From The National Freedman, Vol. 1, No. 5 (June 1865), pp. 154-155

Our Schools

Richmond, Va. June 3, 1865


     Taking it for granted that you will be pleased to learn of the progress of our school in Richmond, I appropriate a leisure hour to give you a brief account of what we are doing and how we are doing it. Three weeks at the North is scarcely time enough to get school children settled down into habits of order and sobriety after a vacation. What, then, can we expect of children, where vacation has been perpetual, not in the sense of a continued holiday, but that they have never owned books and never felt the quiet refining influences of the school-room? If I may be allowed to judge of other schools by my own, these colored children of Richmond are conducting themselves in a manner marvelously well, and learning with an aptness that makes teaching among them a delight. The one hundred and fifty bright intelligent faces of my happy scholars, glad to be in school, and overflowing with delight at the realization of a long looked for good time, are powerful magnets to draw me daily toward the old African church where we gather. Their appearance is decidedly superior to what we expected; cut off, as this city has been from all trade with the North, one naturally expects to find poverty, if not actual nakedness among them, who would suffer, if any; and it is quite surprising to find them, with scarcely an exception, comfortably and neatly clad. The negro’s faith in the ultimate success of our cause shows itself now in the silver coin which he has ready for use, while his rebel neighbor finds himself with a quantity of worthless paper money on his hands. Every book and slate is paid for, with a readiness that is remarkable, the money coming to us in the almost forgotten shape of dimes and quarters.


The children, although laboring under many disadvantages, conduct themselves with remarkable propriety. I have yet to see the evidence of willful disobedience. In comprehending the first steps of knowledge, they give evidence of clear minds, acute powers of observation, and excellent memories. As the number of teachers is so disproportionate to the number of scholars at present, general exercises in reading, arithmetic, and singing, constitute in the chief exercises of the school; once we gathered them together in the First African Church (the same building where the famous council of rebel leaders was held) where they were addressed by various gentlemen of the North. It is but once in a lifetime that one can enjoy the privilege of hearing two thousand voices pouring forth glad praises to the Giver of freedom, while yet the shadow of dark days has scarcely passed away. There is a freshness, an earnestness which this sudden bursting into a new life gives the countenances and whole appearances of these long down-trodden children of suffering, which lifts the heart almost out of itself. Like all others of their race the love of music within them is strong and its form of expression remarkable.


Within a week an afternoon school has been started at Chimborazo, a place about a mile out of the city in the direction of “Seven Pines.”

The same low pine building, where we now gather our little flock, was once a rebel hospital, and at one time was crowded with wounded men brought in from that terrible field. This new enterprise is very successful. Our school numbers one hundred and eighty young and old. It is not uncommon to find persons considerably advanced in book knowledge by little systems of bribery, exchanging with the white children a nut or an apple for a letter; many have learned to read in spite of the whipping post. The quiet, steady perseverance of these people in spite of all obstacles in the past, is a strong guarantee for the future. An assurance that we are sowing seed in good ground, with more than fair promise that it [will] yield fruit double fold.

Yesterday we were honored by a visit from Maj. Gen. Howard and Capt. Horace James of Newbern, and others. Their sincere interest in our work was better to us than any gifts, and I am sure the pupils faces spake a hearty welcome.

We hope for repeated encouragements of this kind.

Mr. Coan is constantly busy, allowing no opportunity for doing good to pass unnoticed.

The circumstances of our living interfere seriously with writing, or I should try to send you a more satisfactory report.

Yours truly
M. Jennie Armstrong

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