Campus News

‘Non-academic lessons’

Graduate student collaborates with College of Education professor to study lives of Reconstruction-era teachers

Christina Davis knew she found her academic niche when, as a first-year graduate student, she began to read letters written by Southern teachers during the Reconstruction era.

“Studying letters written by 19th-century teachers affirmed the appreciation I felt toward my own teachers and led me to commit to a teaching career,” said Davis, a doctoral candidate in history.

Her passion for studying Southern teachers brought her to UGA and Ron Butchart, a professor and head of the department of elementary and social studies education in the College of Education.

“During my first campus visit to UGA, I learned about Ronald Butchart’s Freedmen’s Teacher Project, a database of teachers of black students during Reconstruction,” said Davis. “I was incredibly impressed by the scope of the project, and my focus on teachers in schools for the freed people aligned well with Butchart’s work.”

Sensing cohesive research interests, Davis came to UGA and Butchart became her dissertation adviser. Using the Freedmen’s Teacher Project, the two researchers collaborate to illuminate the lives of the Southern teachers who taught in the first schools for African-American students.

The Freedmen’s Teacher Project details the lives of more than 11,600 teachers who taught the children of freed slaves. Butchart constructed the database from state archives, civil directories and diaries, among many other historical documents. He has spent 30 years mining the database to reinterpret the traditional story of freedmen’s education.

“Prior historians had condemned Northern teachers as abolitionists who came south and destroyed the ‘good’ relations between Southern blacks and whites,” said Butchart. “They claimed that if the Northerners had left the South alone, it would have provided a good, appropriate education for the freed people. I, and others who were writing at the time, discovered a different narrative, one that cast the teachers as heroes who sacrificed greatly to counter the efforts of Southern whites to reimpose slavery, albeit in a different guise.”

Building upon Butchart’s research to develop a true historical account, Davis focuses on revealing the lives of female teachers and their efforts to educate African Americans during Reconstruction.

“I examine women’s lives in the South as they worked to secure their basic needs, adjusted to their extracurricular workloads and created identities that gave them a level of authority, autonomy and freedom not ordinarily available,” said Davis.

During Reconstruction, black and white women teachers established themselves as independent individuals in the public realm, creating new opportunities for women other than domestic work, according to Davis. Additionally, their lessons for former slaves expanded beyond the writings on a chalkboard.

“I argue that, in many cases, the non-academic lessons that teachers imparted through their extracurricular and community-wide labor proved more important than the reading, writing and arithmetic skills that dominate the literature on Southern black education,” she said.

Outside of the daytime classroom, teachers held public exhibitions, evening classes for adults, community activities and Sunday schools. Some teachers even lectured their students about the responsibilities of citizenry, such as owning land.

“Along with their academic contributions, I think women’s extracurricular lessons provided students with examples of what it meant to live as free persons,” said Davis. “Observing teachers’ creativity, ingenuity and independence could teach students how to navigate in society as American citizens.”

Butchart’s past research also addresses how freed slaves integrated themselves into society. According to him, African Americans demanded literacy immediately because they knew it could help them gain knowledge quickly and make intelligent decisions.

“If one listens to the freed people’s words, there is no doubt they understood that literacy was difficult and only one tool to freedom, but an essential tool,” said Butchart. “They knew access to knowledge was essential to protect themselves against rapacious neighbors.”

Both Butchart and Davis hope to continue their research developing an accurate portrayal of education during Reconstruction.

“When I first began to delve deeply in the history of African-American education, I planned to focus more on students than teachers,” said Davis. “If the historical record allows, I would like to return to this topic and bring black children to the fore of the conversations about how life changed on the ground after the Civil War.”

Even though Davis plans to graduate this spring, the two may keep working together on future research projects.

“Future collaborations depend entirely on where our two research agendas go from here,” said Butchart. “Although my book on freedmen’s teachers has been published, there are still questions I continue to work on. If Christina continues working on parallel issues, I am certain we will continue to collaborate.”