Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Daniel Feller

Committee Members

Stephen V. Ash, Ernest Freeberg


This thesis explores the ways communities of ex-slaves and free blacks in Appalachian Tennessee mobilized to build schools in the five years after the Civil War. Historians have long asserted that black schools were central institutions in the movement by Southern blacks to create an autonomous culture following the Civil War. And scholars have traditionally used the creation of cultural institutions (such as schools) to demonstrate the collective efforts by freedpeople in their pursuit of common aspirations. But the question remains what the school-building process can tell historians about how freedpeople understood themselves and their communities within local, regional, state, and national contexts. The school-building process is here used as a lens into the power structure of black communities and their relationships with the Freedmen‟s Bureau, northern aid groups and missionary societies, native white Radicals, and themselves. Appalachian freedpeople did indeed find strength in their commitments to kith and kin, in the creation of civil self-help groups, and in religious fervor, and they used such obligations to erect schoolhouses and hire teachers independent of any external aid. Just as often, however, rampant poverty and limited resources required that they appeal to external aid groups for assistance. The paternalism of northern aid groups clashed with the self-determinism of freedpeople and prevented either side from dictating the terms of their relationship to the other. The resulting school-building negotiations underscored their attempts to find mutually accommodating solutions. While some of these extended conversations engendered ready solutions, in other instances conflicting black agendas and competing definitions of black self-determinism factionalized black communities. School-building was ultimately a highly politicized exercise in which freedpeople constructed grassroots political allegiances that often reflected their larger political ideology.

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