Women Who Volunteered: Teaching Freedmen

Even before the Civil War ended and well into the Reconstruction Era, women helped “contraband” adjust to freedom and gain a good education. Later, the Freedman’s Bureau offered a more formalized opportunity for women to teach in the South.

This blog post takes a closer look at this important role and at the lives and work of some of the women who decided to start to assist at these schools.


Teaching had become a socially acceptable job for women during the mid-19th Century – but usually women were required to abandon teaching when they married. The Civil War and need to aid and teach “contraband” and freedmen gave female abolitionist advocates and reform-minded teachers a significant opportunity.

During the Reconstruction Era, some single and married women from the North traveled South to make a difference through education. They came from many backgrounds, usually with ties to religious or social reform movements. Both African American and white women volunteered or found jobs as teachers.

Some schools focused exclusively on “academics” – basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills – while others expanded their teaching to include life skills, agricultural practices, first aid, banking, trade skills, and other practical knowledge. Freedmen teachers usually had to find ways to support their programs and often needed funding to provide for basic food and clothing for their students of all ages. Most volunteered with a spirit of caring and though their work was challenging, loved the people they had traveled to aid.

Mary S. Peake

Mary S. Peake

One of the first women to accept a formal teaching position, Mary S. Peake had lived most of her life as a freedwoman on the Virginia Peninsula. Well-educated, she had spent years secretly teaching the enslaved how to read; she also helped found the Daughters of Zion, a charitable organization to help the poor and sick in her community. She married in 1851 and had a daughter, supporting her family by working as a seamstress to supplement her husband’s work on the James River waterfront. In 1861 as the Union Army firmly established its presence at Fortress Monroe and offered protection for former slaves, the American Missionary Association formally hired Mary to teach a school for these “contraband” of war. She taught openly and acknowledged until her death in February 1862.

Though Mary S. Peake did not live during the Reconstruction Era, her work laid important foundations for the education of freedmen and the role that women – both black and white – would find and embrace in this endeavor.

Harriet Ann Jacobs in 1894

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet escaped slavery, write her autobiography, and during the Civil War was influential in care for and teaching newly freedmen in Alexandria, Virginia. She continued her education efforts into the early years of the Reconstruction Era, tirelessly recruiting funds and aid from New England abolitionist and civil rights organizations.

Through the years, she and her teachers successful taught the freed men, women, and children basic schooling, job skills, and practical life skills to help them navigate and succeed in their new liberty. Thanks to her dedication and efforts hundreds of African Americans moved from refugee camps, taking jobs, and finding better places to life and raise their families.

One 1865 publication described her school this way:

Mrs. Jacobs has sent us an admirable photograph of the school in Alexandria which she aided in establishing, and which is so ably conducted by Mr. Banfield, and his assistants, the Misses Lawton. It is delightful to see this group of neatly dressed children, of all ages, and with faces of every variety of the African and mixed type, all intelligent, eager, and happy. Mrs. Jacobs’s honest, beaming countenance irradiates the whole picture…

“School at Alexandria,” The Freedmen’s Record, September, 1865, page 149

Sarah and Lucy Chase

In 1861, Sarah volunteered as Union nurse, but by 1862 she and her sister Lucy had decided to serve as teachers for freedmen. The sisters worked in various southern locations until 1867 and 1869 when poor health forced them to return their home in Massachusetts.

Sarah regularly sent letters to her church and abolitionist friends in the North, informing them of the situations during the war and immediately after. She also presented needs of the freedmen, advocating for a savings banks for them and helping to form social gathering clubs. She described some of their experiences with their students this way:

“I shan’t go to school no more after you leave us’–said my fond children. You say you love me?” Yes! Yes!! You must wish to please me?” “Yes indeed!” Then you’ll go to school–be as good as you can & learn all you can–I told them to come to me freely–let me know of any trouble they or other folks have–and though no more a teacher–they feel I’m ever their friend. Every group of men on the street–white or black–are full of discussion–if white, I wish I could be in broadcloth, long enough to take part; & if black I drop a passing word to their surprise–or stop and have a good talk–Oh–these are glorious days–! And I thank God that I live in them–How grand it is to see a great Nation struggling for principles–rather than power or wealth! As I read the earnest faces, listen to the glowing words or answer the eager questionings of these men–I feel that I am witnessing the birth of a great Nation.

Sarah, transcribed and accessed at American Antiquarian: https://www.americanantiquarian.org/Freedmen/Intros/freedteachers.html
Charlotte Forten Grimke

Charlotte Forten Grimke

A northern abolitionist, Charlotte had been active in the fight against slavery for years and during the Civil War, she volunteered as one of the first female teachers for the Port Royal Experiment. This project took her to the South Carolina Sea Islands to help freedmen navigate their new found liberty and gain a basic education. She wrote articles about her experiences and teaching which were published in national magazines and papers.

Her efforts established a good educational foundation on the Sea Islands toward the end of the Civil War and into the Reconstruction Era, and her writings helped to bring the accounts and successes to national attention.

After the lessons, we used to talk freely to the children, often giving them slight sketches of some of the great and good men. Before teaching them the “John Brown” song, which they learned to sing with great spirit, Miss T. told them the story of the brave old man who had died for them. I told them about Toussaint, thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race. They listened attentively, and seemed to understand. We found it rather hard to keep their attention in school. It is not strange, as they have been so entirely unused to intellectual concentration. It is necessary to interest them every moment, in order to keep their thoughts from wandering. Teaching here is consequently far more fatiguing than at the North. In the church, we had of course but one room in which to hear all the children; and to make one’s self heard, when there were often as many as a hundred and forty reciting at once, it was necessary to tax the lungs very severely.

Charlotte Forten, “Life on the Sea Islands” The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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