Earliest Black School in Virginia?

old fashioned black and white women sewing
old quaker lady with bonnet
Elizabeth Janney (1802-1893) was a Quaker teacher who, along with her daughter, Cornelia, taught both black and white students in Lincoln, Virginia

Elizabeth Janney (1802-1893) wrote her husband from their home in the village of Goose Creek (renamed “Lincoln”) on September 27, 1853. Part of her letter states: “…Cornelia [daughter] desires me to say to thee that our school for the coloured children has been well attended since thy absence. Last first day [Sunday] morning they had one young man. I think there is an increasing interest felt in it by the coloured people. If they cannot make much progress in learning in the short time allotted them to study, if it only convinces them there are some white people who feel a disinterested desire to do them good, such efforts I think will have a good effect upon their minds.”

More information about Elizabeth Janney can be found here.

A couple of months after the end of the Civil War, Moses Watson, a supporter of the Confederacy and a non-Quaker living near the Quaker community of Lincoln, Virginia wrote about local Quakers opening a school for blacks (transcript below):

negro school reference on mill book page (1)
Moses Pascal Watson Day Book page mentioning “the first Negro School I have heard of being in Virginia.” Shown courtesy of Loudoun Museum, Leesburg, VA

“1865 Sunday June 25. The Contraband or Negro School Commenced at Goose Creek [Lincoln] this day Eliza Janney Samuel M. Janney Asa M. Janney and [Rodney] Davis is Teachers. This is the first Negro School I have heard of being in Virginia.”

Moses Watson’s mention of the June 1865 “Contraband or Negro School” as perhaps Virginia’s first school for Blacks hasn’t been verified, but the Lincoln school surely must be one of the state’s first. The pre-Civil War school of 1853 about which Elizabeth Janney wrote her husband is even more extraordinary, considering it would have been operating when teaching Blacks was against the law. (Following the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, a Virginia law was passed making it illegal to educate Blacks.)

Moses Watson mentions several people who ran the 1865 school: Eliza Janney was Elizabeth Janney’s daughter-in-law, Samuel M. Janney was Elizabeth’s husband. Asa M. Janney was Elizabeth’s brother-in-law. They all, along with Rodney Davis, were Quakers who attended Goose Creek Meeting. The community’s Black school was opened at a time when the Civil War, fought in the South to defend the practice of slavery, had just ended. In both the U.S. and the former Confederate states, racism was common. Elizabeth Janney and her family are reminders that, though imperfect, there were people who felt “a disinterested desire to do…good.”

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