Freedmen Bureau Schools

This article was published in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, 2009, University Press of Kentucky.

Freedmen’s Bureau Schools. Before the Civil War, free people of color residing in Ky. could with great difficulty obtain basic reading and writing skills through subscription schools sponsored by their churches or by leaving Ky. to attend schools in states north of the Ohio River. In some urban areas of Ky. church pastors taught in the subscription schools; however, in the state’s rural areas such educational opportunities rarely existed.

Slaves had even more difficulty learning how to read and write. Very few slave owners in Ky. permitted their slaves to learn to read the Bible, as this practice was frowned upon both by social custom and by various local ordinances. In Bracken Co. in Ky., during the mid-1830s, a slave owner named Jack Tabb taught his slaves to read and “figger” because this suited Tabb’s interests. However, Tabb’s actions were quite unusual. Most slave owners feared that slaves, if taught to write, would forge “permission to move” slips and escape to the North. Such fears were particularly acute for those holding slaves in the river counties of Northern Kentucky. Eventually, one of Tabb’s slaves, Arnold Gragston, did just that, leaving Ky. with his entire family for Canada.

At the end of the Civil War, the nation faced the fact that there were nearly four million illiterate freedmen, with almost 250,000 of these living in Ky. In the massive confusion following the war’s end, federal and state governments focused on reestablishing political and economic stability rather educating the free blacks and former slaves who lacked a basic education. Rebuilding the railroads and transportations systems were instead among the war-scarred nation’s first priorities. The Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress sought legislation that would redistribute land from Confederate officials and military leaders to former slaves and provide welfare assistance and jobs for freedmen. Over strong objections and a veto by President Andrew Johnson (1865–1869), Congress enacted legislation establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in mid-1865 (Freedmen’s Bureau). Part of its mission was to create a system of education for former slaves.

Initially, Ky. was not covered under this legislation. However, the Ky. General Assembly’s failure to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, to eliminate the slave codes, and to provide for the education of former slaves caught the attention of Major Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, the Freedmen’s Bureau administrator in Tenn. Fisk’s January 1866 report to Washington, D.C., detailing Kentucky’s intransigence, led to the establishment of a Freedmen’s Bureau in Ky., an action seen by Ky. lawmakers as treating their state as conquered territory.

Northern abolitionists, working chiefly through the American Missionary Association (AMA) and Western Freedmen Aid Commission (WFAC), poured money as well as preachers and teachers into the South from 1865–1867. In Ky., these benevolent societies established schools at Covington and then eventually across the rest of the state.

Appointed as Chaplain and Chief Superintendent of Freedmen’s Bureau Schools, Rev. T. K. Noble (working under Major Gen. Jeff C. Davis, the Freedmen’s Bureau’s Assistant Commissioner for Ky.), began the arduous task of supervising the education of 250,000 former slaves; Noble’s priority throughout his tenure as superintendent was to educate the 37,000 freed school-aged children in Ky. In December 1865, Ky. had only eighteen schools educating African Americans—nine subscription schools and nine schools funded through the AMA and WFAC.

The federal government funded the Freedmen’s Bureau’s staff salaries, some limited construction funds for schools, part of the teachers’ transportation costs, and a small portion of the teachers’ salaries at the Freedmen’s Bureau schools. The bulk of funding for these schools in Ky. was supposed to come from taxes paid by freedmen. Since few African Americans owned property in 1866, the taxes collected were miniscule. For several years, the Ky. General Assembly insisted that freedmen paupers should receive the bulk of taxes paid by freedmen, leaving very little money for the schools operated by the Freedmen’s Bureau. As a result, the Freedmen’s Bureau schools were financed only partly by a shoestring budget from the federal government. Religious and abolitionist sources financed some Freedmen’s Bureau schools, many of the teacher salaries, and even some teacher training. Tuition fees from freedmen themselves defrayed costs of buildings and some of the teachers’ salaries. Freedmen, especially in the rural areas, had little access to cash, and therefore most contributions were in kind such as donating labor in constructing the schools and by using their church buildings as schools. Had it not been for the financial resources from AMA, WFAC, and the Baptist, Episcopal, and Methodist missionary associations, the educational effort at the Freeman’s Bureau schools would have failed quickly.

Reverend Noble established three regional districts in Ky.—Louisville, Lexington, and Paducah—and began appointing district superintendents whose task it was to educate black citizens. The Freedman Bureau’s first statistical report on progress at these schools, by Jesse Duns, was submitted to Washington, D.C. in June 1866; only slight gains had been realized in the first six months, and these were mainly in the urban areas. There were eighteen schools in Louisville and Lexington and seven in the rest of the state, serving 80 adults and 2,800 children. Most of these schools operated only three months each year. Moreover, it was reported that operational budgets at these schools were extremely small.

The task in Ky. was so monumental that Noble decided to allow the abolitionists to concentrate on developing freedmen schools in the state while Noble, in turn, would focus on developing community-based initiatives and support for educating freedmen. Accordingly, Noble encouraged the AMA, a longtime supporter of Berea College, the WFAC, an early supporter of efforts in Covington, and the Baptist, Episcopal, and Methodist missionary societies to continue working on developing the freedmen schools statewide. By design, the Freedmen’s Bureau thereafter focused its limited resources on sharing some expenses of freedmen churches in order to open their buildings for day and night subscription schools, paying for teacher transportation and funding school buildings where necessary.

One critical shortage–the lack of qualified teachers—was solved initially by using abolitionist agencies to recruit young black and white teachers from the North, many from Oberlin College at Yellow Springs in Ohio, and from New England and N.Y. Kentuckians disliked the idea of former slaves learning to read and write and despised these abolitionist teachers from the North. Noble’s monthly reports detail examples of these teachers being harassed and terrorized by local citizens. Noble placed a high priority on establishing African-American teacher training and certification at two locations, and with the aid of AMA and WFAC, the new Ely Normal School in Louisville was launched with forty teacher certification candidates by December 1868; the same resources funded Berea College in Berea, Ky., that had space for 150 students, half of them white.

Colored School Idlewild Boone Co KY Scheben Library
Colored School Idlewild Boone Co KY Scheben Library Similar to early Freedmen’s Bureau schools.

The second critical shortage was the lack of buildings that could be used as schools for the freedmen’s children. Most of the earliest schools were housed in African-American churches or in buildings described as shacks. Noble lobbied hard to use the meager Freedmen’s Bureau funds to build new school buildings. Among the earliest schoolhouses built in Northern Kentucky were: a 30 by 60 foot wooden structure at Washington, Ky., in Mason Co., completed in April 1867; and an 18 by 30 foot schoolhouse costing $200 at Warsaw, Ky., in Gallatin Co., completed in mid-1868.

In the schoolhouse construction program, either the Freedmen’s Bureau or the local freedmen trustees acquired titles to the land. Under contract with local freedmen trustees, the Freedmen’s Bureau supplied the lumber, nails, and other materials while local freemen provided free labor. The Freedmen’s Bureau schools were simple structures, no more than rectangular boxes, but at a time when there were few rural common schools for whites, these schoolhouses were treasured by freedmen and despised by many whites. As such, they were often the target of reprisals by night riders, some of whom belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.

In October 1868, reporting on fall classes, the Freedmen’s Bureau maintained 135 day schools, 1 night school, 6 white teachers, and 144 black teachers, with 6,022 students enrolled. However, there were “outrages:” such as the church schoolhouse operated by the Freedmen’s Bureau in Germantown, Ky., Mason Co., which had been burned down by arsonists. By 1869, Ben Runkle, Noble’s replacement as superintendent in Ky., reported substantial gains, with a total of 248 schools operating. Thirteen schools, newly constructed with Freedmen’s Bureau funds, were completed.

In Northern Kentucky, the Freedmen’s Bureau activity was uneven. Augusta, Covington, Maysville, and Washington were quick to embrace the education of freedmen. But the river counties of Boone and Carroll, and inland in the heavily Confederate strongholds of Grant and Owen Cos. there was little interest and often violent hostility. In 1870 in Boone Co., for example, there was only one freedmen school operating at Caladonia, now Petersburg, Ky.

In some Ky. counties, great losses of the slave population immediately prior to and during the Civil War combined with antipathy to create a general indifference toward educating former slaves. Across the Ohio River at Madison, Ind., the Freemen’s Bureau funded a school in fall 1868 so that freedmen’s children from Carroll and Trimble Cos. in Ky. could be educated. Hundreds of former slaves from these and other Ky. counties fled into Ind. and Ohio. The small A.M.E. church school at Hanover, Ind., funded in part by the Freedmen’s Bureau, taught seventy-five students while another seventy per year were being taught in Madison’s black churches. At the same time, the large influx of former slaves out of Northern Kentucky into Cincinnati, Ohio, was being prompted as much by the promise of access to education as to the promise of wage jobs. Boone and Kenton Cos. in Northern Kentucky experienced 60% reductions in their African-American populations between 1850 and 1870.

Ky.’s state funding of black schooling remained a chronic problem throughout the five years, 1865–1869, that the Freedmen’s Bureau schools were operating in the state. And later during the 1870s, once Confederates supporters had taken control of the Ky. political structure, funding for the freedmen’s schools essentially ceased. Ultimately, Northern abolitionists had no sustaining interest in further occupying the South. In January 1869, the Freedmen’s Bureau was ordered closed and by April 1869 its schools in Ky. were left, forsaken and still unfunded.

Many of the black churches continued educating former slaves in subscription programs in spite of the lack of cash and blatant hostility toward their activities among whites. Clearly, the Freemen’s Bureau had made a start in the task of educating former slaves. More than 10,750 black children had received at least three months of schooling, about a third of what was needed. Additionally, more than one hundred buildings usable as schools had been designated for freedmen; and a small, but eager, cadre of newly trained black teachers had graduated from Berea College and the Ely Normal School in Louisville.

One of the most important steps that the Freedmen’s Bureau accomplished was their aid, working with AMA and WFAC, in forming a statewide convention of black educators. The first meeting in 1867 in Lexington petitioned the Ky. General Assembly for support for black schools; the second meeting in Louisville was a three-day conference that featured distinguished national and state speakers. Attended by Covington African-American leaders Jacob Price and Isaac Black, the conference’s resolutions petitioned the Ky. General Assembly to add the African-American population to the common school system. The resolutions denoted that the Freedmen’s Bureau was leaving the state, and therefore it was even more critical for the state to take responsibility.

Cities such as Covington and Newport, Ky., that had charters from the state legislature, were able to take advantage of their respective mayor’s and city council’s authority to fund their black schools through taxes and then sinking funds, much drawn from the white school system. However, it was 1874 before the state legislature acted to include African-American children in the common schools system.

In April 1875, the first of the checks funding segregated black common schools in Ky. were sent from state government in Frankfort to Campbell, Carroll, Kenton, and Pendleton counties. . The Freedmen’s Bureau had established 18 schools in Northern Kentucky with space for 443 students. By 1900, under the common school program, there were 54 schools in Northern Kentucky dedicated to educating 3,959 black students, the descendants of former slaves.

Bentley, George R. The History of the Freedmen’s Bureau, New York: Octagon Books, 1970.

Cover Letters and Narrative Reports, Rev. T. K. Noble, Chaplain and Chief Superintendent Freedmen Schools, State of Kentucky to Rev. J. W. Alvord, General Superintendent, Washington, D. C., July 8, 1867, October 1, 1867, January 1, 1868, March 8, 1868, April 1, 1868, May 1, 1868, January 13, 1869.

Marrs, Elijah Preston. “Autobiography of Elijah P. Marrs,” from Documenting the American South at University of North Carolina. Ledger, Superintendent of Schools of Kentucky (Colored), 1875–1885, Kentucky State Archives.

Narrative Reports from Ben R. Runkle, Louisville, KY, to Brig. Gen. E. Whittlesey, Washington, D. C., July 20, 1869.

Reports to Superintendent of Public Instruction, January 3,1839—January 3, 1849, Kentucky State Archives.

Statistical Report, Freedmen’s Bureau–State of Kentucky, December 1868, February 1869.

Turley-Adams, Alicestyne. Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky, Frankfort: Kentucky Heritage Council and African-American Heritage Commission, 1997. Webb, Ross A. “The Past is Never Dead, It’s Not Even Past,” Benjamin P. Runkle and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Kentucky, 1866–1870, in Donald G. Nieman, ed. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Freedom, II, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994.

Wilson, George D. A Century of Negro Education in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville” University of Louisville, 1986, from original Works Progress Administration and Louisville Municipal College, ca. 1935.

Freedmen’s Schools in Northern Kentucky



County Town Date Sponsor Teacher* Note
Mason Wash-  ington July 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau Building 30×60 Wood
Mason Mays-        ville Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Amanda Perkins
Mason Mays-        ville Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Avene Casey
Mason Mays-        ville Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Mary E.   Wilson
Mason Wash-  ington Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Elizabeth Wilkerson
Bracken Augusta Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau
  1. M. White
Pendle-  ton Brandy-  wine Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Mary  Southgate
Pendle-  ton Fal-  mouth Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Ellen Kinny
Kenton Coving-      ton Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau
  1. C. Wilmot
Kenton Coving-      ton Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Ellen N.   Leavitt
Kenton Coving-      ton Apr 1868 Freedmen’s Bureau Richard Singer
Bracken Augusta Dec 1868 Church & School Jeptha Griffin—c 13 male, 15 female
Camp-  bell New-  port Dec 1868 Alex Howard Alex Howard—c 26 male, 16 female
Camp-  bell New-  port Dec 1868 Mary Williams Mary Williams—c 12 male, 13 female
Camp-  bell New-  port Dec 1868 Henry Graham Julia Warner—c 8 male, 9 female
Kenton Coving-      ton Dec 1868 Church
  1. E. Willis—c

Eliza Skillman—w

44 male, 45 female
Mason Mays-       ville Dec 1868 Church Amanda Perkins—cGreen Casey—cThird unintelligible 39 male, 47 female
Mason Wash-  ington Dec 1868 School Marcia    Dunlap—c 20 male, 21 female
Pendle- ton Fal- mouth Dec 1868 Church Ellen M. H. Southgate—c 10 male, 6 female
Gallatin Warsaw Jan 1869 Freedmen’s Bureau Building 18×30 $200
Bracken German- town Jan 1869 Freedmen’s Bureau Freedmen’s Church and School burned
Boone Cale-    donia Feb 1869 School Joshua    Kendall—c 18 male, 18 female
Bracken Augusta Feb 1869 Church Unreported 12 male, 15 female
Pendle-  ton Fal- mouth Feb 1869 Church Ellen M. Southgate 9 male, 4 female
Camp-   bell New-  port Feb 1869 Henry Graham School Mary    Warmus—w 12 male, 13 female
Camp-  bell New-  port Feb 1869 Closed
Kenton Coving-    ton Feb 1869 Church
  1. C. Wilmot—w

Eliza Skillman—c

56 male, 48 female
Kenton Coving-    ton Feb 1869 Church
  1. C. Wilmot—w (night)
17 male, 12 female
Kenton Union     Hall Feb 1869 School William A. Patterson—c 20 male, 15 female
Mason Mays-     ville Feb 1869 Church Amanda Perkins—cGreen       Carey—cMary Nelson—c 50 male, 52 female
Mason May- slick Feb 1869 School Emma Gardner—c 25 male, 27 female
Mason Wash- ington Feb 1869 Church Narcissa Dunlap—c 20 male, 20 female
Pendle-  ton Brandy-  wine Feb 1869 School Mary South- gate—c 6 male, 6 female

* Note c—colored, w—white


Diane Perrine Coon