After the Civil War ended in 1865, thousands of newly emancipated slaves in Kentucky faced a desperate need for education to equip them for the unfamiliar new world of freedom.
Slaves in Kentucky — and elsewhere — had received little or no schooling. But most white Ke n t u c k i a n s had no interest in providing schools for them, and indeed did just about ev erything they could to hinder blacks’ hopes for learning.
Into the breach stepped the newly formed U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, it provided various relief services for blacks. But it was best known for establishing “Freedmen’s schools” to educate former slaves in Kentucky and other former slave states.
“You would have seen adults; you would have seen children; you would have seen a real mixture of people going to these schools,” says Morehead State University historian Benjamin Fitzpatrick.
T h e n ew schools were i n a d e q u at el y funded, pro - vided only basic classes, and often faced active, even violent opposition from whites. But from 1865 until Congress abolished the bureau in 1872, Freedmen’s schools provided the first organized educational opportunities that blacks in many areas had ever received.
Former slaves, hungry for learning, leaped at the opportunity.
Kentucky had 97 black schools serving 5,610 students by November 1867, according to A New History of Kentucky, by Lowell Harrison and James Klotter. Less than two years later, almost 250 Freedmen’s schools were operating statewide and enrollment exceeded 10,000.
According to the University of Kentucky’s Notable Kentucky African-Americans Database, virtually every Central Kentucky county had at least one Freedmen school following the war. Classes were offered in Bourbon, Boyle, Jessamine, Madison, Scott, Clark, Garrard, Harrison, Lincoln, Montgomery and Wood-ford counties.
Since funding was limited, the schools usually met in churches, rented buildings, or wherever facilities could be found.
According to Marion Lucas’ A History of Blacks in Kentucky, the first such school in Lexington was opened in the fall of 1865 by the black First Baptist Church. The Pleasant Green Baptist Church, Main Street Baptist Church, Asbury CME Church and the Christian Church also opened schools, according to Lucas.
The new black schools operated under various names, some calling themselves Freedmen’s schools, others using different names but receiving financial support from the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The list included the Lexington Freedmen School, the Lexington High School, the Lexington Sabbath School and the Talbott School, which was located on Upper Street between Third and Fourth streets.
The Howard School, opened in 1866 on Church Street between Upper and today’s Corral Street, was named for Gen. O.O. Howard, the Freedmen’s Bureau director.
Meanwhile, just down the road in Madison County, the recently founded Berea College was making a place in higher education for blacks, who made up at least half the student body from 1866 to 1889. Berea College did not operate a Freedmen’s school. But it used an $18,000 Freedmen’s Bureau grant to build Howard Hall, which might have been the nation’s first integrated college dormitory. It too was named for O.O. Howard.
In most Kentucky cities where Freedmen’s schools operated they were the first formal schools available for blacks.
Overall, about 90,000 people were attending Freedmen’s schools in former slave states by the end of 1865. The Freedmen’s Bureau eventually allocated more than $5 million for black education, even developing its own textbooks for the schools.
A federal report in 1867 said the Freedmen’s school program had extended black education into “the remotest counties of each state lately in rebellion.” Schools were “no sooner opened than large numbers ... apply for admission,” the report said, concluding that black adults were “seizing every opportunity for improvement.”
But for emancipated slaves, getting an education remained a struggle.
Marion Lucus notes in his book that many black children stopped attending school in the winter simply because they lacked warm clothing. There were other roadblocks.
“You have to remember that many of these folks were still tied to the land,” Benjamin Fitzpatrick explains. “Most of them simply didn’t have much time to devote to school, because their labor was needed to work the land.”
That, however, was perhaps the least of the problems faced by the schools and their students.
“In Kentucky, the Freedmen’s Bureau was one of the most unpopular things the federal government ever did,” Kentucky historian Ron Bryant said. “White Kentuckians were so outraged about it that riots actually broke out, and federal authorities had to be called in.”
Kentuckians’ anger dated back to 1863, when Union authorities put the state under martial law. It grew with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The proclamation didn’t actually affect Kentucky — it only freed slaves in Confederate states — but many white Kentuckians saw it as an unconstitutional abuse of federal power. White Kentuckians might willingly fight to preserve the Union, but they wanted no part of freeing the slaves.
Freedmen’s schools became an easy target for their anger.
According to A New History of Kentucky, during one month in 1868, a black school was destroyed in Monroe County; two churches were burned in Bullitt County; and a teacher at a black school was driven out of Mayfield by a mob.
Vigilante groups, including the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, roamed in many counties, attacking Freedmen schools, terrorizing teachers and students. State authorities looked the other way in many instances, or enacted laws making education even more difficult for blacks.
New History authors Harrison and Klotter wrote that Kentucky was gripped by a “bitter, unrelenting opposition to black education, advancement or rights — indeed anything that hinted at the possibility of equality.”
Ultimately, Bryant says, whites’ opposition was rooted in fears that blacks, whom they viewed as inherently inferior, would be completely beyond control if they were educated.
“If you see that there is a better world out there — and education does show you that — you aren’t going to be content to stay in quasi-slavery the rest of your life,” Bryant said.
Despite the opposition, Freedmen’s schools hung on for several years. But Washington’s interest in the program was fading. By the time the Freedmen’s Bureau ended in 1872, it already had ceased most of its efforts in Kentucky.
Lucas wrote that Freedmen’s schools were never able to fully meet black educational needs because of poor funding. New History authors Harrison and Klotter concluded that it was “remarkable that the Freedmen’s Bureau schools did as well as they did, for almost every effort was met by resistance.”
Support for black education in Kentucky almost disappeared. Berea College offered integrated classes until 1904, when a new Kentucky law made it illegal for blacks and whites to attend school together. Real change didn’t come until the 1950s.
But while Freedmen’s schools never achieved the dream of making black education widely and routinely available, they did lay a groundwork.
“At least,” Bryant said, “they were a start.”