“The First Fruits of a New System:” Freedmen’s Schools at Vicksburg

After Vicksburg fell to United States forces on July 4, 1863, the city served as a beacon to slaves throughout Mississippi. Thousands of African Americans ran away from their owners and flocked to Vicksburg to begin their lives as freedmen. In addition to feeding and clothing the throngs of former slaves in the hill city, Northern benevolent associations also opened schools offering an education to eager students of all ages. I found the following article concerning the Freedmen’s schools at Vicksburg in the Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph (Gloucester, Massachusetts), April 1, 1865:

SCHOOLS FOR FREEDMEN – An interesting account of the colored schools at Vicksburg, Miss., will
be found on the outside of our paper to-day. Miss Wright, who is mentioned as one of the teachers at DeSoto, formerly taught several terms in this town, where she is well known. Several ladies have gone out from Gloucester Freedmen’s Aid Society are engaged in raising funds to support a teacher in this field of labor. We trust they will be successful in their effort to help along the work.

25.Free_.Bur_.-school

Inside a Freedmen’s school at Vicksburg – Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1866

THE COLORED SCHOOLS
The new system for the education of the colored people in this city is fully inaugurated. The reports for the month of December, show that the system is already a success. In the prosecution of this work, the greatest difficulties were to be overcome. Among the chief of these is the want of suitable rooms, and as the numbers of pupils increase, the overcrowding of the schools becomes increasingly uncomfortable and damaging. It is well known that the military disposes of a very large proportion of the buildings of the city, for quarters, depots, &c. The ordinance department alone requires forty buildings. But against all these obstacles and many others, the work has been carried on.
In the basement of the Methodist Church, a school is taught by the mission of the “United Brethren,” in three good rooms. The primary department is in charge of Miss. Lizzie D. Hunt, and is well conducted. The intermediate department is taught by Misses Dickey and Stubbs, and the more advanced scholars are in charge of Miss. Minnie Hanson. This school is well managed. It was the first established for the colored people in this city, is the largest school, and the pupils, on the whole, constitute a better class than any other in Vicksburg. The school numbered, in December, 300; average attendance, 198.
In the Baptist Church, is a school taught by Misses Burnell and Hibbard, and Mrs. Edwards. It numbers 227, average attendance 136. It is under the auspices of the “Northwestern Freedman’s Aid Commission.” This school has the great disadvantage of having but one room, and the confused noise of three distinct and simultaneous exercises, comingling with a multitude of voluntaries from the little urchins, must discipline the teachers minds to self possession and control. The teachers deserve much credit for “patient continuance in well-doing.”

Primary School for Freedmen Vicksburg

Freedmen’s school at Vicksburg – Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1866

On Washington Street, over the Freedmen’s store, is another school, taught be Misses Stowe and Case; under the patronage of the “National Freedman’s Relief Association,” numbering, in December, 115; average attendance, 70. If anybody in Vicksburg wants to be amused gratis, let them call in at this school and hear the singing of “original negro minstrels,” and see them gymnasticate. It is better than the Theatre, because it is useful as well as amusing. There is an industrial school in this building, taught by Miss Green, under the same auspices. This is regarded as one of the most important schools, in which instruction is given not in letters only, but in the economy of life. It is an excellent institution, embracing fifty persons, with an average attendance of thirty. 310 garments were made in December, besides any amount of mending. Thirty-seven of the fifty wee paid for their labor. The rest were learners.
Near the Prentiss House is another school of seventy-two, with an average attendance of forty, taught by Miss Barnes, under the auspices of the same society, which also ministers largely by the gift of clothing gratuitously, and also in the way of trade, at about cost prices, under the able management of their efficient and gentlemanly superintendent Mr. E. Wilkes, to the wants, the necessities and the comforts of this people. The last named school was mainly gathered by the industry of their excellent and devoted teacher.

Prentiss House Vicksburg

Illustration showing the Prentiss House at Vicksburg – Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

Adjoining this is another school taught be Miss Brown, from the mission of the “United Presbyterian Church.” It numbers eighty-five, and the attendance averages sixty. This school is well managed. It is very orderly, and the progress it has made is highly creditable. The pupils in this school belong to the more destitute class, which makes the success of the school more striking and commendable.
In the Episcopal Church is a large school also sustained by the U.P. Mission. It has three rooms and better than almost any other. Misses Glasgow, Gibson, and Hammond, are the teachers. In December, there were 138 pupils enrolled, with an average attendance of seventy-five.
There is another school at DeSoto, the village opposite this city, sustained by the National Society, which may be reckoned among the Vicksburg schools, as the teachers go from this place, and reside here. They have taught so far in very poor, insufficient and uncomfortable rooms. But a new building, thirty by fifty feet, is commenced, and will greatly facilitate the work, and increase the comfort and success of these skillful and self-denying teachers, laboring among the most destitute and neglected of the colored population. They have 200 pupils enrolled; average attendance 125. Misses Skinner and Wright, and Mrs. Dr. Varney are the teachers.
The whole number enrolled in Vicksburg was 1,137; average attendance 704. This is a very encouraging exhibit, and it is only the beginning. It would be impossible to sustain these schools for even a single month, but for the benevolent contributions of the various boards and Freedmen’s societies already referred to. The greatest want now is, of more and better schoolrooms.
The financial aspect is not very flattering, and yet the amount for December (including a little in November,) if regarded as the first fruits of a new system among the lately enslaved, it not to be despised. Up to December 31st, 1864, it amounted to $171.55. Small indeed, but the seed of a growth not easily estimated. On the whole, here is food for great encouragement! – What would have been thought of the prediction, three years ago, that this should so soon be in Vicksburg? Darkiedom is in the ascendant, and the fogies may as well clear the way. As the “Herald” of the times we simply chronicle it is great step of progress, as a matter of public interest.
We understand that Chaplain Hawley, the Superintendent of Colored Schools, for this District, has appointed Chaplain Buckley, of the 47th regiment U.S.C.I., assistant for this city, to whose industry and efficiency much of this success is due. – [Vicksburg, (Miss.) Herald.

The previous article mentioned a “Miss Wright” as being one of the teachers in a Freedmen’s Bureau school at Desoto Point, Louisiana, just across the river from Vicksburg. She was Savira Wright of Clinton, Massachusetts, an experienced teacher who felt so strongly about the importance of educating freedmen that she left her home and family and made the difficult journey to wartime Mississippi. I did a little looking, and was rewarded to find that Savira wrote several letters back to her hometown newspaper describing her work. I found the following article in the Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph (Gloucester, Massachusetts), May 13, 1865:

THE FREEDMEN – The work of improving the condition of the freed blacks, both as regards education and in respect to their physical comfort, is being vigorously carried forward in all of the Southern States, under the auspices of the National Freedmen’s Relief Association and other benevolent agencies at the North- The work is a gigantic one, and of course these agencies are unable to cover all the ground at this early stage of affairs. The only marvel is that they are enabled to accomplish so much. – They are doing a glorious work, and the amount already achieved is an earnest of what we may expect in the future.
Miss Savira Wright, well known in this town, a teacher in the school at De Soto, opposite Vicksburg,

Vicksburg-131

Vicksburg National Military Park Text Panel Showing the relationship of DeSoto Point to Vicksburg

Miss., narrates some of her experiences, in a letter to the General Superintendent of the Department of the Valley of the Mississippi, which we find in the April number of the National Freedman, and publish for the gratification of our readers.
Vicksburg, Miss., Dec. 3d, 1864.
Dear Sir – On Monday, the 28th, I went to De Soto, according to your directions. I spent that day and a part of the next in visiting the people and the remainder of Tuesday and the whole of Wednesday in assisting Miss Skinner in the school. I called at about twenty different places; at seven of them I found persons very much in need of clothing. Miss Skinner went with me to the store; but we could obtain nothing with which to relieve their necessities. We were told there was nothing to be given away, except some men’s clothing. That which is most needed is for children from six to twelve years of age. The warm weather has been very favorable for them the past week; if it should be cold they would be obliged to remain at home; they could not go to school without more comfortable clothing.
I found one woman with five children of her own – the eldest only six – and a niece twelve years of age, dependent upon her. Her husband has been dead three months. She “was raised” in Richmond, Va. She says: “Dat was a big city, sure as you was born. Dey use me well – neber whip me. I never had no mother; ‘spec’ she died when I was a little bit baby. Sold down south jes cause I was young; dey sell the young folks, an’ keep de ole folks an’ de children. – Spec dey has to work now; but dey got little ‘pendance to lean ‘pon. Ise got no ‘pendance but the Lord; I just ‘pend on him. Some days I gets work an’ gets somthin for de children, an’ some days I nothin for um to eat; but I trusts de Lord – he’ll take care of me.”
Most of the people have a commendable spirit of independence. They are proud to say they “neber had nothing from de government. – Jes give me a chance and I’ll take care of myself and my family.” It would be impossible to give a full account of what I hear and saw in those two days. I listened with the deepest interest to the story of many a life of toil under a hard master; of whippings at the post; and then of the joyful time when the “Yankees” came and made them free. Many expressed a desire to see their old homes again, but none wished to return to their former condition; they were willing to suffer, if need be, that their children might enjoy the blessings of freedom.
Yours respectfully,

Savira Wright
May 13, 1865

This next letter by Savira was published in the Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph, June 10, 1865:

We publish in another column a letter from Miss E. P. Bennett, who is teaching the Freedmen at Roanoke Island, under the auspices of the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, supported in part by some of our citizens interested in the good work. The description of Roanoke Island, and the condition of the blacks and whites, are exceedingly interesting. We shall publish in our next issue a continuation of this letter, giving interesting information respecting the schools, etc., and have made arrangements for future letters from the same source, which will keep our readers posted on the progress of the work at that point.
We also publish an interesting letter from a teacher at Vicksburg, Miss., who is known to many of our readers, and from whom we shall receive similar favors from time to time. We have perfected arrangements for regular correspondence in relation to the Freedmen’s cause from Charleston, S.C., Newbern and Roanoke Island, N.C., Townfield, Va., and Vicksburg, Miss., and shall make this a speciality of our paper for the present. The Freedmen’s Cause is one in which our people have a great interest. For four years our soldiers have been fighting to liberate the bondsmen – for this has been the issue, to perpetuate and strengthen slavery by the South, and to defeat their machinations by the North. To this end our best blood, our tears and our treasures have been expended freely.

VICKSBURG, Miss.,
May 23d, 1865.
Just at present there is nothing unusual occurring in this department. The schools are in good condition, and the pupils making rapid progress. Some changes have occurred recently, particularly in the schools connected with the National Freedmen’s Relief Association. – A High School has been established, of which Mr. J. H. Zelie of New York is principal and Miss Wright and Mrs. Hart assistants. The pupils are not very advanced as yet, but are making good use of their privileges, and we have every reason to hope for great and good results. Mr. Zelie is also superintendent of the N.F.R.A. Schools, and is a most efficient and zealous worker. Rooms have been secured in the old Vicksburg Hotel, to which several of the schools have been removed. They are light, airy, pleasant and comfortable, qualities which were wanting in those previously occupied, except in some cases the second.
De Soto, where we formerly had a school, has become a part of the Mississippi River, with the exception of a little hillock, crowned with a few cabins, which are still inhabited. By its overflow more than two thousand Freedmen were driven from their homes, to seek shelter elsewhere, leaving behind everything they could not carry on their heads, – their usual mode of conveyance.
I wish I could give you a true picture of our life here in Dixie, but that is impossible; no one who has not experienced it can realize its strange, wild nature. It is life indeed, so full of new experiences, of change; every day something new to be seen – something to be learned.
A few days since a rebel soldier remarked – “Dixie is the best country God ever made.” I could have answered – “You are right, God made it a glorious country, you and your comrades have laid it in ruins; but when peace is once more fully established we will show you what Yankee enterprise and Northern institutions can make of so good a country.
I must not forget to tell you of a scene I witnessed two days ago. Nearly a thousand sons of the Southern Chivalry marched through the streets, dressed in almost every style of garment known since the days of Noah, though nearly all of the same color – grey. They were rough, ragged and filthy, and were guarded by colored troops, dressed in their neat suits of Uncle Sam’s blue. A proud day it was for the dusky blue-coats. The next day two of them came to our door with a note signed by two of the prisoners, in which they said that they had nothing to eat, and begged us to send them something. We questioned the guards, who said nothing had been furnished them since their arrival at the barracks. The ladies of the household sent such food as they had, with a note stating that it was from Union ladies. – They considered that in doing so they were fulfilling the command of our Lord, “Do good to them that hate you.” There are thousands of rebel soldiers in the city, awaiting an exchange. They are no more conquered in spirit than they were in the most hopeful days of the Confederacy, and say that they will yet fight it out, though it be not for many years to come.
Last Friday evening we received a call from Lieut. Thomas Stephens, 3d Texas Cavalry, C.S.A., in his full uniform of rebel gray. He said that he had engaged in this contest from a sense of duty, and had discharged that duty so far as was in his power; had fought the Yankees with all his might at every opportunity. He acknowledged that they were completely whipped, but not subjugated, and never would be; declared they would yet be independent, if it took years to accomplish it; they would never live under the United States government. He said – “We had the better of you for two years, but when you brought Europe, Asia and Africa against us, it was too much. There are no braver men on the face of the earth than the Yankees, but I claim that we are equally brave. I once honestly thought that one Southerner could easily whip five Yankees, but that idea is ‘played out’ long ago; one is enough for me to engage with.
He expressed his detestation at the manner in which our soldiers in their hands had been treated, and denounced in the strongest terms the assassination of the late President, saying he respected Abraham Lincoln, and if he must live under our government, would prefer him to any other man in the country for president. He said he knew Jeff Davis was not captured, one of his own company pulled the oars of the boat that took him across the Mississippi, about two weeks ago, and he was now with Kirby Smith in Texas. No doubt they found it necessary to invent some such story to preserve the last remnant of their waning hope. He pitied the colored people, and thought them worse off than when they were slaves. We were obliged to acknowledge that most of the race are possessed of less of the comforts of life than when with their masters, but we would like to have him ask them which condition they preferred. At this moment a colored sergeant called at the door, and the question was put to him. A response came through the open door from a comrade waiting without, “Tell him no, no, NO, ebry time.”

[Editor’s Note: Lieutenant Thomas S. Stephens enlisted in Company B, 3rd Texas Cavalry, on June 13, 1861. He was captured at Jackson, Mississippi, in July 1863, and sent to Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War camp. Because of poor health, Stephens was exchanged in October 1864, but before this happened, he was required to fill out a questionnaire. Apparently Stephens had a good sense of humor, because where the document asked why he had been captured, the Lieutenant replied, “Being a Rebel soldier.”  Another question asked, “Do you sincerely desire to have the southern people put down in this war, and the authority of the U.S. Government over them restored?” To which Stephens wrote tersely, “I do not.” After being exchanged, Stephens returned to his regiment, and served until the unit surrendered in May 1865. – Compiled Service Record of Thomas S. Stephens, 3rd Texas Cavalry.]
I notice in your paper allusion to the loss of the Sultana, whereby some fourteen hundred of our noble prisoners from Andersonville and Cahawba met with a sudden and awful death. I visited their camp a short time before they left Vicksburg, and at some future time may give you an account of what I saw and heard there. My letter is sufficiently long this time.
S.W.

Savira Wright was born about 1836 in New Hampshire, and she moved to Clinton, Massachusetts, with her family, sometime prior to 1850. She is listed with her parents, Henry and Lois, and siblings in that census. – 1850 U.S. Census, Worcester County, Massachusetts.

By 1859, Savira was employed at Leonard Grammar School in Gloucester, Massachusetts, serving as principal of the institution. She may have worked at more than one local school, as the newspaper also listed her as principal of the grammar department at Lane School. In 1862, the young teacher was principal of Parsons School in Gloucester, a job she held as late as September of that year. – Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph, March 26 & 30, 1859, April 5, & September 13, 1862.

The first mention I can find of Savira Wright in connection with Vicksburg is the Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph article of April 1, 1865. She worked in Freedmen’s schools around Vicksburg until the fall of 1865, when she took a job as principal of the junior department of the Freedmen’s school in Washington, D.C., located on the corner of 14th and M streets.- Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph, October 28, 1865. Her time in Vicksburg was short, but Savira Wright’s letters to her hometown newspaper shed some light on the hard work done by numerous individuals to help former slaves prepare for a life of freedom.

 

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2 thoughts on ““The First Fruits of a New System:” Freedmen’s Schools at Vicksburg

  1. “I hate the freedman’s bureau, in uniforms of blue.”

    • “We are colored Yankee soldiers, enlisted for the war. We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law. We can shoot a Rebel further than a white man ever saw, as we go marching on.”

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