Letters from Louisiana Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Well before President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War, teachers and activists in both the North and the South began the arduous task of creating educational opportunities and institutions for freed slaves. This effort occurred as part of the legal and institutional changes that came with the end of slavery; for example, the Freedmen's Bureau, a relief agency, provided funds to set up schools and to compensate teachers in the South. Yet this educational project also occurred in spite of the government's woefully inadequate support and the resistance of racist groups who undermined and even terrorized teachers and students attending the new black schools. Edmonia Highgate's letters from Louisiana document a generation's attempt to negotiate this resistance. They also reveal the diversity of the communities where she worked as well as the talent and ambition of the teachers who sought to create a culture of education for freed slaves in a society that nonetheless denied Highgate and her peers equal opportunity.

Summary Overview

Well before President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War, teachers and activists in both the North and the South began the arduous task of creating educational opportunities and institutions for freed slaves. This effort occurred as part of the legal and institutional changes that came with the end of slavery; for example, the Freedmen's Bureau, a relief agency, provided funds to set up schools and to compensate teachers in the South. Yet this educational project also occurred in spite of the government's woefully inadequate support and the resistance of racist groups who undermined and even terrorized teachers and students attending the new black schools. Edmonia Highgate's letters from Louisiana document a generation's attempt to negotiate this resistance. They also reveal the diversity of the communities where she worked as well as the talent and ambition of the teachers who sought to create a culture of education for freed slaves in a society that nonetheless denied Highgate and her peers equal opportunity.

Defining Moment

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed slaves in the Confederacy, initiated a period of astonishing change for both Southerners and Northerners. To be sure, this change did not happen overnight as true freedom for the former slaves proved slow and daunting: the Civil War would not end officially until Confederate troops began to surrender in April of 1865, and in December of the same year, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished the institution of slavery and was formally adopted. In the years following, Congress enacted a series of reforms as part of the period known as Reconstruction (1865–1877). These reforms included the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868, which gave the vote to freedmen, required new constitutions for the states that had supported the Confederacy, and set up occupied military districts in the South to ensure compliance with the new laws. The Fourteenth Amendment, which acknowledged African Americans' rights to citizenship, was ratified in 1868, followed by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which intended to eradicate racial restrictions to voting (Mjagkij xi-xii).

In addition to these legal reforms, important new educational opportunities emerged for newly freed slaves. During and after the Civil War, Northerners, including many women, traveled to the South to provide food, clothing, and medical care as well as to set up schools for millions of freedpeople. Northern churches and secular humanitarian groups initially sponsored these relief efforts and included the American Missionary Association, the Friends Associations of Philadelphia and New York, and other societies. In 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, to assist the work begun by churches and other organizations. The Bureau provided over 5 million dollars for freedmen's education, including transporting and compensating teachers and providing educational supplies, buildings, and properties to set up schools. The American Missionary Association (AMA) sponsored its first teacher, Mary S. Peake, in Virginia in September 1861. In 1864, the Association sent Syracuse native Edmonia Highgate to her first teaching post in Norfolk, Virginia. She later taught in Louisiana, and her letters of February 8, 1866, and December 17, 1866, document the astonishing challenges she faced there and her formidable courage and success as a teacher and leader (Sterling 261 and Butchart 1).

Author Biography

Edmonia Goodelle Highgate was the first of six children born to Hannah Francis and Charles Highgate in 1844 in Syracuse, New York. Her mother Hannah was born in Virginia and may have been a slave. Charles Highgate hailed from Pennsylvania and worked as a barber. The Highgates lived in the black community of Syracuse, where Charles worked hard to ensure his children's education. Edmonia graduated with honors from Syracuse High School in 1861, evidently the only African American student in her class. Earning a teaching certificate but barred by racism from teaching in her hometown, she first taught in a black school in Montrose, Pennsylvania. After only term, she was hired as principal of another black school in Binghamton. In January of 1864, Edmonia applied to the American Missionary Association to teach freed slaves in the South. She was accepted and, after a brief period of fundraising for the National Freedmen's Relief Association, began teaching in Norfolk, Virginia. Exhausted after several months, she recuperated in Syracuse and took the opportunity to speak at a prestigious black convention held in the city (Butchart 3–11).

Edmonia returned to teaching in 1865, this time in Darlington, Maryland, where she organized a school and later brought her mother and sister Willela to run it. Once the school was established, Edmonia headed to New Orleans to organize another school for freed slaves and the Louisiana Educational Relief Association, an organization to support the education and general welfare of black people. After racial violence and rioting occurred, Edmonia moved to Lafayette Parish to continue teaching. Although there was violence there as well, she continued undaunted in her work and returned to New Orleans in 1867 to open yet another school. Early in 1868, Edmonia joined her sister Caroline in Mississippi and opened a new school in the town of Enterprise. Other Highgate family members joined the sisters to establish other schools. In 1870, Edmonia returned to the North to raise money for her school. During this time, she spoke at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and began publishing her letters in various journals. While preparing to return to Mississippi, Edmonia fell in love with a white man named John Henry Vosburg, with whom she became pregnant. Sadly, Vosburg was already married to another woman and betrayed Edmonia, who died from complications related to an abortion in the fall of 1870.

Document Analysis

We can best understand Edmonia Highgate's letters of February 8 and December 17, 1866, in the context of her entire career as a distinguished teacher as well as a speaker and writer whose impressive intellect attracted the attention of notable black thinkers. She first wrote to the American Missionary Association (AMA) on January 18, 1864, in a letter describing her desire to teach in the South or southwest, her experience of two-and-a-half years, her age of 20 years, and her good health. In this letter, Highgate also asserts her moral virtue, stating confidently, “I know just what selfdenial, selfdiscipline [sic] and domestic qualifications are needed for the work and modestly trust that with God's help I could labor advantageously in the field for my newly freed brethren” (Sterling 294). The courage, directness, and confidence in these words characterize Highgate's subsequent achievements.

She responded with total dedication to her first teaching assignment in Norfolk, which began in March 1864. There, she reported being moved beyond words by the joy and thirst for knowledge she observed in the newly freed people. By the end of that summer, however, Highgate suffered a breakdown from overwork and returned briefly to recuperate in Syracuse. While home, she was one of only two women to speak at the National Convention of Colored Men, a prestigious meeting attended by leading Black thinkers of the day, including Frederick Douglass, who introduced Highgate's lecture. This impressive accomplishment achieved at only 20 years old reveals Highgate's intellectual talent and ambition, qualities that she exercised in her subsequent work. To raise relief funds for freedmen, she traveled around upstate New York during the remaining months of 1864 and early 1865, earning money by delivering lectures about her experiences (Sterling 294–96).

In March of 1865, she returned under the auspices of the AMA to teach in Darlington, Maryland, but she soon communicated her intention to resign because she considered the position beneath her abilities: “I do not conceive it to be my duty to stay here in the woods and teach thirty four pupils when I have an opportunity of reaching hundreds” (Sterling 297). Highgate gave her position in Maryland to her mother and was then placed by the AMA in New Orleans. The organization's willingness to fulfill this request suggests the leaders' deep respect for this young, ambitious teacher.

Established in New Orleans, Highgate wrote on February 8, 1866, to Reverend Strieby, the family's church pastor in Syracuse and subsequently an AMA official. In this letter, Highgate reports the extreme challenges she faced in teaching the free people who were so desperate for education. With her customary directness, her letter dispenses with niceties and immediately reports the financial straits of the New Orleans schools. The situation was this: the northern missionary and secular humanitarian organizations that supported and staffed other new schools for freedmen in the South had not been supporting New Orleans schools because the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency established for similar purposes, had done so. Beginning in February, 1866, however, the Freedmen's Bureau could no longer support the New Orleans schools because they had run out of funds and were four months' behind in paying teachers' salaries. As a result, even though the government bureau still supervised the schools by regulating tuition and providing buildings and property, families had to pay an advance installment of $1.50 for each child. This fee, explains Highgate, was impossible for many families, in part because the mothers were widowed after their husbands had died as soldiers in the war. Highgate estimates that due to inability to pay, “something like 3000 children” (297) were barred from attending school, and the number of teachers declined from 150 to 28. These numbers document the severe poverty of many of the freed people as well as the participation and profound sacrifice of the many former slaves who died defending their freedom.

Next, Highgate offers more detail about the financial struggle of, in her words, “a class mostly Creoles” (297). This group, she explains, were forced to pay an educational tax to support schools for whites, “themselves deriving no benefit there from” (297). Thus, the tax was not used to support any schools for the Creole people who paid it, and they were barred from attending the white schools. Moreover, the poorer Creoles were unable to pay both the tax and the advance installment required to send their children to the new schools. Interestingly, Highgate in this explanation distinguishes between the poor Creoles and their wealthy counterparts, whose role in slavery she does not hesitate to criticize when she declares that it is no wonder that the wealthy Creoles do not identify with the freed people at all “when we remember that many of them were formerly slaveholders. You know the peculiar institution cared little for the ethnology of its supporters” (297). In this fascinating statement, Highgate asserts that the institution of slavery did not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity among slaveholders, so that the white holders of power allowed Creoles (who are by definition partly of African ancestry) to own slaves. This is a notable fact given that the system of slavery in the United States was largely created and justified precisely on the basis of race and thus, to a significant degree, on ethnicity as well. In making this distinction, Highgate shows her understanding of the irrational nature of slavery as an institution and offers a rare glimpse of the diverse situations that occurred in practice.

In the final part of this letter, Highgate turns her attention to a specific request, asking whether the AMA might compensate several teachers, under the Freedmen Bureau's supervision. She again underscores the school's dire situation, reporting that her own school's enrollment has declined from 800 to 127, and she mentions the city's high cost of living and the “sad straits” (298) of those teachers who work without a salary. Yet her final sentence changes tone abruptly and reveals her courage and tenacity of spirit when she tells the Reverend that he might be amused to learn that her school building was once a slave pen. With this concluding remark, Highgate achieves several effects: First, she shows that she remains undaunted in the face of the serious financial and other difficulties presented by her teaching assignment. In fact, she celebrates the triumph of using a former slave pen as a schoolhouse: the very edifices of slavery have become the means of liberation. Second, this courageous, triumphant tone serves to support her request: she is not merely complaining but is making the best of a daunting challenge that deserves the attention and support of the American Missionary Association.

The following July in New Orleans, an integrated constitutional convention took place in New Orleans, but white racists began a riot and attacked the attendees, killing 48 and wounding 166 people. Edmonia Highgate decided it would be wise to leave the city, so she went to teach in Lafayette parish, 200 miles away. From there, she wrote again to Reverend Strieby on December 17, this time documenting a rather different situation for her students, but constant courage and dedication on her part (Sterling 298).

Highgate begins the letter by explaining her move from New Orleans to Lafayette Parish, stating that after the riot, “I found my health getting impaired, from hospital visiting and excitement so I came here to do what I could and to get stronger corporally” (298). What Highgate could achieve despite her compromised health was quite impressive, as she reports running essentially three schools, a day school, a night school, and “a glorious Sabbath School of near one hundred scholars” (298). She explains that the Freedman's Bureau supervises but does not fund the school, which is evidently supported by tuition paid by the students and by a tax on plantation owners (see below for explanation). She also later mentions needing cloth so that she might start a fourth “Industrial School” (299) on Saturdays, by which she means a school to teach sewing.

Highgate reports her students in Lafayette Parish to be more fortunate than those she taught in New Orleans. Most of them are “french Creoles” (298) from plantations anywhere from three to eight miles away, and they are so eager to learn that they rise early each morning and are never late. These former slaves are spared the abject poverty of most other freedpeople. Highgate writes that most of the adults and older children work as contract laborers on the plantations of the men who formerly owned them. Particularly interesting is the five-percent tax she mentions, which, according to the labor contracts, plantation owners had to pay for the education of their laborers' children. This partly accounts for the success of Highgate's school, but she also reports abundant corn, cotton, and sugar crops, which have allowed students to purchase their own books and slates; many families own land and livestock and plan to buy their own homes.

Highgate dedicates much of this letter to the cultural differences she must negotiate with her students. We learn that Highgate's own education included at least some French as she reports using it to communicate with her Creole students, who learn English quickly: one class of students with no knowledge of English progressed to an “easy” reader in one week's time. She discovers that the only Christian church in the area is Catholic and that many of her students insist on working on Sundays (which she calls “Sabbath breaking”) to survive, frustrating her efforts to convince them otherwise. She also reports her dismay at the people's practice of adultery, by which she means intercourse between unmarried people (as opposed to extramarital intercourse), as she reports finding only three legally married couples out of 300 people. She reports doing what she can, but “there is more than work for two teachers yet I am all alone” (299).

As in her letter from February of the same year, Highgate follows this frank admission with a vivid portrait of her bravery. Despite her students' relative comfort, rebels continue to terrorize them and their teacher. In the final paragraph, Highgate reports that she has received death threats, has been shot at twice, and her night school students have also been shot at. The lack of protection from both the military and the Freedman's Bureau makes the situation all the more dire, but she remains undaunted. She concludes her letter by requesting Sunday school materials for her religious education efforts, once again communicating both the reality of the danger and her intentions to overcome it.

Highgate's letter seems primarily descriptive as she reports basic facts about her students and her ongoing struggle to teach despite the opposition of racist rebels. Nonetheless, her words occasionally reveal valuable context and subtext. When she mentions former slave owners, for example, she refers to them as “so called masters” (298), which represents a pointed effort to challenge the very notion of slave owners' dominance; with this phrase, Highgate rejects the notion that such owners were ever masters of other human beings, despite their legal ownership. This is not simply rhetoric; rather, it represents Highgate's confrontation with the shards of a dehumanizing institution and her determination to subvert its ideology of dominance, which lives on in her students' psyches. We see this confrontation again when she blames “the masters” (299) for the freed slaves' practice of adultery. Here, too, she signals that her task is nothing less than the construction of a new culture.

This level of awareness and ambition distinguishes Highgate as much more than a selfless schoolteacher with remarkable courage. Refusing to settle for the easy stereotype of “strong black woman,” Highgate proves that she is a thinker and an activist. This is perhaps most notable in her comment about the amicable relations between the planters and former slaves: “The adjustment of relation between employer and former slaves would surprise our northern politicians” (299). The precise context of this comment is unclear, but Highgate implies that Northern politicians had doubts about the prospects for peaceful adjustment between former slave owners and slaves. With this statement, Highgate claims the right to educate privileged men about the facts on the ground and displays the intellectual prowess that earned her a distinguished reputation as speaker, writer, and teacher in her brief life.

Essential Themes

The learning, ambition, and courage that shine through Edmonia Highgate's letters represent the lives of many African Americans in the nineteenth century. As Butchart claims, the impressive achievement of both Edmonia and her sister Caroline “symbolized a widespread black thirst for knowledge” (3), which began prior to emancipation and increased rapidly. This desire for learning was remarkable given that emancipated people in other cultures frequently chose either to embrace ignorance or to exalt traditional forms of wisdom rather than formal learning (Butchart 2). This desire for learning prompted thousands of African American teachers, even before the end of the Civil War, to travel to the South to aid the freed slaves. As Highgate exemplifies, many of these teachers were not mere untrained volunteers but highly educated and qualified teachers, and they often endured financial and other hardships, including acts of terror.

It is unfortunate that these hardships also reveal betrayal as another central theme in African Americans' lives during this period. Highgate's letters show that, despite the legal progress that occurred with the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent constitutional amendments, the government did not establish sufficient services for its newly freed people. The Freedmen's Bureau was a step in the right direction but proved inadequate for the task at hand and eventually lost its funding. Worse, when African Americans persisted despite lack of resources and set up their own schools, partly with the help of charitable organizations, white racists attempted to destroy their efforts and, in some cases, their lives. This attempt to undermine the building of new lives would endure long after Reconstruction as Jim Crow laws were established to maintain segregation and inequality. In these ways, Edmonia Highgate's life and her death, which occurred as a result of her white lover's betrayal, emerge as a powerful symbol of the social and political victories and losses of African Americans during and after Reconstruction

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Butchart, Ronald E. “Edmonia G. and Caroline V. Highgate: Black Teachers, Freed Slaves, and the Betrayal of Black Hearts.” Portraits of African American Life Since 1865. Edited by Nina Mjagkij. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 2003. Print.
  • Butchart, Ronald E. Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861–1876. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2010. Print.
  • Clark Hine, Darlene and Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Print.
  • Enoch, Jessica. Refiguring Rhetorical Education: Women Teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a Students, 1865–1911. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.
  • Hodges, Graham Russell, ed. African American History and Culture. New York: Garland, 1998. Print.
  • Mjagkij, Nina. “Introduction.” Portraits of African American Life Since 1865. Edited by Nina Mjagkij. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 2003. Print.
  • Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1984. Print.
  • Sernett, Milton C. North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2002. Print.
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