Reconstruction Era African American Schools in the South

Penn School building with adults and children standing outside
Penn School, Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, circa 1865.

Library of Congress

During the Reconstruction Era, newly emancipated African Americans in the former slave-holding states intently pursued education and the establishment of schools as a means of achieving equality, independence, and prosperity.

The NPS report Historic Resource Study of African American Schools in the South, 1865-1900 examines this development of Black post-emancipation schools in the American South1 and highlights ten case studies that represent the types of buildings and sites that may be found while visiting in and around national parks. Some of these schools have long been without students, but others are still operational today. These schools and their stories give a unique view into the legacy of Black communities’ dedication and commitment to ensuring their civil rights through education.

Case studies of African American Schools in the South, 1865-1900:

  • The Penn School, South Carolina
  • The Roanoke Freedmen's Colony, North Carolina
  • Camp Nelson, Kentucky
  • Lockwood House & Storer College, West Virginia
  • Tolson's Chapel, Maryland
  • Howard School, Tennessee
  • Burrell School, Alabama
  • Alcorn State University, Mississippi
  • McDonogh School No. 6, Louisiana
  • Peale Museum & Frederick Douglass High School, Maryland

The Penn School

Located on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, the Penn School (now the Penn Center) served the population of emancipated African Americans that remained on the island after White plantation owners fled when the US Army took control of the island in 1861. This community was one of the first locations of Emancipation in the South and they were pioneers in post-Civil War Black education.

First located in the “Old Brick Church” built by enslaved workers for the island’s plantation owners in 1855, the school opened its doors in 1862 to 41 students. Started by northern missionaries, notable early teachers at the school included Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, and Charlotte Forten Grimké who was the school's first African American teacher. Persevering through Civil War instability, by 1865 the student body had grown to 436 students across four school buildings. After World War II, the Penn School transformed from a place of formal education to become the Penn Center, a meeting place for the political and social reformers key to the modern Civil Rights movement.

Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony

The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony formed in 1862 after American military forces captured the island during the Civil War. The US Army classified the more than 200 Black enslaved laborers there as “contraband”—property that could be confiscated to hinder the Confederacy’s war-making capacity – to justify not returning them to enslavers under pre-war law.

In 1862, Martha Culling, a formerly enslaved laborer, opened the first school for freedpeople in the colony. It served 120 students a day. The Black population on Roanoke grew as people escaping enslavement on the mainland arrived, making worse already short supplies. Still, Black colonists devoted whatever resources they could to building schools and churches. In 1863, six Black schools were established on the island and soon had more than 1,200 children and adult learners. Eventually, there were eight Black schools on the island. However, the colony was tragically short lived.

The federal government disbanded it in 1865, and most of the colony’s Black inhabitants were evicted. By 1870, only a handful of Black families remained.

African American refugees standing outside refugee cottages at Camp Nelson
African American refugees at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, 1864.

National Archives and Records Administration

Camp Nelson

Established in 1863, Camp Nelson was intended as a supply depot for the US Army, but quickly evolved into the largest recruitment center for African American soldiers in the state of Kentucky during the Civil War. As enslaved African Americans fled from bondage, refugee camps began to form around the camp, and soon Camp Nelson garnered support from organizations that saw it as an opportunity to educate emancipated African Americans. The freedpeople of Camp Nelson worked with abolitionist minister Rev. John Fee to establish the first school.

African Americans who made Camp Nelson their home named their community Ariel (now known as Hall). After the closure of the camp at the end of the war, Rev. Fee raised funds to purchase the property and opened a new school, named the Ariel Academy, in 1866. The academy catered to Black and White students and offered primary education, training for aspiring teachers, and industrial education. The school lasted 36 years on its own before it was ultimately incorporated into the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1902.

Lockwood House and Storer College

A formal school for Black education was only established in Harpers Ferry after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Harpers Ferry’s Black community was eager to establish educational opportunities, so they worked to gain support. The Free Will Baptist Home Mission Society, a private philanthropic organization that advanced the education of African Americans, chose the former arsenal/armory building, Lockwood House, to be converted into a school. It opened in 1865 and despite its large size, Lockwood House was soon unable to accommodate all the enthusiastic students.

Thanks to federal contributions and a hefty donation from John Storer, the Baptists successfully appealed to the West Virginia legislature in 1868 to charter a college at Harpers Ferry. The Storer bequest expanded the college as a normal school “available to both sexes without distinction of race or color.” By 1910 it had incorporated four more school buildings. Storer college was operational until it merged with Virginia Union University, in 1955, following the legal end of segregation in schools.

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"Historic Resource Study on African American Schools in the South, 1865-1900"

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Sepia-toned photo portrait of David B. and Margaret Simons
David B. Simons was a teacher and a leader in the African American community in Sharpsburg, Maryland during Reconstruction. He was among the founding members of Tolson’s Chapel, and he taught the Tolson's Chapel school from 1874-1877.

David B. and Margaret Simons, Courtesy of the Sharpsburg Museum of History

Tolson’s Chapel

Sharpsburg, Maryland’s Tolson’s Chapel, erected in 1866, served not only as a place of worship but also as a place for social, political, and educational gatherings. During Reconstruction, Sharpsburg’s Black community focused their efforts on education to aid in their pursuit of equality. Rather than seek funds to erect a new building, they chose to use Tolson’s Chapel as their school house.

At first, teachers were brought in from outside the community, appointed by the Freedmen’s Bureau, but soon all teachers were drawn from within the Sharpsburg African American community. One noteable teacher was Sharpsburg native, David B. Simons. As the student body grew, it encompassed both children and adults and offered education during the day and night to accommodate everyone. When the Maryland legislature met in 1872, a law was passed that required one designated Black school in each election district. Tolson’s Chapel was recognized as the designated Black school for Sharpsburg until 1899. The school ceased instruction at the turn of the century, but the Chapel retained its congregation and was operational until 1994. In 2021, after petition by the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel group, the building became a National Historic Landmark.

Howard School

Originally intended to assist formerly enslaved people in the contraband camps of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Howard High School, established in a former Confederate medical facility in 1866, became the first free public school in its county. The school was established by Rev. E. O. Tade, a Black minister and named after Gen. O. O. Howard, who directed the Freedmen’s Bureau. Instability and constant location changes threatened the school’s integrity, but the Black community’s commitment to the pursuit of education kept the school alive. A total of 625 day-students and 190 night-students attended daily, and between 1869 and 1870, the student body grew to 855 and its land value more than doubled. By 1883, Howard implemented its high school curriculum and the new Howard High was moved to accommodate the ever growing student body and a new larger building was constructed.

Between 1900 and 1952, Howard High School granted approximately 4500 diplomas and equipped an estimated 75% of all Black teachers and principals in Chattanooga with their training. Now, more than a century after it was established, Howard School of Academics and Technology remains a leader in African American education with over 1000 students and 70 teachers.
Photograph portrait of US Senator Hiram Revels
Hiram Revels played a central role in Alcorn University’s development. Under Revels’s leadership, Alcorn University students were introduced to a rigorous curriculum that compared favorably to courses offered at the University of Mississippi.

US Senator Hiram Revels (1827–1901), Courtesy Library of Congress

Alcorn State University

Established in 1871, Mississippi’s Alcorn State University is the nation’s oldest public historically Black land grant college. The call for higher education for the Black community was what brought together Hiram Revels, an African American senator, and Mississippi governor James L. Alcorn (whom the University is named in honor) to explore options for a university for African American men. The search for a location for the university began in 1870 and legislature approved the creation of Alcorn University in 1871, and funds were appropriated for a campus.

Hiram Revels, African American educator, minister, Civil War veteran, and former US senator, was selected to lead the University. From 1871-1872, he served as president of the university and was central to its development.

White conservatives strongly opposed the university, insisting the institution not be allowed access to public funding and be restricted to offering classes only on farming and mechanics. University leaders refused to bend to the will of their opposition and continued to offer more than vocational learning. Alcorn University alumni went on to do very well in the fields of medicine, law, business, education, etc. and provided steadfast support for the university. That support allowed the university to survive the racist public policies that sought to limit Black education. Alcorn State University now serves more than 3000 students from across the nation and carries on its important legacy of Black education.

Burrell School

The Burrell Academy, established in 1869, was the first Black public school in Selma and is one of the oldest in Alabama. During the Civil War, Selma was the location of Confederate war industries until the US Army captured the city in 1865. In late 1865, the freedpeople of Selma turned to the Freedmen’s Bureau for help in establishing a school.

The Freedmen’s Bureau and Selma’s Black community were able to open the first Black school in the basement of a Baptist church in 1866, but had to abandon the endeavor due to opposition from the White congregation. Financial support was solicited from the American Missionary Association’s (AMA) largest donor, Jabez Burrell, who donated $10,000 to the construction of the school that bore his name. The Burrell Academy opened in 1869 and until 1875, the AMA and local school board shared control over academy operations.

In the first 10 years of operation, more than 30 graduates went on to teach in Black schools both in and around Selma and the academy hosted guest lecturers, ministers, government officials, and local Black organizations to enhance the students’ experience. In 1889, the Selma school board stopped co-operating with the AMA and took full control of the academy. In response, the AMA opened a new, privately funded school in 1890 called the Clark School. Little remains of the original Burrell Academy, but today, Clark Elementary School occupies the Clark School’s original location.
Students in class at McDonogh School No.6
McDonogh School No. 6, circa 1913, Eleventh Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana

Louisiana State Museum

McDonogh School No. 6

Built in 1876, McDonogh School No. 6 is the oldest remaining Black public school building in New Orleans. Although New Orleans established a public school system in 1841, no provisions were made for the education of the city’s free persons of color or Black enslaved laborers.

Upon his death, wealthy businessman John McDonogh, of whom the school is named, deposited $2 million into a public-school fund. The funds were to be used “for the establishment and support of Free Schools…wherein the poor (and only the poor) of both sexes and of all Castes and Colors, shall have admittance, free of expense for the purpose of being instructed.” In 1858, the city used McDonogh’s funds to build its first new public-school buildings.

From 1871-1877, New Orleans operated a mixed-race school system with integrated classrooms. Although the exact number is unknown, scholars estimate that as many as one-third of the city’s Black students attended integrated classrooms. Though it didn’t end integration, anti-Black/racist violence scared many Black students away from attending mixed race schools. After the violence, Black community leaders demanded that White officials erect new school buildings for Black students. Though it was not ideal, the Black community felt that segregation was better than no access to education at all. A coalition of Black and White leaders agreed to build two new Black schools. McDonogh School No. 5 was the first new school building erected and operated as a Black school from 1875-1905.

McDonogh No. 5 ceased operating as a Black school after White citizens claimed that it would be better suited to relieve the overcrowded local all-White school. McDonogh School No. 6. would soon follow suit. Inadequate funding and other factors significantly affected McDonogh No. 6. At the turn of the century, the New Orleans Board of Education limited public education for African Americans to the first five grades. By 1923, McDonogh No. 6 was surrounded by many large homes and White affluent families. The White families asserted that McDonogh No. 6 needed to be acquired by the local all-White high school to relieve overcrowding. In 1926, McDonogh school No. 6 was turned into an all-White high school for girls.

Today, the St. George’s Episcopal School occupies the historic McDonogh School No. 6 building. In 1982, the City of New Orleans successfully listed the school in the National Register of Historic Places.

Peale Museum & Frederick Douglass High School

The Peale Museum building in Baltimore, Maryland has been home to several primary and secondary schools for African Americans. The Peale Museum may have been where the schools started, but Frederick Douglass High School is where the journey led and it is a surviving vestige of what is believed to be the second oldest Black high school in the United States.

The Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People (Baltimore Association) played a central role in the establishment of privately funded schools for Blacks during the Reconstruction era. Black citizens across Maryland raised and donated funds to the Baltimore Association and on January 9, 1865, the Baltimore Association opened a Black elementary school.

The City of Baltimore took control of the Baltimore Association’s Black schools in 1867, and city school officials immediately reduced the amount of class time, daily, by half. The all-White school board then fired most Black teachers. In 1868, Black activists urged city leaders to open a Black high school and hire Black teachers. They submitted a petition urging the city to buy a vacant college building for a high school in 1875. The request was denied and in 1878, a special committee, established by the school board, recommended the purchase of the Peale Museum building, for the creation of a new Black school. The school opened in 1882.

The number of students at the Peale building school quickly outgrew its means and in 1888, after petition for funds, the new Black high school was dedicated. By the early 1900s, graduates could be found teaching in classrooms all over the city. The high school was renamed in honor of Frederick Douglass in 1920 and after its renaming, the school moved twice more before settling in its current location. Today, 99.9% of Frederick Douglass High School students identify as African American and the school embodies the hard-fought victories of the city’s Black community to secure publicly funded schools.

About the Report:

Historic Resource Study of African American Schools in the South, 1865–1900, by Dr. Hilary Green, Davidson College, and Dr. Keith S. Hébert, Auburn University. Produced by National Park Service and the Organization of American Historians, 2022.
1 In this article and the report it is based on, the American South includes all states where slavery remained legal prior to 1861, except for Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Antietam National Battlefield, Camp Nelson National Monument, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Reconstruction Era National Historical Park

Last updated: August 10, 2023