Public Education During the Civil War and Reconstruction Era


Public education in Alabama virtually ceased during the long Civil War. In the early days of the conflict, a move to ensure support for the Confederacy saw the dismissal of teachers who were not perceived to be fully behind Confederate goals, and other teachers left their posts to join the ranks. The Union blockade of southern ports also wrought havoc on schooling. Southern schools had relied on northern textbook publishers for textbooks and found themselves with an acute shortage as the blockade progressed. Out of necessity, Mobile soon became a center of textbook publishing in the South.

War service and economic upheaval also affected public education. For example, the state superintendent of education, Gabriel DuVal, could not devote full attention to that position because he was also captain of a company of Alabama volunteers. The $500,000 that had been spent on public education in 1858 decreased by almost half in 1861. And by 1865, public education in Alabama received a meager $112,000.

During Reconstruction, public schools in Alabama and the rest of the South enjoyed greater funding than before and during the Civil War period. Republican governments during this era in the South fostered educational growth, reflecting the belief that education could be a key to social progress. To that end, local governments greatly increased property tax rates, resulting in greater revenues despite lower post-war property values. Alabama in 1860, for instance, collected just $530,000 on property with an assessed value of $432 million, compared with more than $1.4 million on property assessed at $156 million by 1870. The average cost of state and local government from 1858 to 1860 was $800,000; by 1868, it exceeded $4 million.

The racial balance in education also drastically changed. By 1870, 41,300 African American and 75,800 whites attended public schools. A year later, 54,300 African Americans and 87,000 whites were attending public schools. Much of the increase in enrollment among former slaves came about because of the activities of the Freedman's Bureau, which was established in 1865 to assist former slaves in their transition to free status. The bureau, together with the American Missionary Association, established schools for freedpeople, but racial hostility prevented the establishment of racially integrated schools. During the day, teachers affiliated with the African American schools taught children, and at night they provided instruction to adults, many of whom were motivated to learn so they could read the Bible. White supremacists countered this development by burning black schools and terrorizing teachers and students. There was a tremendous thirst for education among freedpeople, however, and black churches often took over the task of providing it.

During Reconstruction, Alabama Republicans supported free public education. The 1868 Constitution decreed that schools receive 20 percent of state revenue, proceeds from the poll tax, and income from the sale of school land to provide free public schools for all children between the ages of five and 21, and established a state board of education (BoE). The board, however, allowed separate schools to be established in those areas where whites objected to their children going to school with blacks, ushering in the state's attempts to establish a dual system of education with money that was insufficient to fund two systems. In its devotion to segregation, the state struggled for years to fund this dual system. The board of education also was given extraordinary power to administer the educational system during Reconstruction and later ruled that African Americans were guaranteed a public education.

In an attempt to reduce white antagonism toward black instruction, the state replaced teachers installed by the Freedmen's Bureau, many of them non-southerners, with southern teachers. These individuals needed training; therefore, the state established, with assistance from the American Missionary Association, "normal schools" for the purpose of educating black teachers. The first normal college to train black primary school teachers was founded in 1867 by two former slaves, William Savery and Thomas Tarrant, with assistance from Gen. Wager Swayne of the Freedman's Bureau. Swayne School, later chartered as Talladega College in 1869, provided a few months of instruction in elementary and high school subjects, then sent freedpeople back to their Black Belt communities. A similar pattern occurred with the establishment of the Lincoln Normal School of Marion and University for Colored Students. It was located in the Black Belt and later moved to Montgomery, where it evolved into present-day Alabama State University. A similar school established in Huntsville became present-day Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University.

By 1874, the Alabama school system was bankrupt, with funds having been lost to mismanagement and fraud. Teachers had to be paid in state notes of dubious value. When the Reconstruction era ended as Democrats and former Confederates took control of the government from Republicans, public education was in disarray. A new constitution in 1875 established state tax ceilings that limited revenue, abolished the state board of education, called for an elected education superintendent, mandated segregated schools for whites and blacks, and decentralized educational control from the state to the cities, towns, and counties, leading to gross inequalities. Wealthier counties and larger cities and towns had more funds and better teachers, whereas small and rural towns and poorer counties lacked the funds, facilities, organization, and administrative experience to support the system. Education in Alabama remained a system of haves and have-nots.

Additional Resources 

Griffith, Lucille. Alabama: A Documentary History to 1900. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1968.

Lindsey, Tullye Borden, and James Armour Lindsay. "Some Light Upon Ante-Bellum Alabama Schools." Peabody Journal of Education 20 (July 1942): 37-41.

Gordon Harvey
Jacksonville State University


Published June 7, 2010
Last updated March 29, 2013