Courtney Johnson, a graduate student in the History department, researches how the teaching of freedmen, or Black slaves that ran away from their enslavers, reshaped women’s influence within education. During the Civil War, African Americans were denied access to an education. This led to education becoming a part of the freedmen’s ideal definition of freedom. Northern reformers agreed on this, but the question of who was going to teach African American students remained. However, the women in the North answered this call by going to the South to provide an education for the communities in need. Before the war, women were not allowed many activities outside of the home. Women began to teach these freedpeople with a different leadership style due to their traditional role as caretakers.
Johnson said that the American Civil War, although widely studied, has many assumptions associated with the time. It is widely assumed that women have always played a dominant role within education, but it was the Civil War which allowed women to break into the profession.
In her research, Johnson struggled to “find sources that offer more than just the ‘white’ perspectives of education from the time.” She found personal diaries from that time to be the best source of information, however these can be difficult to locate. Johnson overcame this by focusing on two Black, female educators: Mary Peake and Charlotte Forton. Their positions as leaders in Black education during the time bring more experiences to light.
Johnson has been interested in the Civil War since her childhood. She would beg her family to stop at Civil War battle sights on family road trips. Johnson realized there was much more to the Civil War than taught in schools after experiencing Civil War Reenacting. Johnson remembers, “I was at a friend’s house, and we were trying to come up with an impression that I could do for the events when one of my friends pointed out that I could portray a school-marm.”
Later on, Johnson took a graduate seminar class about the nineteenth century, and this inspired Johnson to learn more about “how education…changed due to the influence of women, especially for ex-slaves during the last few years of the war.”
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Story by ORGS intern Hadlee Rinn