The Education of Freedmen . . . and Women and Children

The Education of Freedmen . . . and Women and Children
Lucretia Garfield: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One week


Lucretia Garfield trained to be, and was, for a time, a teacher.  Because she was, she was undoubtedly interested in the great effort after the Civil War to staff schools to educate newly freed slaves…the children, of course, but also their parents.  The story of the Freedmen’s Schools in the South from 1867 to 1877 is, in many ways, a tribute to the power of education over prejudice and the fear of change.


Students who participate in this activity will study the political debate surrounding the Freedmen’s Bureau as well gain an opportunity to use primary sources as a means of understanding the trials and successes of the effort to educate newly-freed slaves of all ages.  Students will research the reasons put forward for the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, President Johnson’s reasons for vetoing the legislation, and what happened in the aftermath.  They will also produce written descriptions of some Freedmen’s schools and the students who benefited from them.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials on Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau; paper and pens or a word processor.


This lesson goes well with a study of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.  Introduce the lesson by discussing the debate over the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Divide the class into five groups, and, using the websites listed below, as well as any other materials that might be available in text or from the school library, ask each group to research one of the following questions: 
  • What were the major arguments in favor of the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau?
  • What were the major arguments against the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau?
  • Why did President Johnson veto the legislation that would have created the Freedmen’s Bureau?
  • What was the real name of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and how long was it in operation?
  • Why were many southerners against the education of the newly-freed slaves?
  • What were the major responsibilities of the Freedmen’s Bureau?
When this research has been completed, engage students in a class discussion of its findings.  If they had been members of Congress in March, 1865, how would they have voted on the Freedmen’s legislation?
Although the Freedmen’s Bureau did not last until the end of Reconstruction, many of the schools that it created did.  Again, divide the class into five groups, and, using the websites listed below, as well as any other sites found by typing “Freedmen’s schools” into a Web search engine, ask each group to develop a written “picture” of one such school.  It may be in any of the southern states, e.g., Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Texas, the Carolinas, Mississippi, etc. 
Included in the written “picture” should be the following: 
  • The name and location of the school
  • An actual picture of the school if one is found
  • A description of the students and the teachers in the school
  • A description of the difficulties and challenges facing the teachers and students
  • A description of the successes of the school
When these written “pictures” of Freedmen’s schools are completed, have students share their work with the other groups.  This might be in the form of an oral report, or perhaps a poster.  Then engage students in a discussion of the similarities and differences among the schools described, as well as any similarities and differences between the Freedmen’s schools and their own, contemporary school.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by enlarging the scope of the inquiry from the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its schools to the larger political questions that swirled around Reconstruction, and to the passage of laws that segregated schools in the south, to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and, finally, to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

Sources & Resources:

Dollar, Susan E.  The Freedmen’s Schools of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, 1865-1868. Northwestern State University Press, 1998.
Yoder, Jacob E. The Fire of Liberty in their Hearts: the Diary of Jacob E. Yoder of the Freedmen's Bureau School, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1866-1870. Library of Virginia, 1996.

            Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau)

            Editorial Cartoon: Andrew Johnson “Kicking Out” the Freedmen’s Bureau 

            Editorial, Harper’s Weekly, on Andrew Johnson’s Veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau 

            Editorial, Harper’s Weekly, on the Education of the Freedmen 

            The Politics of Andrew Johnson 

            Freedmen’s Education During Reconstruction (Georgia) 

            Valley of the Shadow: Virginia 

            Valley of the Shadow: Freedmen’s Schools 

            Library of Congress, American Memory Collection: Freedmen’s Schools 
                  (Search for Freedmen’s Schools)
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.