Monday, February 22, 2021

First school for freed slaves

‘We heard him with amazement and disgust that grew more and more apparent, and when he said he had had a negro whipped, Ellen and I rose and left the table.’ This is Laura Matilda Towne, daughter of a well-to-do Pittsburgh family, who spent most of her adult life on the Sea Island of St Helena administering - by setting up a school and nursing - to the needs of slaves freed in the Civil War. She died 120 years today, but soon after her diaries and letters were published and these provide a first hand account of her passionate abolitionist views and actions.

Towne was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1825. She was the fourth child of John and Sarah Robinson Towne. Her father came from Topsfield, Massachusetts, her mother from Coventry, England. Her mother died when she was quite young, and John Towne went back to Boston, where his children were educated. Later the family moved to Philadelphia, where the oldest son had settled. There they developed a growing commitment to the idea of abolishing negro slavery, partly as a consequence of the fiery sermons by William Henry Furness, minister of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. She studied homeopathic medicine and probably attended the short-lived Penn Medical University. She taught in charity schools in various northern towns and cities in the 1850s and 1860s.

Early in 1862, Towne responded to a call for volunteers to help a large population of former slaves who had been liberated in the Union capture of Port Royal and others of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Soon after arriving on St Helena Island she was teaching, nursing, and helping to direct the distribution of clothing and other goods. By September, she and her friend Ellen Murray had established the Penn School (which proved to be the first school founded in the Southern United States specifically for the education of African-Americans). Subsequently, it also offered training for future teachers. Apart from her voluntary work running the school, Towne also served as a public health office, legal adviser and a children’s advocate. She lived on the island, with Murray, for 40 years, though her final years were marred by recurring bouts of malaria. She died of influenza on 22 February 1901. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the South Carolina Encylopedia.

Once relocated to St Helena, Towne was an avid writer, of letters and a diary. Extracts from the diary along with her letters were edited together, by Rupert Sargent Holland, into chronological order and published by Cambridge in 1912 as Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina 1862-1884. The work is freely available online at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts.

23 May 1862
‘Ellen is coming at last. I felt sure no one could stop her. Mr. McKim is also to come as Philadelphia agent, and I am free.

We have been for three days going to various plantations, once to Mr. Zacha’s at Paris Island, once to Mrs. Mary Jenkins’, Mr. Wells’ and to Edgar Fripp’s, or to Frogmore, Mr. Saulis’; also to Edding’s Point and one other place. At the three places of Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Fripp, and Edding, the wretched hovels with their wooden chimneys and the general squalor showed the former misery. One woman said the differences in the times were as great as if God had sent another Moses and a great deliverance - that it was heaven upon earth and earth in heaven now. They all seemed to love Mr. Wells. We saw there one woman whose two children had been whipped to death, and Mr. Wells said there was not one who was not marked up with welts. He had the old whip which had a ball at the end, and he had seen the healed marks of this ball on their flesh - the square welts showed where it had taken the flesh clean out. Loretta of this place showed me her back and arms to-day. In many places there were ridges as high and long as my little finger, and she said she had had four babies killed within her by whipping, one of which had its eye cut out, another its arm broken, and the others with marks of the lash. She says it was because even while “heaviest” she was required to do as much as usual for a field hand, and not being able, and being also rather apt to resist, and rather smart in speaking her mind, poor thing, she has suffered; and no wonder Grace, her child, is of the lowest type; no wonder she is more indifferent about her clothes and house than any one here. She says this was the crudest place she was ever in.

The happiest family I know here is old Aunt Bess’s Minda and Jerry and herself. They are always joking and jolly but very gentle. When I go there at night to dress Bess’s foot I find her lying upon her heap of rags with the roaches running all over her and little Leah or some small child asleep beside her. Jerry got me some of the pine sticks they use for candles. They hold one for me while I dress the foot.

It is very interesting to observe how the negroes watch us for fear we shall go away. They are in constant dread of it and we cannot be absent a single day without anxiety on their part. It is very touching to hear their entreaties to us to stay, and their anxious questions. They have a horrible dread of their masters’ re-turn, especially here where Massa Dan’l’s name is a terror.

They appreciate the cheapness of our goods and especially of the sugar at the Overseer house, and are beginning to distrust the cotton agents who have charged them so wickedly.

The scenes in the cotton-house used to be very funny. Miss W. would say to some discontented purchaser who was demurring at the price of some article, “Well, now, I don’t want to sell this. I believe I won’t sell it to-day. But if you want to take it very much at a dollar and a half, you may have it. Oh, you don’t? Well, then, I can’t sell you anything. No, you can’t have anything. We are doing the best we can for you and you are not satisfied; you won’t be contented. Just go - go now, please. We want all the room and air we can get. You don’t want to buy and why do you stay? No, I shall not let you have anything but that. I don't want to sell it, but you may have it for a dollar and a half,” etc., etc.

This is one of many real scenes. The people are eager, crazy to buy, for they are afraid of their money, it being paper, and besides, they need clothes and see finer things than ever in their lives before. Except when they are excited they are very polite, always saying “Missus” to us, and “Sir” to one another. The children say, “ Good-mornin’, ma’am,” whenever they see us first in the day, and once I overheard two girls talking just after they had greeted me. One said, “I say good-mornin’ to my young missus [Miss Pope] and she say, I slap your mouth for your impudence, you nigger.’ ” I have heard other stories that tell tales.

The white folks used to have no cooking-utensils of their own here. They came and required certain things. The cooks hunted among the huts and borrowed what they needed till the family went away, of course straining every nerve to get such cooking as should please. “I would do anything for my massa,” Susannah says, “if he would n’t whip me.”

On May 7, as Mr. Pierce stepped off the boat at Hilton Head and walked up the pier, a Mr. Nobles, chief of the cotton agents here, came forward saying that he had a letter for him. Then he struck him upon the head, felled him, and beat him, saying that Mr. P. had reported him to the Secretary of the Treasury and had got a saddle and bridle of his. Mr. Pierce got up with difficulty and took only a defensive part. Some soldiers took Mr. Nobles off. Mr. Pierce had really mentioned this man and his agents, which was his duty as guardian of these people, for they were imposing upon the negroes shamefully. They, of course, hate this whole Society of Superintendents, etc., who will not see the negroes wronged. So Mr. P. has had his touch of martyrdom.

The Philadelphia consignment of goods - in all $2000 worth - would have done immense good if it had come in season. The people of these islands, whom Government does not ration (because there is corn here) had nothing but hominy to eat, were naked, were put to work at cotton, which they hated, as being nothing in their own pockets and all profit to the superintendent, who they could not be sure were not only another set of cotton agents or cotton planters; and so discontent and trouble arose. Mr. Pierce said to them that they should be fed, clothed, and paid, but they waited and waited in vain, trusting at first to promises and then beginning to distrust such men as were least friendly to them.

The first rations of pork - “splendid bacon,” everybody says - was dealt out the other day and there has been great joy ever since, or great content. If this had only come when first ordered there would have been this goodwill and trust from the first. They even allow the removal of the corn from one plantation to another now without murmuring, and that they were very much opposed to before.’

18 June 1862
‘Ellen had her first adult school to-day, in the back room - nine scholars. I assisted.

The girls were much interested in seeing the people come, with their flat baskets on their heads, to the corn-house, to “take allowance,” and then sit down in the sand, and old and young fall to shelling the corn from the cob with a speed that was marvellous, the little babies toddling about or slung on the backs of their mammies, or lugged about by the older sisters, not able to stand straight under their weight. It was very picturesque.’

22 July 1862
‘Our guns have come! Captain Thorndyke brought over twenty and gave Nelly instructions. Commodore Du Pont was here this afternoon. The people came running to the school-room - “Oh, Miss Ellen, de gunboat come!” I believe they thought we were to be shelled out. Ellen, Nelly, and I went down to the bluff and there lay a steamboat in front of Rina’s house, and a gig was putting off with flag flying and oars in time. Presently a very imposing uniformed party landed, and, coming up the bluff, Commodore Du Pont introduced himself and staff. We invited him in. He said he had come to explore the creek and to see a plantation. They stayed only about ten minutes, were very agreeable and took leave. Commodore Du Pont is a very large and fine- looking man. He invited us all to visit the Wabash and seemed really to wish it.’

31 August 1862
‘Aunt Phyllis wanted to go to church and is too feeble to walk, so Captain Hooper, aide-de-camp to General Saxton, gave her his seat in the carriage and jumped on behind himself. Harry stopped the horses. “Massa, my massa, don’t do dat!” he pleaded. Then he scolded and begged, and begged and scolded, while Aunt Phyllis sat still, saying she never rode in a “cheer” before. Captain Hooper was obdurate, and Harry had to drive on in deep dejection of mind and mortification of spirit.

To-night a Mr. Simmons, I think, who had been fighting in the Southern army upon compulsion, and who now belongs to the Maine regiment here, talked of his experiences when fighting his country. We heard him with amazement and disgust that grew more and more apparent, and when he said he had had a negro whipped, Ellen and I rose and left the table.’

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