In the antebellum South, teaching slaves to read and write was forbidden. Thus when the Civil War ended, 90% of the newly freed people were illiterate. One of the first ways blacks of all ages exercised their new freedom was through education. Over 3,000 schools were established in the South by the Freedmen’s Bureau, Northern missionary societies, and independent African Americans. All of this, plus legislation by black politicians, laid the groundwork for public education in the South. In addition to primary schools, institutions of higher learning such as Fisk University (1866), Howard University (1867), and Hampton Institute (1868) were also founded. Education would have a lasting impact on African Americans and the nation.

Retreat from Reconstruction

By the 1870s, public opinion began to turn against Republican policies in the South. Northerners, many of whom never had a commitment to racial equality, grew tired of the endless turmoil of Southern politics. By 1876, the southern Democratic Party, made up of ex-Confederates, had a majority in the House of Representatives. Most of these officials wanted to eliminate the racial progress achieved during Reconstruction. Even the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the 14th and 15th Amendments. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last of the federal troops from the South, and Reconstruction was officially over. But a policy known as Jim Crow began, which legalized discrimination against African Americans in all facets of public life. Jim Crow, upheld primarily in the South but also present in the North, lasted for nearly a century.


Following emancipation, education was a priority for blacks young and old. Young black children could attend school, since it was no longer illegal for them to learn to read or write. One-room schoolhouses with black teachers and limited supplies brimmed with life and enthusiasm.