On December 23, 1866, the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association held a meeting in Pottsville in an effort to convince local residents to support efforts to educate newly freed African Americans in the war-torn South.
By the end of the meeting, many of Pottsville’s most prominent residents were fully on board. They appointed a committee to manage a Schuylkill County Freedmen’s Relief Association and made available funds that would eventually establish a “Pottsville School” for Southern freedpeople. Two teachers – Fannie Couch and Hannah Streeper – volunteered to go south and open the school.
Efforts like this were going throughout the South in the wake of the Civil War. With the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was made illegal across the United States. Four million people became free, many had already sought refuge with Union forces during the war, but laws in the former Confederate states made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. With emancipation, education became a priority. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress to address many issues that came with the end of slavery, education being part of its mandate. But the need was so large that private efforts sponsored by Northern communities stepped in to assist.
A report about the meeting, the establishment of Pottsville’s relief efforts, and the purposes of educational efforts among black people in the South was published in the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Bulletin, a booklet published by the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association.
A meeting to organize a Branch of this Commission [Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association] was held at Pottsville, on Sunday afternoon, December 23 .
John Bannan, Esq., was called to the chair.
Rev. Mr. Cather made a few remarks, in which explained the workings of this Commission. Gen. R.D. Mussy, of Washington City, followed in an able address of an hour, in which he brought forward the claims of the Freedmen, and pressed them on the attention of the people of Pottsville.
Judge Pitkin, of New Orleans, spoke for a few minutes in his eloquent manner, and appealed to the people of Pottsville to take hold of this work of education, and prepare the Freedmen to be freemen, indeed. [emphasis in original] The meeting has resulted in the organization of an association auxiliary to this Commission, and the friends of the cause in Pottsville have now gone to work in earnest. The following committee has been appointed:
SOUTH WARD – Wm. R. Smith, James B. Beatty, J.A.M. Passmore.
S.E. WARD – P.W. Shaefer, Baird Snyder, C.J. Dobbins.
N.E. WARD – J.K. Sigfried, Z.P. Boyer, E.H. Burlingame.
N.W. WARD – W.D. Hodgson, Geo. W. Beck, W.E. Boyer.
MIDDLE WARD – Theo. Garretson, J.C. Harper, Jas. Wren.
On Monday the committee formed a joint organization, by appointing the following officers for 1867: – President John C. Harper; Secretary and Treasurer, J.A.M. Passmore.
The committee has been very fortunate in securing the services of two young ladies, Miss Fannie A. Couch, and Miss Hannah M. Streeper, who are now teaching in the public school at Pottsville, and have had the experience of some years in their work.
They go into this new field from a sense of duty, feeling a strong desire to do all in their power for the elevation of the unfortunate Freedmen of the South. We understand that sufficient funds have been collected for their support, and trust that the committee may be so encouraged in their good work that the “Pottsville School” will soon have a corps of four or five teachers…
It is earnestly to be hoped that our friends in other parts of the State, will likewise awaken to the claims of the freedmen, and assume a proportionate support of the teachers who enlist in the heroic cause of education.
Every town should sustain one or more teachers. God has thus sublimely challenged the strength and vitality of American religion by putting this need of the freedmen before our very doors and eyes. This need addresses us both as loyal and as Christian people. The former in promoting the reconstruction of the South, by making intelligence the very brain of that loyalty, which in the negro element of that section is as yet an instinct, rather than a cultivated principle. The latter, in advancing the cause which should lie nearest our hearts – the cause of religion.
We send missionaries abroad to a mental soil, choked with the rank weeds of barbarism, while here in our own national area, is a rich soil that can readily be tilled to ample harvests. If we have a prayer for the teachers who venture into a hostile section to enlighten the negro, we must, to be consistent, offer more that end. Let our people respond then promptly and generously. The cause which religion, justice, philanthropy and statesmanship accept as their own, is likewise ours; let us recognize it as such. The teacher that defies a morbid popular prejudice and foregoes many a comfort in the South to educate the blacks, lives a violent rebuke to those who are abundantly able, but will not interpret and perform their duty.
We would earnestly press upon the attention of all interested in the elevation of the Freedmen, that $50 per month will support a teacher in some of the schools already established in the South. Whenever this sum is guaranteed to the gentlemen of the Commission, they are enabled to take one step forward. In this work of educating the freed people of the South, they desire to be pioneers, founding schools, making arrangements of the comfort of the noble teachers, who certainly take upon themselves the heaviest part of this missionary labor, and then, having “made the rough places smooth,” advancing into untried fields, and leaving for those who are willing to bear the lightest share of the burden, that of carrying on schools already established and in admirable working order.
If this desire on the part of the Commission could only be met promptly, the wilderness would indeed soon “rejoice, and blossom like the rose.”
In early 1867, Couch and Streeper resigned their positions at the public school in Pottsville and headed south to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to establish the “Pottsville School.” Over the subsequent year, they sent back reports detailing their efforts among the freedpeople of Tennessee. We will explore their experiences in future posts.
This humanitarian effort performed by the people of Pottsville and Schuylkill County represented a major step in translating the area’s sacrifice during the Civil War – Schuylkill County supplied almost 13,000 men to the US Army – into action to help reconstruct the South. That effort, while ultimately doomed, gives us fascinating insights into the era known as Reconstruction.
Featured Image: A Freedmen’s school in Tennessee