Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Stephen V. Ash

Committee Members

Paul Bergeron, George White, Asafa Jalata


This dissertation explores one of the forgotten characters of Reconstruction and African American history: the black child. It begins with the experiences of young black Tennesseans during slavery and the Civil War. then examines their lives after freedom within and outside the family and schools, and ends with an account of their memory of Reconstruction.

During Reconstruction, black children's lives were affected daily by the ideological conflict among freedmen, white Southerners, Bureau agents, and Northern missionaries. By and large slave children had experienced a childhood-thanks to the efforts of slave parents in sustaining family bonds. Yet after the tumultuous change and violence of civil war they wondered what the future held for them. Although black parents struggled mightily after freedom to form secure and protective environments, many children could not live in the ideal nuclear family imagined by freedmen, agents, and missionaries, for defiant ex-Confederates and Conservatives, and even Bureau policies and bureaucratic red tape, prevented many from enjoying the benefits of a truly independent family. Apprenticeships with whites sometimes provided the best living conditions for orphans and for children of single mothers, who struggled to make ends meet. Many apprentices' lives were little different than in slavery, but now relied on the federal government to intervene on their behalf and learned values and trades in preparation for an independent adulthood. Sabbath schools, Bureau and missionary day schools, and the public schools provided the best preparation, however. Educators taught not only the three R's but the religious and Victorian values and civic duties they believed would make black children free.

Reconstruction was in many ways a continuation of the Civil War; black children were in the middle of this postwar ideological conflict, for what beliefs and practices the children adopted would determine, in part, the success or failure of Reconstruction. This first free generation of African Americans is thus an integral part not only of the Reconstruction story but also of the American experience.

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