Letters from the Pottsville Freedmen’s School in Tennessee – May 1867

This is part of a series of posts on the Pottsville Freedmen’s School in Murfreesboro, TN. You can find all the posts here. 

As temperatures began to rise, the two young teachers working at the Pottsville Freedmen’s School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee prepared their students for the end of the school’s first term. The two teachers from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania had been teaching in this school for formerly enslaved children and adults for several months, with some notable successes. The school was located in the heartland of the former Confederacy, close to a battlefield where Union and Confederate forces clashed five years earlier.

In the following letters, Hannah Streeper and Fannie Couch each detail their teaching efforts and preparations they were making to close the school for the summer months. Streeper’s letter provides first-hand details of her students and a fascinating description of the school’s field trip to the Stones River battlefield and military cemetery.

From the Miners’ Journal, June 15, 1867.

Murfreesboro, May 29, 1867

To Mr. J.A.M. Passmore, Secretary of Committee of Pennsylvania Branch of American Freedmen’s Union Commission.

Sir:

As the time has come when it is necessary for me again to write you of the condition of our school, I will begin by saying that we have had no reason to change our minds with regard to the ability of colored children to learn.

The number attending school at present is more than one hundred, and the daily average attendance is 68. The progress of those who attend regularly is quite satisfactory, but several of the larger scholars can only come a day now and then, when the weather is such that they cannot work in the fields; so that cotton and corn interfere very materially with our work in the school-room.

I have one pupil 23-years-old, whose home is in Kentucky. She came to Murfreesboro last winter to visit her sister, intending to remain three weeks; but she commenced going to school, and being very anxious to learn, has prolonged her stay till the present.

One day she asked if the word taught ought not to be used instead of teached. After telling her that teached should not be used at all, and upon inquiring why she wished to know, she replied, “When I go home my friends will ask me where and how I learned so much, and I thought it would be better to say you taught me than teached me.”

At another time while explaining a word in the reading lesson, one boy said, “We never knew anything about such words when we were slaves.” Well, Ned, I replied, now that you are free, you ought to feel thankful that you have the opportunity of going to school, and should improve your time, and learn all you possibly can. “O!” said he, “I think I am getting on very well, or I would not be reading in Second Reader.”

Sometimes he says he wants to go home with us, and asks if we ever have any warm weather there.

A few weeks ago the colored schools here and some from Nashville, held a celebration in a grove near the Cemetery. Our school looked forward with fond anticipations to the day, and one little girl said to me as I passed by her seat, “mother says what ribbon must I wear tomorrow.”

The day was pleasant, and more than three thousand persons were present, and they seemed to feel that they were having a grand time. Before 5 o’clock, nearly all had left the grounds, without a disturbance of any kind having occurred during the entire day.

The Saturday previous, we visited Stone River battle ground and Cemetery. The Cemetery presents a neat appearance. Five thousand Union soldiers are interred within its limits. All the graves are nicely sodded and made the same size, so that the headboards are in a straight line from one street to another. A large number of them are marked “unknown.”

A great many of the trees on the battleground were pierced with balls, and some had their tops cut off. There were no balls however, to be found in them when we were there, as persons who had visited the spot before us, had secured them. I forgot to mention that the Cemetery is three miles from Murfreesboro.

The pikes leading form the city are in good condition, but there are very few trees, walking along them is by no means pleasant in warm weather, and so we have been compelled to discontinue our long walks on Saturday.

Several weeks ago, as we were walking out on the Salem pike, we saw some cabins a short distance from the road, and concluded that we would go to them and inquire if any of our scholars lived there. A colored woman was sweeping before the door of one of these and upon our remarking to her that we thought she had a very nice garden, she replied “O! yes, we want to be a little like ‘folks.”

A lady who has resided in the South for 15 years said a few days ago, that the improvement of the colored people, especially in morals, was far greater than she had even hoped for.

The schools will close in two weeks, and we are now anxiously awaiting the arrival of our transportation papers. Some of the teachers have already learned that they are to go by way of Chattanooga and Washington, and we are hoping that we can go the same route, as we wish very much to visit Lookout Mountain.

Very respectfully,

H.M.S.

Stones River National Cemetery 1867
Stones River National Cemetery in 1867. This is exactly how the cemetery looked when the teachers and students of the Pottsville Freedmen’s School visited the battlefield in May 1867. (Library of Congress)

Murfreesboro, Tenn., May 30, 1867

Mr. J.A.M. Passmore, Secretary of Pottsville Committee, etc.

Sir:

We are to receive our transportation papers soon; schools to close week after next. Permission has been given to close on the 12th prox. that we may start that week; we would much prefer teaching the whole of that week, and starting early in the following week, but we must do as do the rest in this matter.

It occurs to my mind that you may desire to know whether our interest in the work in which we are engaged has, in a measure, abated; I can assure you that it has not; on the contrary it has continued to increase; and this I learn has been the case with most of those who have entered into the work.

I am not only willing but would prefer to return to the work another term, if my services are desired. Miss S. feels the same interest, and has the same desire, provided all is well at home. When the autumn work is over – the cotton attended to, more of the pupils are of course at liberty to attend regularly.

Respectfully,

F.A. Couch

The Miners’ Journal noted that the teachers returned home to Pottsville in July 1867 from their first teaching stint in Tennessee. They were enthusiastic to return to their students for the fall term.

Social - Freedmen Teachers
A Freedmen’s school very similar to the one operated by the Pottsville Freedmen’s Relief Association in Murfreesboro, TN. (LOC)

From the Miners’ Journal,  July 13, 1867

We are pleased to notice that Misses Streeper and Couch, teachers of the Pottsville Freedmen’s School at Murfreesboro, Tenn., have returned home to spend vacation. These young ladies seem very much interested in the good work in which they are engaged. They will return about the 1st of September.

The Association under whose auspices they are laboring, fully appreciate the earnest and efficient labors of these ladies, and from what we have heard, we are free to say that the Pottsville Freedmen’s School stands second to none in the South; and we sincerely hope the citizens will come forward with their contributions cheerfully, viewing with each other in their promptness to pay up their subscriptions.

We speak for the gentlemen of the Committee, that they are willing to do all in their power to push this matter along; but it would be much more pleasant to have subscribers pay over their subscriptions without having to be called on several times.

As the note discusses, fundraising for the school had become an issue. That concern later plagued the Pottsville Freedmen’s School when Streeper and Couch returned to Murfreesboro for the fall term in September 1867.


Featured Image: A Freedmen’s School in Tennessee.

Read more of our series on the Pottsville Freedmen’s Relief Association


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