Reconsidering the “Soldiers of Light and Love”: Color, Gender, Authority,
and Other Problems in the History of Teaching the Freed People
Ronald E. Butchart, University of Georgia
Amy F. Rolleri, Athens, Georgia
22 April 2003
If there is one constant in historical writing, it is perpetual revision. Each generation of writers brings its own perspectives and troubles to bear on the past, finding new material and reinterpreting the old, resulting in new versions of old stories, new images and portraits, revised pictures. That is largely true in most areas of inquiry in the history of education, but one exception stands out. Curiously, the descriptions historians have provided of the freed people’s teachers has changed little over the last century. Whether their history has been captured by W. E. B. Du Bois, by historians in the Dunning tradition, or by revisionists of the last couple decades, the picture has remained remarkably unchanged. While each historiographic tradition has intended something different by the exact shadings and details of the portrait they rendered, the foreground figures in the portrait have been largely untouched in the process.
W. E. B. Du Bois sketched the most enduring elements of the educators’ image. Describing what he called “the crusade of the New England schoolma’am,” he wrote, “Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared.... Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South.”1 Several of the salient elements of the teachers’ portrait were etched deep in that description: the teachers were New England schoolmarms, a description that implied that they were young, white, single, female, educated, and endowed with particular regional character traits whose interpretation shifted depending on the standpoint of the viewer.
Meanwhile, southern historians associated with the Dunning school of interpretation began work on the same portrait. They painted a darker, more sinister background against which to set the teachers, and filled in a middle ground that suggested that these New England schoolmarms were naive, foolish, or even ignoble. Summarizing much of his own scholarship and that of other southern historians, Edgar W. Knight described the teachers as part of a “‘messianic’ invasion of the South” whose blind zealotry resulted in “much insane intolerance” in the South.2 Henry Lee Swint, author of the most exhaustive study of the freedmen’s teachers before 1980, characterized the teachers as abolitionist fanatics and impractical visionaries when not simply incompetents, frauds, and malingerers, and predominantly from New England.3
Yet while the mood, tone, texture, and quality of the portrait shifted dramatically from that produced by DuBois, the foreground figures remained largely unchanged. The teachers were young, single, white women from New England, of evangelical Protestant roots and abolitionist convictions. Given the teachers’ freedom to give months or years to the freedpeople, the early writers imagined that they were from privileged homes. While DuBois rendered them selfless and noble, southern historians portrayed their abolitionism as fanatical meddling at worst, foolish idealism at best.4 They were drawn south to find husbands, to enjoy a respite from harsh New England winters, or because they were too incompetent to teach in northern schools. Wilbur Cash added an ad hominem flourish to the picture, describing the teachers as “horsefaced, bespectacled, and spare of frame.”5
A subsequent generation of historians dissented sharply from those writing within the tradition of William A. Dunning. The revisionists painted out the dark, foreboding background and redrew the middle ground. Gone were images of fanaticism, zealotry, and retribution. Though at least one perspective portrayed teachers who were engaged in a slightly suspect “domestication of the South,”6 the dominant portrayals by the revisionists were positive, if occasionally militaristic -- the teachers were “soldiers of light and love,” “gentle invaders,” an “army of civilization.”7 More often, they were the champions of black literacy, though too often racist and committed more to spiritual emancipation -- their own and their students’-- than to political, economic, and social emancipation.8
But the foreground, the image of the teachers themselves, shifted only marginally. Their privileged middle class background was more clearly delineated, their New England roots were more fully asserted, and their competence more firmly established. James McPherson, for example, argued that the teachers were predominantly of New England stock, either by birth or by the birth of their parents, and reasoned from that fact that they carried to the South a Puritan and abolitionist ethos. It was overwhelmingly their Puritan and evangelical heritage that both motivated them and kept them at the work:
these were the wellsprings of Christian humanitarianism that motivated the moral athletes, three-quarters of them women, half of them from New England, who went South to teach the freedmen. Without this Puritan-evangelical sense of mission, many teachers could not have stayed on the job in the face of southern white hostility, discouragement with the slow progress of the freed slaves, harsh physical conditions, and poverty-level salaries. Their faith gave them a staying power unmatched by other educators or civil rights workers in that era or in our own.9
Jacqueline Jones, working from a sample of over 350 teachers, found that the typical freedmen’s teacher was “white, in her late twenties... Congregational.... She came from a relatively comfortable small-town or rural “Yankee” home. Her father [was] a native New Englander...,” and three-fifths of the teachers were from New England. Building on that picture, another historian claimed the teachers were “upper or middle class” New England women who “saw teaching in the South primarily as an escape from their idle and unfulfilled lives.”10Jones added a new detail, however, lamenting the education movement’s male dominance that denied leadership authority to a frequently proto-feminist corps of teachers.11
After a century of work, then, historians have revised their interpretations of the teachers’ motivations and the deeper meaning of their service, but the characteristics of the teachers, the foreground of the picture, has remained largely unchanged. Gazing from the canvas are teachers who were youthful, white, single women from New England. They professed a northern variant of evangelical Protestant faith, subscribed to abolitionist perspectives, and gained their social advantages from relatively privileged homes.
It is time to start anew with a clean canvas, for it is becoming clear that the foreground figures in the enduring picture portrays only a minority of the teachers and thereby distorts our understanding of this important group of educators. From what we know now, the teachers as a group, in other words, correspond poorly to the reigning image.12 A more accurate foreground will have important implications for the ways the next generations of historians is able to paint the middle ground and the background -- the contexts and interpretations of the work of these “soldiers of light and love.”
To begin with, the new portrait will require that historians use a more complete palette, for the teachers were far more interracial than historians have reported.13 Northern African Americans participated in the education of their race at a rate ten times greater than northern whites. One of every five northern teachers was African American, at a time when blacks constituted about two percent of the northern population.
The color of the teachers is even more striking when the entire teaching force, northern and southern, is considered. While work continues to be done on the southern teachers, it is clear that African Americans made up between one-third and one-half of all the teachers in the southern black schools between 1861 and 1876.14 The story of the southern teachers, black and white, promises to be a particularly rich and interesting narrative. Clearly, historians distort the record significantly when they imply that the freedmen’s teachers were white.
When historians have spoken of the teachers as “New England schoolmarms,” it is likely that they understood that not all of the teachers technically came from the six states that constitute New England. Following McPherson, some may have used New England or “Yankee” as a proxy for a broader geographical indicator, but one that suggests specifically the presumed mentality of New England -- politically and racially more liberal than much of the nation, prone to reformist action, well-educated, self-righteous, and entrepreneurial. Still, the impression remains that New England dominated the educational movement in the South.
In fact, New England was a minor player. It contributed not more than one-fifth of the teachers whose homes are now known. Slightly more than one-eighth (15%) came from the middle states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; nearly one-fifth (18%) came from western states. The remainder, just under one half, were southerners. It is the case that New England was disproportionately represented; it contributed 20% of the teachers, but represented one-tenth of the nation’s population. Still, the teachers came from a far more diverse regional background than previously represented. Further, the easy assumption that those whose roots were not directly in New England still sprang from New England stock has yet to be satisfactorily demonstrated; many had roots in soil other than the stones of New England. Thus the teachers’ Puritan heritage was far less important than the reigning image implies.
If the teachers were not primarily of Puritan stock, their roots in evangelical Christianity is certain. But even here a caveat is in order. While mainstream Protestant denominations--Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists--filled the ranks of the teachers, by far the most impressive group was the Quakers. Although they comprised a fraction of one percent of northern church-goers, they made up a stunning ten percent of the teachers, making the Quaker teachers, on a proportional basis, the single most important group engaged in the work.15
Historians of every stripe have argued that the teachers were abolitionists. For an earlier generation of historians, that was, of course, an epithet. To be abolitionist was to be irrational, naive, utopian, spiteful, and motivated primarily by an abiding hatred for the South and all of its traditions. Abolitionism brought on an unnecessary civil war, bankrupted the South for a century, and sowed the seeds of racial antipathy. Abolitionist teachers, in turn, imported abolitionism’s messianic zealotry into the heart of the South to turn a contented but gullible people against their natural friends and defenders. The later generation, immersed in the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s that traced the roots of the modern civil rights movement back to the abolitionists, reversed the formula. Abolitionists stood on the moral high ground, developing a cogent critique of slavery and oppression, and working with African Americans to improve northern black life. Abolitionist agitation gave moral direction and backbone to the eventual outcome of the Civil War. Abolitionism infused the freedmen’s education movement, providing a vision of an interracial society to guide the educational activities. Some revisionists found the movement insufficiently abolitionist, however, noting its many compromises with racist actions and policies and its teachers’ lack of empathy with or understanding of the aspirations and demands of the freed people. Yet the predominant image of the teachers retains a strong abolitionist cast.16
It is increasingly difficult to cling to that image, however. First, very few of the teachers self-identified as abolitionists in their letters of application for teaching jobs, often written to former leaders of the pre-war abolitionist movement, and few can be found in abolitionist organizations. Further, those few who clearly did identify themselves as pre-war abolitionists, or who can be so identified in other ways, followed dramatically different trajectories in their work in the South when compared to the majority of the teachers, spending many more years--often the remaining decades of their lives--in service to the freedmen, while teachers with no clear evidence of abolitionist leanings did well to muster two years of work in the South.17
Second, pre-war abolitionism itself was no guarantee of a commitment to post-war black advancement in American society. Abolitionism was about ending slavery, but opposition to slavery could be rooted in many concerns unrelated to the victim of slavery. There was no necessary relationship between embracing the abolition of slavery and working affirmatively to assure that legal emancipation would be followed by political and economic emancipation. Indeed, the state that made the greatest strides toward a presumably abolitionist stance in the years around the Civil War contributed the least to the education of the freedmen. Iowa, with perhaps the strongest anti-black laws and practices in the 1850s, had become, by the end of the 1860s, one of the nation’s most racially liberal states, yet mustered the lowest proportion of its population to serve the freed people.18
The small group of women and men who spoke clearly of their abolitionism when they went into the South and went on to devote entire lifetimes to the freedmen, then, were not merely abolitionists. They were race radicals who joined with abolitionists because the abolition of slavery was a part of their commitment. It was not all of their commitment, however. Their work among the freedmen was motivated by their commitment to black freedom, and they lived that commitment. On the other hand, what stands out as the dominant motivation among the majority of the teachers for whom a motivation can be detected was not black freedom. Indeed, few even spoke clearly about the people they sought to teach beyond some vague talk about “the poor freedmen of the South.” What they did speak of, frequently and clearly, was their desire “to be useful,” “to be a servant in the Lord’s vineyard,” “to be about the Master’s work.” Their desire for usefulness and service came directly from the revivalism of Charles Finney, and was ultimately about working out their own salvation. The freedmen were a means to an end, not the end itself.
Given abolitionism’s ambiguous legacy -- ambiguous not for the reasons adduced by southern historians many decades ago, but because it proved historically to be less about black America than about economics and politics--historians may do well to think about the portrait of the teachers in other terms. The question always was the reconstruction of the South--and the North--to create greater equality, greater opportunity, greater community, a goal that continues to elude us. The portrait must reveal the remarkable minority of teachers who strove to add their mite to that reconstruction, but portray accurately at the same time the majority for whom social reconstruction was outside their understanding or interest, for whom spiritual regeneration was the social panacea. All were courageous, doubtlessly, but not all courage is equally effective in moving history.
For traditional historians, the emplotment of the teacher as youthful reinforced their rendering of the teachers as frivolous, immature, and misguided. For revisionists, the same youthful image suggested idealism and energy, and probably reflected their own political roots in the youth movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. In either case, however, the image was inaccurate. The median age of the teachers in their first year of work in the South was nearly 30;19 men tended to be one year older than the median, women one year younger. If idealism had not yet ebbed, it likely had been well-tempered by the time most of the teachers opened their school doors. If a few were frivolous, as certainly a few were, the vast majority were mature women and men with a decade or more of adult work behind them. Paint them mature, for surely they were.
The portrayal of the teachers as female is one of the more curious foreground details, for certainly no historian who has studied the teachers believes that women were the only teachers. Yet most descriptions speak of schoolmarms, not schoolmen, and almost uniformly apply a female pronoun to the descriptions. Jones claimed that the corps of teachers in Georgia was 80% female; McPherson claimed the national movement was 75% female.20 The gender composition was, in fact, a good deal more complex than that. Across all organizations and both regions, women accounted for 60% of the teachers, but among the many black teachers there was almost no gender difference. In other words, white and black women and black men participated much more fully in schooling the freedpeople than did white men. Further, white women served longer than white men, though black women and men served for nearly the same amount of time.
What, then, of the social class background of the teachers? Relative social class status is always a difficult issue historically. It consists of measures of impermanent occupational status, concrete measures of wealth, changes over time, and, above all, complex social, economic and political relationships among people. It has no clear rules or definitions. It exists, yet describing it seldom yields satisfactory insight into its meaning. Gathering comparable social class evidence on individuals from a variety of regions in the nineteenth century is daunting; amassing sufficient evidence regarding enough individuals to make empirical claims about them as a group multiplies the challenge. Nonetheless, evidence drawn from the manuscript censuses for several hundred teachers is suggestive. It troubles the notion that the teachers were relatively affluent. Indeed, what may be most interesting about the teachers is the number that were from relatively poor or declining families. Many of the single women had been boarding with families with whom they were not related well before their service in the South, and appear not to have had a family of their own they could rely upon, a sure marker of economic marginality; some were widows; some were desperate to find work as teachers in the South, for they could no longer compete on equal terms for positions in northern schools with young teachers willing to work for low wages while living at home. Much work remains to be done on this question, but our impression at this point is that more of the teachers can be characterized as occupying the lower tiers of a genteel but declining middling class than coming from lives of prosperous leisure. Certainly very few can accurately be portrayed as yawning through “idle and unfulfilled lives.”
What can we learn, finally, about the amount of authority granted to, or assumed by, women teachers in the freedmen’s schools? In an influential article dealing with feminist, or at least proto-feminist, leanings among the freedmen’s teachers, Jones laments the women teachers’ lack of access to the sort of authority available to school principals and superintendents in nineteenth century schools. Others have repeated her claim that few women were appointed to positions of authority.21
It has long been common knowledge among historians that nineteenth century society was patriarchal. It should not, then, have surprised Jones and others that men in organizations such as the American Missionary Association would prefer to keep women “in their place.” Yet they wrote as though they were surprised that it was not otherwise.
It is ironic, then, to find that, in fact, it was otherwise. The true feminist tale lies here, not in the rediscovery of male dominance, but in the remarkable number of women who used their work among the freedpeople to gain a greater degree of authority and autonomy than they would have been likely to find in the North. The fact of the matter is that more women held principalships in the larger black schools than did men. Of the 414 teachers who can be shown to have held the title of principal, 221 were women, 189 were men.22 True enough, men held more principalships proportionately, but when controlled for race, white women came close to holding their share of the positions (black men were more often principals than black women; among white teachers, 128 women were principals compared to 99 men). Men were much more likely to be appointed to superintend schools -- 132 of them gained that distinction -- yet it is not insignificant that 28 women were entrusted with superintendencies, not an inconsiderable accomplishment in its context. Similarly, men were more likely than women to spend all or part of their freedmen’s education experience as a faculty member in a black college or university, yet what is remarkable is that over one hundred women gained such appointments, not far behind the 140 men who did so, and suggesting that a study of women academics in early black higher education might reveal a hitherto hidden history.
Indeed, it is highly likely that one attraction of freedmen’s education for independent, ambitious women was the greater opportunity that southern black education provided for authentic leadership, autonomy, and authority compared to educational institutions in the North. An impressive list of women independently established and operated primary, secondary, and normal schools for the freedpeople, often remaining at their head for decades. Laura Towne, Martha Scholfield, Ellen Murray, Caroline Putnam, Sarah Dickey, Lucelia Williams, Cornelia Hancock, and Alida Clark only begin that list. Many of the school founders pursued their work entirely independent of male-dominated aid societies.
Historians’ stock in trade is the art of creating compelling images, painterly portraits, intricate mosaics, to hang in the public galleries of our collective memory. The historical images change frequently as new historians take up the image-making media. We must begin to shape a more complex, but much more accurate, portrait of the fascinating women and men, black and white, who found the courage and commitment to contribute to black literacy.
1W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; reprinted New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 64, 65.
2Edgar W. Knight, “The ‘Messianic’ Invasion of the South after 1865,” School and Society 57 (5 June 1943): 645, 649.
3Henry L. Swint, Northern Teachers in the South, 1862-1870 (1941; rpt. New York: Octagon, 1967).
4Swint, p. ; Wilbur J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 1941), p. 140.
5Cash, p. 141.
6Sylvia D. Hoffert, “Yankee Schoolmarms and the Domestication of the South,” Southern Studies 24 (Summer 1985): 188-201.
7Jacqueline Jones, Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks, 1865-1873 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Linda B. Selleck, Gentle Invaders: Quaker Women Educators and Racial Issues during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1995); Ronald E. Butchart, “Recruits to the ‘Army of Civilization’: Gender, Race, Class, and the Freedmen’s Teachers, 1862-1875,” Journal of Education 172 (no. 3, 1990): 76-87.
8Samuel L. Horst, Education for Manhood: The Education of Blacks in Virginia during the Civil War (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987); Robert C. Morris, Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Ronald E. Butchart, Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen’s Education, 1862-1875 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980); Joe M. Richardson, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986); Ronald E. Butchart, “Mission Matters: Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, and the Schooling of Southern Blacks, 1861-1917,” History of Education Quarterly, 42 (Spring 2002): 1-17; along with sources cited in note 6.
9James M. McPherson, “The New Puritanism: Values and Goals of Freedmen’s Education in America,” in The University in Society, Lawrence Stone, ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 611-42, quotation from p. 619.
10Jones, pp. 30-31; Linda M. Perkins, “The Black Female American Missionary Association Teacher in the South, 1861-1870,” in Black Americans in North Carolina and the South, Jeffrey J. Crow and Flora J. Hatley, eds. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 123-24. In fairness, Jones makes her generalizations only for the teachers in Georgia, though it is too easy to read them as more broadly generalizable, as Perkins does. Her sample is badly skewed toward American Missionary Association teachers, a bias she does not recognize, but one that damages conclusions drawn from the sample. Among others who echo this portrayal, see Patricia Brady, "Trials and Tribulations: American Missionary Association Teachers and Black Education in Occupied New Orleans, 1863-1864," Louisiana History 31 (Winter 1990):5-20; Maxine D. Jones, "`They Are My People': Black American Missionary Association Teachers in North Carolina During the Civil War and Reconstruction," Negro Educational Review 36 (April 1985):78-89; Sandra E. Small, "The Yankee Schoolmarm in Freedmen's Schools: An Analysis of Attitudes," Journal of Southern History 45 (1979):381-402; Heather Andrea Williams, "`Clothing Themselves in Intelligence': The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871," Journal of African American History 87 (Fall 2002):372-89.
11Jones, “Women Who Were More than Men: Sex and Status in Freedmen’s Teaching,” History of Education Quarterly 19 (Spring 1979): 47-59.
12All data on the teachers reported hereafter is drawn from on-going work on the Freedmen’s Teacher Project, Ronald E. Butchart and Amy F. Rolleri, project directors. The project currently has prosopographic and archival data on over 8150 individuals who taught in the freedpeople’s schools between 1861 and 1876. It has sought direct descriptions of the work from the teachers and their observers, as well as such data as gender, race, age, home, marital status, religion, positions held while in the black schools, (e.g., principal, superintendent, matron, etc.), education level, occupation before and after work in the South, parents’ occupations, evidence of abolitionism before 1861, years and places of service in the South, sponsoring agency, and social class status. The project was described in Butchart, “Recruits to the ‘Army of Civilization;’” early findings were reported in Butchart, “‘We Best Can Instruct Our Own People’: New York African Americans in the Freedmen’s Schools, 1861-1875,” African Americans in New York Life and History 12 (January 1988): 27-49; and Butchart, “Perspectives on Gender, Race, Calling, and Commitment in Nineteenth-Century America: A Collective Biography of the Teachers of the Freedpeople, 1862-1875,” Vitae Scholastica 13 (Spring 1994): 15-32.
13An important exception is Robert Morris, Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction, pp. 85-130. Perkins, “Black Female American Missionary Association Teacher,” and Jones, “‘They Are My People,’” deal with the black teacher among the freedpeople, but are unaware of the extent of black participation.
14Of the 8200 teachers who have been identified thus far, race is known for 5198, or narly two-thirds. Whites accounted for 2690, blacks for 2508. Our current work is increasingly identifying black teachers; hence the estimate of more than one-third blacks.
15Ronald E. Butchart and Amy F. Rolleri, “The Quaker Contribution to the Education of the Ex-Slaves,” unpublished paper presented to the Conference of Friends Historians and Archivists, 2002.
16Jones asserts, for example, that American Missionary Association teachers “were evangelical abolitionists,” though she never attempts to demonstrate that: Jones, Soldiers of Light and Love, p. 20.
17This argument is developed particularly in Butchart, Northern Schools, 130-34; Butchart, “Mission Matters;” and Butchart, “Perspectives....”
18Robert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Butchart and Rolleri, “Iowa Teachers among the Freedpeople of the South, 1862-1876,” Annals of Iowa (forthcoming, 2003).
19Jones reports a similar average age for her small sample of teachers, yet continues to characterize the teachers as “young.” Jones, p.
20Jones, Soldiers of Light and Love, p. 31; McPherson, “New Puritanism,” p. 619.
21Jones, “Women Who Were More than Men.”
22Because Jones consulted almost exclusively AMA sources, she was able to find no female principals. The AMA did, in fact, appoint a few women to principalships, though primarily because of its difficulty in finding competent men; it seldom made a public point of the appointment, however. Other organizations, on the other hand, appointed many women to positions of authority. In at least two instances, women were principals in schools in which their husbands worked.