Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association from Reconstruction through Civil Rights

Paul Harvey

We've had a number of posts here in the past where folks have reflected on their experiences researching in various archives. One of my most enjoyable was a couple of weeks years ago at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane, where I dipped a bit into the massive archives of the American Missionary Association, the Congregationalist enterprise which after the Civil War was heavily involved in education for the freedpeople. At the time of this research, I was thinking of a good deal of the literature on postwar black education, leading to "industrial" schools; that literature focused on missionary paternalism. The postwar letters I read in the AMA archives gave me a much more sympathetic view.

The scholar Joe Martin Richardson has spent a career going through the entire AMA archives. In 1986, he published the first of his two volumes on the subject of the AMA and black education after the war, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890. I used that book extensively in my own work. It's the kind of meticulous, old-fashioned scholarship that we sometimes ignore as it generates little or no "buzz," but we all use in our own work, because we appreciate it when people have logged in the butt time at the archives, going through all those scrawled letters and slowly composing a portrait of the people who left those records.

Most recently, and just reviewed at H-Education and H-Law, Richardson has teamed with another scholar for a sequel. At H-Law, Adam Laats reviews Joe Martin Richardson and Maxine Deloris Jones, Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association and African Americans, 1890 to the Civil Rights Movement (University of Alabama Press, 2009).

Laats writes:

A first read through the leading works of educational history could leave students with a decidedly negative image of what might be called the missionary tradition in U.S. education. Books such as James Anderson's _Education of Blacks in the South_ (1988) and David Wallace Adams's _Education for Extinction_ (1995) paint a convincingly dark portrait of missionary educators. Ignorant and condescending at best, aggressively genocidal at worst, these well-intentioned busybodies come off as a lesson for today's teachers of what _not _to do. Joe M. Richardson and Maxine D. Jones offer another perspective in _Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association and African Americans, 1890 to the Civil Rights Movement_. The book picks up where Richardson's _Christian Reconstruction_ (1986) left off. Like Richardson's earlier work, it is notably sympathetic to the black and white educators behind the American Missionary Association's (AMA) long career in African American education.

The reviewer continues:

By the time Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, the AMA had decisively changed its approach to African American education in the South. In 1942 it officially shifted its focus to its colleges and its civil rights activism. That activism, centered in a new Race Relations Department, became an important tool in the formation of the civil rights movement. For example, starting in 1944, the AMA hosted institutes at Fisk University that brought together church, labor, academic, and legal experts to discuss interracial democracy and activism. The institutes, as the authors describe them, tended to the dry, academic side. And, as the authors note, it can be difficult to assess the impact of such institutes on the fledgling civil rights movement. However, with hundreds of participants over the twenty-five years of their existence, including such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, it is not a stretch to assert, as the authors do, that these institutes contributed a great deal to the developing ideology of the movement. If nothing else, as Richardson and Jones argue, bringing together a group of white and black men and women for weeks of living, eating, and working together in an aggressively white supremacist southern city made an important statement.

Read the rest here.


Joshua Paddison said…
I can also attest that the AMA archives are amazingly rich and well-indexed!
Joshua Paddison said…
I can also attest that the AMA archives are amazingly rich and well-indexed!
Anonymous said…
cool ... this will speak nicely to Ronald Butchard's new book on teachers in African American schools after the Civil War.

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