In the 1840's, the growth of state funded public education was blossoming in states from Connecticut to Illinois (see also "Normal Schools" in the Common School section of this web page). However, the Southern states did not have a tradition of public education to build on, as the North did, and in fact, it was well after the Civil War before the South legislated for state supported schools. This occurred for several different reasons.

First and foremost, Southerners believed that education was a private matter and not a concern for the state. They were quick to point out that in all traditional societies the most important training a child receives is in the home where he/she is inducted into the values of the society he/she is about to enter. If the family fails in this endeavor, then how can the schools be more successful? They felt a priority should be placed upon creating a college-bred elite, if their traditions and way of life were to be successfully transferred to successive generations. This system helped to perpetuate the sharply defined social-class structure which existed in the South. There were planters (plantation owners) and there were slaves; no middle-class existed in the South to bridge the gap between upper and lower classes, and as such, there was no demand for services beyond that provided for those who could afford to pay. Another reason that public education did not flourish in the South was that the population was more dispersed than it was in the North, making it difficult to find enough children in one area to justify a school. Also, the Anglican religion of the South did not put quite as much emphasis on religious indoctrination through schooling as did Puritan New England. The final reason was the South's feeling about slavery, which will be mentioned below.

There were some Southerners who supported a public school system. Many of these supporters solicited advice and materials from Horace Mann, the first secretary of the first State Board of Education, created in Massachusetts in 1837. Mann also published a newsletter, "The Common School Journal" which provided information about the public school system to anyone expressing an interest in learning more about the Massachusetts experiment. As a result, he engaged in extensive correspondence. In response to the Southerners' distrust of public education Mann wrote "...colleges and academies never will act downward to raise the mass of people by education; but, on the contrary, common schools will feed and sustain the academies and colleges. Heat ascends, and it will warm upwards, but it will not warm downwards." As public opinion solidified in the south in defense of the Southern way of life, ideas originating in the north, particularly regarding education, were considered "subversive". The Prussian educational methods so popular in New England were denounced as "autocratic."

"Knowledge is Power" and as events conspired to bring the Civil War ever closer, the Southerner asked, "Who should be entrusted with this power?" Certainly not a slave. Southern colonies began passing laws to make it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. Only the Catholics and Friends (Quakers) continued their efforts to educate the black people in the South, and they were few in number. The North, with its Puritan heritage, had for many decades supported education as a means of providing religious training to its children. In the South, where the religious emphasis was Anglican (Church of England), the religious leaders supported the slave owners by providing oral (not written) religious training for the slaves. One minister commented that instead of reading the Bible, literate slaves would soon be reading documents filtering down from the North inciting rebellion, and pose a threat to the Southern family. Supporting slavery as an institution became the patriotic thing to do.

Children, in both the North and South, were taught from an early age that mankind was divided naturally by race, each race having certain physical and mental characteristics which had remained fundamentally unchanged throughout history. All of the Geographies divided mankind into a racial hierarchy with the white race at the top of the hierarchy (referred to as the "Normal" or "Typical" race) and the black race at the bottom. One text explained that "the degree of degeneration from the typical race is directly dependent on geographical distance from the original habitate of the normal race. The degree of perfection of the type is therefore proportioned." The superiority of the white race was taken for granted. "A well established law of nature...causes an inferior race to yield to a superior when it comes in contact with the other." The white man had been assigned the task of "civilizing and enlightening the world". A child influenced by this ongoing indoctrination would not expect the black race to take an equal place in American civilization. Southerners justified slavery on the basis that the black man was incapable of improvement, all the while denying them access to any type of formalized education. However, even in this time of great adversity, education of the black people continued, often covertly conducted under the cover of night. The quest for knowledge could not be thwarted, although it would be another 100 years before equal rights in education would be legislated throughout the nation.


Barnard, John and David Burner, "The American Experience in Education", 1975. New Viewpoints, (a Division of Franklin Watts, Inc.), NY.

Pruitt, Anne S., "In Pursuit of Equality in Higher Education", 1987. The Southern Education Foundation, Inc., General Hall, Inc., Dix Hills, NY.

Prepared by Karen Cheek