Teacher of Former Slaves in the South
Teaching in the South during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) took great courage. The women who traveled there to teach often feared for their lives but were determined to empower the freed slaves through literacy.
Image: The Misses Cooke’s school room, Freedman’s Bureau, Richmond, Va. In Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1866 Nov. 17, Library of Congress
Edmonia Highgate, the daughter of freed slaves, was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1844. She graduated from high school with honors, taught for a year in Montrose, Pennsylvania, and then became principal of a black school in Binghamton, New York. She was one of the many upstate New Yorkers who responded to the appeal to aid those who had survived slavery.
The American Missionary Association
The Association was founded in 1846 to oppose slavery. Its members were leaders of both races: abolitionists, members of the Liberty and the Free Soil parties, who were opposed to colonization (the return of blacks to Africa). All believed in the equality of the races and insisted on integration in their activities. Among its officers and members the AMA counted persons of stature in public and private life: the vice president of the United States, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut, members of Congress, ministers of the gospel, and a state supreme court justice, all of whom were white.
Its black members included newspaper editors and publishers, leaders of the Negro Convention movement, authors, members of Congress, ministers of the gospel, and a state supreme court justice. Most of the great black heroes of the nineteenth century had at least some relationship with the AMA. Former slave, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass described it as a “society honestly laboring to disseminate light and hope amongst us.”
The coming of the Civil War found the AMA ready and in place with a decade and a half of experience as a missionary society. AMA missionaries and teachers followed the Union armies, establishing schools as soon as the military situation permitted. The AMA founded more than 500 schools and colleges for the freedmen of the South during and after the Civil War, spending more money for that purpose than the federal government’s Freedman’s Bureau.
Many of the teachers who worked in AMA schools were women; about a third were men. They came from New England, New York, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere. Some of them, men and women, were black. Refused housing by whites, they often shared the poor homes of black families. All week they taught: children in the daytime; classes at night for the adults; sewing, homemaking, and manual arts on Saturday; Sunday school on the Sabbath.
Ignored, insulted, hated by the white population, they persevered through disease and terror and hardship. Male teachers were beaten and warned to leave or be killed. Some disappeared. Their schools were burned and they rebuilt them with their own hands. They started orphanages for black children and adopted some of the orphans themselves.
They worked when yellow fever, dengue, malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis were scourges everywhere. Some died; some never fully recovered from fever contracted while in AMA service. The worst disease of all, however, was the prejudice and hate of the whites in the South.
In January 1864, Edmonia Highgate wrote to the American Missionary Association, asking to be placed in the South or Southwest:
I am about twenty years of age and strong and healthy. I know just what self-denial, self-discipline and domestic qualifications are needed for the work and modestly trust that with God’s help I could labor advantageously in the field for my newly freed brethren…
Edmonia Highgate worked for the AMA as both a teacher and a fundraiser between 1864 and 1870. The AMA first appointed her to Norfolk, Virginia, where she was deeply moved by the sufferings of the black men, women and children who had waited so long for the chance to learn.
Emotionally exhausted from her labors, Highgate returned north in the summer of 1864, and after recuperating, traveled about the region seeking funds for her educational work. In the 1860s it was still an unusual occupation for any woman to travel about New York, New England, and Lower Canada, addressing meetings and raising money. For a woman of color to do it successfully says much about the AMA and Edmonia Highgate.
In October 1864, she spoke of her work at the National Convention of Colored Men held in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Syracuse, an opportunity rarely given to women in the black conventions of the nineteenth century.
Highgate returned to the South and in the spring of 1865, working briefly in Darlington, Maryland. Assigned next to Louisiana, she served in New Orleans as principal of Frederick Douglass School, which was housed in a former slave pen.
In her letters, she noted the financial difficulties experienced in the black schools: Between February 1 and February 8, 1866, the number of teachers in the Freedmen’s Bureau Schools dropped from 150 in New Orleans to 28. When tuition went up to $1.50 a month, 3000 children had to drop out of school because their widowed mothers were too poor to pay.
In the New Orleans Riots of July 1866, whites attacked the Northerners, forcing Highgate out of the city into rural Lafayette Parish. There her knowledge of French brought her into close contact with the French Creole freedmen and their schools. Though popular among blacks, Highgate was twice shot at by enraged whites, who threatened to burn her school and boarding house.
This letter describes Highgate’s experiences with eager students and hostile surroundings:
Vermillionville, December 17th, 1866
Rev. M. E. Strieby, Sec. A.M.A.:
Perhaps you may care to know of my work here for the Freed people. After the horrible riots in New Orleans in July, I found my heart getting impaired from hospital visiting and excitement so I came here to do what I could and to get stronger corporally, that I might enter fully into carrying light and knowledge into dark places. The Lord blessed me and I have a very interesting and constantly growing day school, a night school, and, a glorious Sabbath School of near one hundred scholars.
The school is under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau, yet it is wholly self-supporting. The majority of my pupils come from plantations, three, four and even eight miles distant. So anxious are they to learn that they walk these distances so early in the morning as never to be tardy. Every scholar buys his own book and slate, etc. They, with but few exceptions are French Creoles. My little knowledge of French is just in constant rise in order to instruct them in our language. They do learn rapidly.
A class who did not understand any English came to school last Monday morning and at the close of the week they were reading “Easy Lessons.” The only church of any kind here is Catholic and any of the people that incline to any belief are that denomination. It has not been safe to have a church of Protestant faith for the colored people. The priest talks of having a Catholic Church built for them. If he succeeds, I fear my efforts will for a while be lost.
There is but little actual want among these freed people. The corn, cotton and sugar crops have been abundant. Most of the men, women and large children are hired by the year “on contract” upon the plantations of their former so called masters. One of the articles of agreement is that the planter shall pay “a five percent tax for the education of the children of his laborers.” They get on amicably.
The adjustment of relations between employer and former slaves would surprise our northern politicians. Most all of them are trying to buy a home of their own. Many of them own a little land on which they work nights in favorable weather and Sabbaths for themselves. They own cows and horses, besides their raising poultry.
The great sin of Sabbath breaking I am trying to make them see in its proper light. But they urge so strongly its absolute necessity in order to keep from suffering – that I am almost discouraged of convincing them. They are given greatly to the sin of adultery. Out of three hundred I found but three couples legally married. This fault was largely the masters’ and it has grown upon the people till they cease to see the wickedness of it.
There has never been a missionary here to open their eyes. I am doing what I can but my three schools take most of my time and strength. I am trying to carry on an Industrial School on Saturday, for that I greatly need material. There are some aged ones here to whom I read the Bible. But the distances are so great I must always have conveyance and although I ride horseback I can seldom get a horse. There is more than work for two teachers yet I am all alone, God has wonderously spared me.
There has been much opposition to the School. Twice I have been shot at in my room. Some of my night-school scholars have been shot but none killed. A week ago an aged freedman was shot so badly as to break his arm and leg – just across the way. The rebels here threatened to burn down the school and house in which I board before the first month was passed. Yet they have not materially harmed us.
The nearest military Jurisdiction is two hundred miles distant at New Orleans. Even the J. M. Bale agent has not been about for near a month. But I trust fearlessly in God and am safe. Will you not send me a package of The Freedmen for my Sunday School? No matter how old they are, just send them by mail, for there has never been a Sunday School paper here.
Please send me the American Missionary for six months enclosed please find 25 cents commencing with January. Please remember me to Bros. Whipple and Whiting and any others who may remember me. I should be very glad to hear from you.
Yours for Christ’s poor,
Edmonia G. Highgate
Despite these difficulties, black women managed to establish a significant system of education for black children throughout Louisiana, despite the many obstacles that they had to overcome. Their story has not been fully told because it has been so poorly recorded.
In 1867, Highgate returned to New Orleans, where she criticized the city’s established free black community for ignoring the needs of the newly freed black population. Her students were fired on while they were on their way to school and so was her classroom while in session. She publicly attacked the school board and resigned from teaching when they proposed a segregated public school system.
Feeling that she would “rather starve than stoop one inch on that question,” Highgate moved to Enterprise, Mississippi, in 1868, and became a collection agent for the AMA.
In the fall of 1869, Highgate returned to upstate New York to raise funds to repair a church in Jackson, Mississippi, which was being used as a school. In February 1870 she spoke before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, telling the abolitionists that their work was “not yet half done; and if it is not thoroughly done, it will have to be done over again.”
Edmonia wrote to philanthropist and abolitionist Gerrit Smith on September 2, 1870, asking him to invite her sister Carrie to Smith’s estate in Peterboro, New York. Smith had helped hundreds of African Americans establish their families locally, giving them deeds to his land and providing educational opportunities. Edmonia included a clipping from the Syracuse Journal which described Carrie as a quadroon, “finely educated” and “remarkably beautiful.”
A Freedmen’s Bureau teacher stationed in Jackson, Mississippi, Carrie Highgate had recently married a white abolitionist and Mississippi State Senator, A. T. Morgan. Edmonia told Smith that the couple had barely escaped being mobbed by whites on the night of their wedding. Temporarily visiting Albany, New York, they were apprehensive about returning to Mississippi. Carrie and her husband had good reason to fear the worst, for their relationship ran afoul of contemporary fears of interracial marriage.
On October 17, 1870, the Syracuse Daily Courier carried an item under the heading, Melancholy and Sudden Death:
Last Friday morning Undertakers Ryan were notified that a woman died suddenly at the house of a woman named Mrs. Paine, residing at No. 67 Taylor street. They immediately proceeded to the place designated and removed the body to their rooms, and notified the Coroner, who held a post-mortem examination Saturday which showed that the woman was enceinte [pregnant] and died from the effects of treatment for abortion.
The body of the unfortunate victim who thus lost her life while endeavoring to hide her shame, was identified as that of Miss Edmonia Highgate, a mulatto, aged about thirty, and a school teacher by profession. She was seen in the city a week ago last Saturday so that the story about her arriving from Binghamton last Tuesday is untrue.
She was dressed in a brown suit, with a black silk overskirt. She also wore a gray balmoral skirt with a plaid border. She had with her a satchel, filled with underclothing. In the satchel were found her wallet, containing something over $5 in money and a pawn ticket issued by Lewis Taylor of this city, on the 19th of October, she having pawned her trunk and contents for $16.55…
Miss Highgate was well-known in this city, as she was born and educated here, and at one time taught school in the Eighth Ward. She then moved to Binghamton, and from there went to the South, where she was engaged for a long time teaching the impoverished sons and daughters of her own race. We are informed that her last occupation was that of a book agent.
But she has now fallen a victim to her own shame and guilt, and is a sad warning to others to beware how they trifle with their lives, as God often visits the death penalty upon those who would act contrary to both the laws of nature and to nature’s God. We hope that the guilty miscreant who administered the antidote that caused the death of the unfortunate woman will be discovered and get what he justly merits.
And this in her hometown!
Though the exact circumstances are unknown, Edmonia Highgate seems to have fallen in love with John Henry Vosburg, assistant editor of The National Quarterly Review, a learned quarterly published from 1860 to 1880. Vosburg was a poet delicate in health (a cripple, according to one source) with two children. His wife was in a mental institution, and he was dependent upon his wife’s family for support. These circumstances and public hostility toward their interracial romance proved too burdensome for Highgate and so her death was doubly tragic.
Edmonia is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York, near the graves of her father and her brother Charles, who died April 2, 1865, of wounds received in the Battle of Petersburg in Virginia.
In the poem, Song Of Myself, New York poet Walt Whitman describes the Underground Railroad and explains his view of slavery. This version is from the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1882).
The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some
coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,
I had him sit next to me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner…
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
Through me the afflatus surging and surging, through me the
current and index.
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart
of on the same terms.