Founded after the Civil War, Our Young Folks printed a number of pieces featuring African-Americans. Six were by “Elizabeth Kilham,” the pen name of a young woman who taught freed slaves and wrote for a number of periodicals. Her pieces, according to an editor of Our Young Folks, “were written from her own observation and experience.” [Nov 1871; p. 701] “Freed Children in Washington” features Kilham’s usual mixture of admiration and condescension, as she quotes liberally and literally from the newly tutored writings of her students and also describes the racism of the whites around them, who stone the students and pour water on them as they go to school on cold winter days. Kilham trots the reader through emotions common to 19th-century works: humor, inspiration, pathos. The humor comes from the African-American students; the pathos from the image of a disabled child dead on a beautiful spring morning. The graphic description of the inadequate classroom in 1864 probably was intended to inspire sympathy among her readers—and perhaps to show readers role models of perseverance.
“Freed Children in Washington,” by “Elizabeth Kilham” (from Our Young Folks, November 1871, pp. 659-663)

I used to wonder sometimes what Northern children would think or say or do, if they were introduced to schoolrooms such as were at first provided for the freedmen, and requested to study with the help of what the colored children, who had never seen a school and knew nothing of what should be there, called “a right smart o’ books an’ slates.” They would certainly have felt as if they had gone a long way back towards the “dark ages.” The rooms were usually in an old barrack, or soldier’s hospital, or the basement of a dilapidated church; floors broken, some of the windows gone, roof leaky, so that in stormy weather the children huddled in “awkward squads,” anywhere and anyhow to keep dry, and “ran between the drops” going to and from class; no desks, a few benches,—so few that not more than half the scholars had seats; the rest squatted cross-legged on the floor, or perched on the window-sills, or leaned against the wall; no maps, no charts, no blackboards; sometimes in a whole class not two books alike. And in this way the freed children tried to “git some larning’,” and succeeded too.

Nothing better than this in Washington? No, for a long time nothing better than just this. But this was seven years ago. Now the colored people’s school-houses are among the finest in the city,—brick buildings arranged as nearly as possible like the Boston schools, and with every convencience.

They were queer enough, those first schools. Everybody wanted to come, and we could not make the older people understand that they were intended

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only for the children. So gray-headed men and women came, and pored over the primer through their spectacles. Parents and children studied together from the same book; for old and young alike had to “begin at the beginning,” and learn their letters, or, as they called it, their A B C’s. We would sometimes ask of new-comers who had mastered the alphabet, “Do you know your letters?” and invariably they would answer, “No, ma’am, dunno dat ar, but knows my A B C’s.” Soldiers came in when they were “off guard,” to “read a verse.” Patients from the hospital came in their gray knit dressing-gowns. Women came with their babies; and while they studied their lesson let the youngsters chew the corner of the book to keep them quiet. A man would come in, and, putting down an axe or a saw by the door, say that he “jes’ come in fer a few minutes ter git a lesson, an’ would de lady be so kin’ jes’ ter show him how ter cut his name on a slate.” That was their expression for writing.

Then once in a while there would be a regular stampede. A bugle would sound, and the soldiers would start up and march out with military step, their heavy tread shaking the building. The hospital bell would ring, and away the gray dressing-gowns would go, flapping and fluttering like a flock of turkeys, perhaps in the middle of a lesson. Or a baby would cry, and the mother would have to drop her book and carry it home. Sometimes there were so many babies that the room looked more like a nursery than a school. Children who had little ones left in their charge while their parents were at work brought them to school rather than stay away themselves. Two or three came regularly with a baby and a cup of hominy. They would roll the baby in a shawl and lay it on the floor, and once in a while take it up and feed it with hominy, giving it an occasional shake to make it swallow faster.

You wonder they could learn anything in such a place, amid so much confusion and irregularity. “Where there ’s a will there ’s a way.” These children had the will, and it was wonderful what they accomplished. They had a great deal to discourage them too. During one winter half a dozen young men assembled regularly every afternoon near one of the school-houses at the hour for dismissal, and stoned the children as they came out. One day a little boy was struck on the ankle, and fell to the ground severely hurt. His companion took up a stone to throw back. But the little fellow caught his arm and took the stone away, saying, “Don’t do that. It won’t cure my ankle; besides, I don’t believe they know any better.” Near another school lived a woman who used regularly to watch for the colored children passing, and pour water on them from the window; and they would come into school on a cold winter’s day drenched to the skin.

As soon as the children had learned to write a little they developed a perfect passion for writing letters to their teachers. They frequently took this method of making known their wants. The usual plan was to write the letter on their slates with their lesson, to make sure of its being noticed. I once returned a slate rather hastily, after looking at the

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figures, and the owner, a boy, handed it back, remarking, “Dar ’s a letter un’erneaf.” And I read:—

Mi dear teacher i luv you pleese give me A pare of pancks.”

He had been overlooked in the distribution of clothing, and this was to remind me of the fact. Whatever this epistle lacks, it certainly possesses the rare merit of being short and to the point. In the school at Arlington, a few miles out of Washington, the teacher one day requested each of her pupils to write her a letter, telling what they intended to do or be when they became men and women. A boy handed in this:—

My dear teacher, You ask me to tell you what I intend to be when I am grown up. I have not quite made up my mind, but I think I had rather be either a lawyer or a President, for I think they are both very useful trades. Please give me your advice which I had better choose.”

But their special delight was in sending valentines, or rather giving them; for they had no idea of remaining “unhonored and unknown” in thus testifying their admiration; and used to bring them to school, and hand them to us in person. Among others I received this. Whether the sentiment was original, I cannot say. The spelling and disposition of capitals assuredly was.

“as The grass grows Around The stump

i Chuse you fore My Sugar lump.

and as The grape Hangs on The vine

Chuse you fore My valentine.”

In Washington I met with the only colored child I ever saw who really could not learn. He was bright enough about work or play, but seemed absolutely incapable of learning of learning anything in school. Having tried every way to teach him his letters, without success, I asked one day if he would not like to learn to spell his name. He said “yes,” and seemed to brighten up a little. So I printed on his slate a big B, then an I, and so on, till he had Billy before him. After working several days with this, I said, “Now can’t you spell Billy, and point to the letters?”

“Yaasm.” But with no attempt to do it.

“Well,” I said, “let me hear you. Spell Billy.”

“T-h-e, Billy.”

Finding that this result of a month’s teaching was not entirely satisfactory, he thought awhile, then said, “Kin spell it ’noder way.”

“Well, try once more. Now call each letter as I point to it.”

“H-a-m, Billy.”

This final effort not being received with the unmixed approbation that Billy considered his due, he gave up in disgust, shook the dust of the schoolroom from his feet, and a few days afterwards hailed me from a dirt-cart, which he was driving at break-neck speed down Pennsylvania Avenue. Pulling his horse up with a jerk, which, if it did not dislocate the animal’s neck, was sufficient to have done so, he shouted to me, attracting the attention of all the passers-by.

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“Ain’t gwine ter school no mo’. Don’ like it. Likes dis yer heap better. But kin spell Billy now. T-h-e, Billy. Comin’ ter see yer some day. Git up.”

And the cart rattled down the street, with Billy triumphantly erect; the rags of his jacket and the rim of his hat flapping in time with the motion.

We had some comical times in our first Sunday school. The children could not understand how a Sunday school differed from any other; and the first Sunday they brought their slates, and wanted to have copies set, and to “do sums.” There was one boy who was always asking questions; queer questions they were too. I used to wish sometimes that I could take the top of his head off for a minute and look inside, to see what kind of a brain it was that thought of such things. One Sunday the lesson was upon the Creation. He raised his hand to signify that he wanted to ask a question. “Well, what is it?”

“Yer say dar war on’y one man den?”

“Yes, there was only one man.”

“Dar warn’t no oder man, no place, nowhars?”

“No, there was no other man on the earth.”

“Den ef dar wor on’y one man, an’ dat ar man want ter sell a cow, I jes’ like ter know how he gwine do it.”

Some picture cards were sent to the school, and the children were told that every one who would learn a verse and repeat it the next Sunday, should have one. Among the boys was one who rejoiced in the name of Thomas Abraham Lincoln Johnson; or, as he pronounced it, “Tum’s Ab’um Link-tum Jawnson.” When the superintendent asked how many had verses to repeat several hands went up, but Thomas Abraham Lincoln succeeded in making himself particularly conspicuous, and was called upon first. He marched up to the platform, and straightening himself up, repeated slowly, emphasizing every word,—

“Great news is come ter town, great news is carried,

Great news is come ter town, John Jones is married.

Fus’ he buyed a hom’ny pot, an’ den he buyed a ladle,

An’ den he buyed a cookin’-stove, an’ den he buyed a table.”

And amid the murmured applause of the children, who seemed to regard this as a most touching and appropriate selection, Thomas Abraham Lincoln retired to his seat, with the air of a “conquering hero.”

One day a number of new scholars came in, among them a boy about fourteen, who carried a heavy walking-stick. I dispensed of the others, and came to him last, asking the usual question, “Can you read?”

He turned to me with an expression I shall never forget, and said, “You see de trouble is, it ’s pleased de Lord ter make me blind. So I can’t larn like de oder chillens; but I jes’ listens ter dem, an’ larns dat way; and’ I ’se mighty apt at larnin’ too.”

I asked if he had always been blind.

“Yes,” he said, “but I shall have my sight by and by.”

“How do you know that?”

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“ ’Kase one night I wor a prayin’ ter de Lord ter gib me my sight; an’ he promise me dat ef I ’d sarve him good one year, he ’d gib it ter me. I ’se been sarvin’ him jes’ as good as I knows, an’ I know he ’ll gib it ter me; fer he allus does jes’ what he say.”

He lived fully half a mile from the school; but every day that winter, through snow and rain and mud, he came, feeling the way with his stick; and then he sat with eager face, drinking in every word; and at recess would repeat everything he had heard during the morning. Sometimes when the children did not behave very well he would say to them, “Ef yer could jes’ be like me for a while, so yer could n’t see ter larn, yer ’d nebber do dat way ’gin.”

A lady wrote to some friends in Massachusetts, who kindly sent him a complete suit of clothes, including overcoat, cap, and mittens; and a happier boy than blind Billy when he received them, it would be hard to find. “Tell ’em,” he said, “dat when I git my sight, I ’ll come ter see ’em.” What this idea of having his sight was, or how he came by it, we could not tell; but he looked for it certainly at the end of the year.

After a while we missed him from school; and the matron of the orphan asylum, where he had been placed, sent us word that he was sick. “Not very sick,” she said, when we went to see him; “only weakly like. The doctor could n’t seem to tell just what did ail him.”

Every time we saw him he was a little thinner and a little weaker. At last, one bright spring day, when the first violets were in bloom, we went once more; but no pleasant voice greeted us, and no welcoming hand was stretched out from the little white bed, where Billy lay, very, very quiet, with a smile upon his face. “He lay just so, when I found him this morning,” the matron said through her tears.

The year was up, and Blind Billy had “got his sight.” His eyes “saw the King in his beauty.”

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