Sitting in Darkness:  New South Fiction, Education,

And the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920

by Peter Schmidt

Complete Notes and Discussion for Chapter One

(Child, Griest, Woolman)

Supplementing the print edition of this book


1.  Quoted from the Land Ordinance of 1785, passed by the Continental Congress.  Of course, the Ordinance’s Euclidean vision of property grids and schoolhouses was one thing, the reality that followed it another.  For an excellent brief discussion of this piece of legislation as an Enlightenment prototype for the ordering of a continent, see Michael Gilmore, Surface and Depth: The Quest for Legibility in American Culture 24-25.  Also relevant is Richard Brown’s The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870. For general background and the text of the Morrill Act, see [.]  Although the “land grant schools” began as agricultural and mechanical colleges, many grew into state universities with liberal arts and science curriculums, including some instruction in civics and history.   In the South after the war such schools were founded too, but with primarily private sources of funding, such as missionary societies and ex-slaves, not government sale of land.  Eric Foner’s otherwise detailed history is unaccountably vague regarding the ironic contrasts between the Morrill Act and the Homestead Act and Reconstruction’s methods and results, but see his suggestive points in Reconstruction (21 and 246) regarding how Congress was leery of confiscating land from white but not Indian slave-holders.  For a detailed history of non-military legislation passed during the First Civil War Congress, see Curry.  One of the more compelling recent histories of the role blacks played in setting up a public school system in the postwar South is my colleague Allison Dorsey’s To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906, especially Chapter Four.  The Emily Dickinson poem quoted in my final paragraph is #657.

2.  For a helpful anthology of recent scholarship on Reconstruction, see The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations, Cimbala and Miller, eds.  My brief synopsis also draws on W. E. B. Du Bois; John Hope Franklin; George Bentley; Eric Foner; Ronald Butchart; and James C. Anderson, among others.  For the specific figures cited involving the number of schools created, see Foner, Reconstruction 144; and Bentley 176.

3.  For an earlier study of postwar Southern schools, see Du Bois’ chapter XV in Black Reconstruction, 637-69, where unlike Franklin he argues that the majority of whites regardless of class either opposed or were indifferent to establishing public school systems in the South. Regarding the contentious matter of integrated vs. separate schools, Franklin notes that blacks in general were in favor of integrated schools mostly because with a segregated school system they feared that the school taxes they paid would not be fairly allocated toward black students.  Foner also emphasizes blacks’ practicality on this issue:  “Black parents appeared mainly concerned with ensuring an equitable division of school funds,” and “Generally, black politicians [during Reconstruction] acquiesced when officials established separate schools,” even in Mississippi and South Carolina where blacks had control of many school boards (367).  Blacks uniformly resisted establishing language in the Reconstruction state constitutions that required racial segregation in schools, and were canny enough to know that the possibility of integration could be used to force some states and local school boards to ensure that blacks had good schools built for them (Foner 321-22).  Schools tended to be integrated (and then, only here and there) solely in Louisiana and South Carolina, both of which had a greater percentage of blacks who had been free before the War in the new legislatures and on school boards.  For an excellent brief summary of all these issues with particular focus on how one such school influenced an important American writer, see Richard Brodhead, “Introduction” to The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt.

4.  My generalizations in the introductory paragraphs of Chapter One summarize the work of the many historians cited in the text, but see in particular Charles Anderson, chapters five and six.  Anderson and Dorsey, among others, give numerous  examples of the black majority wanting an ambitious and extensive curriculum giving solid preparation in math, reading, writing, civics, history, and other subjects—not merely a few years of schooling that would leave black students barely literate, ignorant in American history, or unable to do arithmetic.  Ex-slaves well understood the importance of economic independence, but their experience also led them to stress education’s central role in creating citizens who understood that the responsibilities of freedom were far more than economic.  For these reasons, for the vast majority nothing less than a network of elementary and secondary public schools for all would do.

5.  Child’s career has attracted fine new historicist scholarship in recent years, and Romance of the Republic has received invigorating readings by Carolyn Karcher, Bruce Mills (132-40), Shirley Samuels, and Dana Nelson, among others.  For a succinct discussion of critical trends regarding Child’s novel, see Dana Nelson’s introductory essay to the paperback edition of Romance, especially notes 7-9.  See also Karcher’s invaluable A Lydia Maria Child Reader.  For discussions of the generic conventions of the “romance” narrative, including nineteenth-century U.S. popular fiction, see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism 186-206; Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction; and Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs.

6.  One invaluable recent discussion of the disciplinary restrictions placed on freedom as represented in Reconstruction-era Freeman advice tracts and other texts, see Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, Chapter Five, “Fashioning Obligation,” which also includes an extensive reading of the Helen Brown novel John Freeman and His Family Scene (1864) that was a predecessor to Child’s.

7.  Griest’s John and Mary; or, The Fugitive Slaves was only briefly in print, but is one of the many texts about the South that have been digitally scanned and made available to all via the invaluable Documenting the American South website.  For Griest’s novel, see

8.  Thanks to Christopher Densmore, head of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and John Ward Willson Loose of Millersville University and the Lancaster County Historical Society, for valuable help with Ellwood Griest’s life and historical context.  Neither are responsible for any errors in my discussion.

9.  All illustrations included in this chapter are taken from the anonymous Harper’s “On Negro Schools” article, September 1874.  For overviews of the history of Reconstruction and postwar black schools, see Franklin; Foner; Stampp and Litwack; Morris, Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction; Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South; and the PBS documentary The American Experience: Reconstruction (2004) and its accompanying website, especially the Access to Learning materials: [.]   The Digital History website also has excellent introductory materials on Reconstruction, including education issues:  see [.]  The benchmark discussions of the rise of the New South on which I have most relied are Woodward’s Origins of the New South; Gaston’s The New SouthCreed; and Ayers’ The Promise of the New South.  I focus on fictional narratives depicting black schools rather than Southern schools in general because I found far fewer fictional narratives depicting whites in school.  Whether a wider investigation would support the contrast I found and, if so, why white schools were a less interesting topic for fiction writers are questions worth more investigation—particularly because improving education for whites was a key element in New South reforms.  Any such broader study might begin with George Washington Cable, who crusaded throughout the postwar period for public schooling for all and made such a topic a central theme in his novel John March, Southerner (1895), and Walter Hines Pages’ The Southerner:  Being the Autobiography of “Nicholas Worth” (1907).

10.  For a history of the fate of the Fourteenth Amendment, see Epps.  Useful discussions of the relevance of arguments of the Plessy v. Ferguson and related cases for literary history are in Sundquist, To Wake the Nations 225-70; Michaels, “The Souls of White Folk,” Pamplin, Fleischmann, Foreman, and especially three essays by Brook Thomas.

11. I thank Mark James Noonan for the Russell reference and for his expert analysis of plantation myth poetry and fiction, which I saw in draft form while working on this book.  My summary of the role the national monthly magazines played in courting Southern authors and participating in the shift in public opinion about Reconstruction is indebted in particular to Hubbell (726-33) and Noonan.  Another indispensable source for the analysis here is MacKethan, “Plantation Fiction”; see also Schmidt, “Command Performances,” on plantation fiction conventions.  The Irwin Russell’s poem quoted is “Noverm People” (Scribner’s Monthly 13 [January 1877]: 430) and is well discussed by Noonan.

12.  For the Civil War in the U.S. national memory, see David Blight, Race and Reunion, especially Chapter 3, “Decoration Days,” 64-97; and Nina Silber’s Romance of Reunion.  Also relevant:  Charles Reagan Wilson’s Baptised in Blood, on the Lost Cause movement.   Oddly, Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” is ignored by both Silber and Blight: Silber does not mention it and Blight refers to it only in a footnote (444n21), even though both discuss the relevance of other authors to the history of postwar reunion.  For a fine overview of Woolson’s life and work, including the two stories I focus on, see Hubbell 735-37.  The Northern novelist John William De Forest published works immediately after the Civil War using marriage to imagine North/South healing, but De Forest could not express pathos nearly as well as Woolson or Page or Joel Chandler Harris and struck much less of a resonant national chord.  Blight is right to argue that the strength of De Forest’s writing lies in his battlefield realism, a forerunner of Stephen Crane’s.  For analyses of the role the postwar magazine revolution played, see Hubbell 726-733; and Mott.