in what way I had injured them to justify that attack on me. They cursed me, told me to stop talking, struck me in the side with their bowie-knives that had their scabbards on, and with the but-ends of their pistols. They took me scarcely a quarter of a mile from the house, to a field near the road, and told me to take off my shirt, which I refused to do. Then one fellow struck me on the head with a pistol, cut my head, and knocked my down, and then pulled off my shirt.
Question. You had nothing on but your shirt then?
Answer. No,sir. Two of them then held me down, and one of them took a bundle of blackgum switches. I did not know what they were then, but one of the colored people told me the next day that they had picked up some thirty, and that they were black-gum.
Question. Black-gum switches?
Answer. A peculiar kind of stick, which stings and raises the flesh when it hits. One of them took the bundle of switches and commenced to whip me. They said they were going to give me a hundred each. I do not know how many men there were; I counted only five around me, but I believe there were more than a dozen there. They agreed to give me a hundred lashes each. One man gave me a hundred, and then handed the bundle of switches to another, who gave me about seventy-five. He said he had given me seventy-five when I escaped from them. I asked them while they were whipping me what I had done to merit that treatment. They said I wanted to make these niggers equal to the white men; that this was a white man’s country. They said, “God damn you! Don’t you know this is a white man’s country?” I said, "The white people in the neighborhood are satisfied with my conduct and the manner I have been conducting the school here. They have shown it by selecting me to take charge of their Sunday-school." They said, “Yes, God damn you that is the worst feature in it, having a nigger teacher to teach the white school on Sunday!" I was fighting them all the time as well as I could-kicking at them and doing what I could-for the torture was horrible. I thought they would kill me any way when they got through whipping me, and I begged them to shoot me. One of them came up to me with his pistol and asked me if I wanted to be shot. I said, "Yes; I can't stand this." The leader of the party said, "Shooting is too good for this fellow. We will hang him when we get through whipping him." I saw a rope hanging from a limb of a tree by the side of the road. There was only one man standing between me and the fence of the plantation. I observed that, and I tried to gain his attention, for I was determined to make an effort to escape. They threatened to hang me, or to tie me. I hardly know what they said. I thought they were going to hang me. I got the attention of this man for a moment. He was standing between me and the fence, and had two pistols. I asked him whether they would let me off if I would promise to leave in the morning. All this time they were whipping me, but I managed to partly raise myself. I was half way up, on my hand and knee; I made a spring and made for this man, and struck at him as hard as I could. I do not know what part of his body I struck. I know he disappeared; I do not know where he went. The way was then clear to the fence, and I leaped the fence. As I did so they swore terribly and fired at me, and the shots went just over my head, scattering the leaves all around me. As I went across the field they kept firing at me and followed me a short distance. By that time the neighborhood was alarmed, hearing my screams and the shooting. I went back to the house to get the gun I was after in the first place; but the colored people had hidden it, thinking that if I got it and shot at them they would kill me, but that without it they would let me off with a whipping. I went to the house of a neighbor there, Mr. Walser, and remained there during the rest of the night. Mr. Walser of course sympathized with me; he was my near neighbor and my friend. He said. "My God! Has it come to this now, that no man is safe, when you are attacked?" It was a very cold night, that night was-piercing cold. Before I went to Mr. Walser's house I had stayed in the woods for probably half an hour. The blood was running down my back, and my suffering was fearful. Mr. Walser was afraid if I stayed at his house they might come there; but I remained there that night. The next day I taught my school as usual. They had threatened me while they were whipping me that if I held the examination I had advertised-they spoke something about the examination, and said they were preparing me for examination in another way. Some colored people brought me word that if I held that examination the Ku-Klux would come again and kill me that time sure; but I held my examination the following Monday notwithstanding the threats. I went there with a gun over my shoulder, and several people came there and brought their guns, and I held the examination. That night several white men and some colored men and myself laid out in the woods expecting that the Ku-Klux would come.
--KKK Reports, Vol. 1, pp 78-79
Activity: Imagine that you are a teacher targeted by the Klan. Write a letter to the commanding general of your military district describing who you are, what you do, the threats that have been made against you, and what you think should be done about your situation and the situation of other teachers.
A version of this article previously appeared in the Washington Post and has been shared here with the permission of the author, Paul Horton, a longtime NCHE supporter, presenter, and member.