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Schooling in the Antebellum South

reviewed by Walter Stern

coverTitle: Schooling in the Antebellum South
Author(s): Sarah L. Hyde
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge
ISBN: 0807164208, Pages: 240, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

More than four decades ago, Michael B. Katz (1976) celebrated educational historians’ rejection of the hidebound historiographical metaphor that “portrayed education as a flower of democracy planted in a rich and liberating loam which its seeds continually replenished” (p. 381). Historians of education sloughed off this hackneyed interpretation, Katz asserted, by more fully integrating their work with “the mainstream of historical scholarship” (p. 318). In doing so, they produced scholarship that sought to “liberate [people] for a new educational future” rather than simply remind them of their responsibility to the past (p. 382).

In both its uncritical examination of southern educational history and its insulation from major fields of historiography, Sarah L. Hyde’s slim, readable volume is reminiscent of the type of history that Katz identified as on the wane. It deserves attention primarily as a reminder of the ways that distortions of the past can thwart the pursuit of equitable futures.

Hyde argues that antebellum residents of the Gulf South valued education far more than historians have acknowledged and that they made previously unrecognized advances toward establishing statewide public school systems prior to the Civil War. This is a seemingly low-stakes argument, and one that is potentially defensible. The problem, however, is that Hyde presents a story of “punctuated progress” (p. 168) that ignores the historical experiences of the mostly enslaved Black people who comprised roughly one half of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama’s combined antebellum population. (Discussion of the Gulf South’s much smaller indigenous population is also notably absent.) Instead, she presents White southerners as if they were the region’s only antebellum inhabitants, or at least the only ones with a history.

Hyde begins with an examination of the home, which she contends was an overlooked site of antebellum education. She enlivens her narrative with vivid material drawn from memoirs and letters, and she shows that home-based learning extended beyond the well-known practice of wealthy families hiring private tutors.

But she limits her attention to White children and White homes without acknowledging or justifying that decision. This move ignores the learning that scholars such as John Blassingame (1972), Heather Andrea Williams (2005), and Katy Simpson Smith (2013) have identified as taking place within enslaved homes. It also introduces Hyde’s problematic practice of referring to “southerners” when she really means White southerners, as when she concludes that “lessons inside the home from which generations of southerners benefitted perfectly suited their agricultural society” (p. 24). That “agricultural society” might be more accurately described as a “slave society,” but Hyde largely fails to explore the relationship between race, slavery, and education. That failure, along with her continued elision of White southerners into “southerners” (p. 7, p. 23. p. 44, p. 69, p. 128, p. 148, p. 150, p. 166, p. 167, p. 168, p. 170) and of White children into “children” (p. 2, p. 25, p. 37, p. 59), inexcusably erases Black lives from southern history.

Hyde’s subsequent chapters are neither more inclusive of African Americans nor more attentive to either race or the broader historiography of education. Her examination of the southern private schools that educated (White) children prior to the establishment of public schools, for instance, mirrors the treatment of that subject in Carl Kaestle’s Pillars of the Republic (1983), a seminal study that Hyde does not cite.

Her third chapter examines the Gulf states’ tentative steps to establish statewide systems of public education for White students during the early antebellum period. Those efforts included directing public money toward private schools and creating legal and organizational frameworks for the statewide administration of schools. These measures had limited impact, she explains, partly because the Panic of 1837 wiped out often meager school funds. Yet Hyde is more inclined to view these developments as advances rather than setbacks.

Here again, her inattention to race, slavery, and Black lives influences her glass-half-full conclusion that “early school legislation in all three states laid the groundwork for the general public school systems that they later instituted” (p. 46). Yet arguably, the most significant educational development in the South during the 1830s was not the Panic of 1837’s depletion of school funds but the widespread criminalization of Black education. In 1830, Louisiana outlawed the teaching of slaves as well as written materials that could provoke Black resistance. Similarly, Alabama passed an 1832 law that prohibited the education of enslaved as well as free Black people. Mississippi did not pass similar laws during this decade since it already had an 1823 law that made Black education a crime punishable by up to 39 lashes (Du Bois, 1901; Williams, 2005). Yet Hyde makes no mention of these legal proscriptions on Black education.

The errors of omission continue into Hyde’s fourth chapter, which examines the antebellum establishment of urban public school systems in New Orleans, Natchez, and Mobile. Hyde argues that the creation of these systems “reveals the value southerners”—by which she again means White southerners—“attached to education and evidences that they were willing and able to support schools run by local government” (p. 69). While she acknowledges that these and other antebellum public schools excluded Black children, her ignorance of Black experiences undermines several of her claims. Antebellum African Americans, for instance, would have been shocked to discover that New Orleans school officials “remained truly committed to educating the entire population, even those ordinarily beyond the reach of public schools” (p. 83). Similarly, her assertion that these same officials “took an active interest in the public schools that would remain unmatched elsewhere in Louisiana throughout the antebellum period” (p. 83) is untenable considering free Black New Orleanians’ widely documented interest in securing public money and recognition for their antebellum schools (Blassingame, 1973; Desdunes, 1973; DeVore and Logsdon, 1991; Mitchell, 2008).

Before concluding with an examination of (White) students’ varied learning experiences, Hyde argues in her fifth chapter that (White) popular demand drove states to initiate statewide public school systems prior to the Civil War. Since historians, Black historians in particular, have asserted for more than 100 years that Black Reconstruction governments and formerly enslaved Black people initiated public education in the South (Anderson, 1988; Du Bois, 1901, 1935; Spann, 2009; Williams, 2005), this is a provocative claim. But seemingly unaware of this foundational historiography, Hyde does not address the high-stakes nature of her argument.

The issues raised here reflect structural flaws pertaining to race and academia as much, and perhaps more, than they do an individual scholar’s failings. Hyde’s book, after all, is based upon a dissertation she defended at a major research university (Hyde, 2010) and an academic press published it, presumably following a peer-review process. That these gatekeepers allowed the work to proceed to publication in spite of its disregard for African American people, history, and historiography is troubling. During this time of resurgent White nationalism, rejecting whitewashed visions of the past is essential for safeguarding a just and inclusive future.


Anderson, J. B. (1988). The education of blacks in the South: 1860–1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.


Blassingame, J. W. (1972). The slave community: Plantation life in the antebellum South. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Blassingame, J. W. (1973). Black New Orleans, 1860–1880. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Desdunes, R. L. (1973). Our people and our history. (Sister Dorothea Olga McCants, Ed. & Trans.). Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.


DeVore, D. E., & Logsdon, J. (1991) Crescent city schools: Public education in New Orleans, 1841–1991. Lafayette, LA: University of Southwestern Louisiana Press.


Du Bois, W. E. (1901). The negro common school. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press.


Du Bois, W. E. (1935). Black reconstruction in America, an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York, NY: Russell & Russell.


Hyde, S. L. (2010). “Teach us incessantly”: Lessons and learning in the antebellum Gulf South (Doctoral dissertation, Louisiana State University). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_dissertations/2629/


Kaestle, C. F. (1983). Pillars of the republic: Common schools and American society, 1780–1860. New York, NY: Hill & Wang.


Katz, M. B. (1976). The origins of public education: A reassessment. History of Education Quarterly, 16(4), 381–407.


Mitchell, M. N. (2008). Raising freedom’s child: Black children and visions of the future after slavery. New York, NY: New York University Press.


Smith, K. S. (2013). We have raised all of you: Motherhood in the South, 1750–1835. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.


Span, C. M. From cotton field to schoolhouse: African American education in Mississippi, 1862–1975. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.


Williams, H. A. (2005). Self-taught: African American education in slavery and freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22541, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 11:52:26 PM

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