Three Letters from a Teacher of the Freedmen, 1865-1866
By Sarah Jane Foster (1839-1868)
These letters by Baptist teacher Sarah Jane Foster to “The Zion Advocate,” a Baptist Missionary newspaper, are on microfilm at Colby College in Maine. Ms. Foster died of yellow fever while teaching freedmen in South Carolina. For more information on Ms. Foster, see “Sarah Jane Foster: Teacher of the Freedman, The Diary and Letters of a Maine Woman in the South After the Civil War,” Picton Press: Rockport, ME., 2001, Wayne E. Reilly editor. It is available at the Park Service Book Store at Harper’s Ferry – ED.
“Martinsburg, West Va., Nov. 27th, 1865 (Dec. '31)
“Dear Advocate: - It is now nearly two weeks since I left home to come here as Mission Teacher to the Freedmen. Quite unexpectedly to myself I met with two other teachers on the boat who were going, like myself, to report to Rev. N. C. Brackett at Harper's Ferry. There were also others, two going to Savannah and one returning to Wilmington, N.C. . . .
“Monday night, as was planned, we started for Baltimore. It was very dark and soon began to rain, but the lady's car was very comfortable and we slept as well as the conductor and the vendors of eggs, sandwiches and apples would permit. From three in the morning till past eight we had to wait in the Baltimore and Ohio depot. It was still raining when we left for Harper's Ferry, but even rain could not prevent us from enjoying the wild and romantic scenery along the route. That enjoyment reached its culmination when we arrived at Harper's Ferry.
“There Mr. Brackett met and welcomed us, conducting us at once to his domicile, an old Government building on Camp Hill. We were charmed with the view of Maryland and Loudon Heights, and the junction of the rivers below, especially as it ceased raining and the sun peeked out at us driving the mists, like stealthy creeping ghosts, off over the mountaintops. True, it soon clouded up again, and has been cold, raw and dull much of the time since, rather a cool welcome to the ‘Sunny South.’
“It was decided to send Miss Wright and me here, retaining for the present, Miss Dudley and Miss Gibbs at Harper's Ferry. The thought of being removed 20 miles from our new-found friends made us feel almost homesick, but we said not a word. Last Thursday we came here accompanied by Lieut. Smith, agent of the Bureau of this sub-district, and Mr. Brackett, our Superintendent. They found all things favorable, and decided that we should begin our labors today, which we accordingly have done.
“The colored people here have subscribed fifty dollars per month for the support of the school, and a very smart and intelligent committee have charge of the affairs of the one school room already open, and are to secure us another, for we hope soon to have scholars enough to require more than one. We hold one session of four hours daily, and shall have one evening session three times a week. Of course it is too early to give more than a mere outline as yet. The colored people, old and young, seem much interested. There were but sixteen out to day, but we hear of many more who want to come, and the evening school will doubtless be fuller than the other. There has been no school here, yet most have some little notion of reading. Several read very well, and one smart little girl already has begun arithmetic. It is an interesting field of labor, but we shall constantly need the prayers of home friends. All seem willing and anxious to buy their books, and will do so as fast as they can. After Christmas many now at service will be free to come. All things considered I am glad that I came and that I am here.
“This place is intensely Union. A rebel is worse off here than farther North. I learned that the Mayor favors our educational work, I think that very few oppose. We are boarding with a most excellent Union family named Hoke. I give the name because their devoted loyalty throughout our great struggle for right, is worthy of a more enduring record than I can give. I never weary of hearing them tell of the varied scenes of the past four years. It seems strange to realize that I am where war was so long a dread and actual presence, and I am sure that those who were all the while faithful, merit immortality, if earthly fame can bestow it.
“The town here has suffered much, as have all places in the vicinity. I can but own that our army practiced more vandalism than was necessary or excusable. Yet I hear no real complaint. Northern loyalty is put to the blush by their conduct. Now the place is terribly crowded. All classes seem flocking in. Rents are scarce and high. No one seems able even to estimate the number of the population at present.
“Outside of this family we know, as yet, nothing of the people, save the blacks. They all seem to know us as if by intuition and welcome us very warmly, but always with due respect.
“Wednesday evening we were in a colored prayer-meeting at Harper's Ferry. It was a solemn and interesting service. The prayer of one woman was unequaled for its simple child-like confidence, appropriateness, and a certain touching, poetic beauty that words would fail to reproduce. She would say:
“‘Dear Father didn't you promise?’ or ‘didn't you say, so and so?’ with the most perfect freedom of address, and each petition ended in a sort of chanted rhythmical ‘Jesus if it be thy will.’ One petition I will try to quote. It was this:
"’Dear Father we has good reasons to know that you's been quartered here at Harper's Ferry, an, now we wants you to come agin, Jesus if it be thy will, an, please don't ride, way off roun, but jist come right here an take a gentle ride roun, amongst us, Jesus if it be thy will.’
“But words would fail to convey to another the impression that it made upon my mind. At the close Mr. Brackett asked those who had a hope in the Savior to rise. A number remained seated. Then he asked those who wished to obtain such a hope to rise. Somehow I half expected that all the remainder would rise like so many puppets; but they did not. One after another, three arose, and I could not doubt that they were in earnest. I will not weary your patience by writing more now. After a little more experience in our school I will write a report of it. Till then I remain,
Yours in Christian Bonds,
Sarah Jane Foster”
“Harper’s Ferry, April 20th, 1866 [May 9]
“Dear Advocate: —It is now two weeks since I opened school here. Miss Gibbs retains the school that she has had from the first, except that a few of the poorest scholars have been put in the other department. So she has a fine school, while mine are yet in the earliest stages of reading, or else unable to read at all. The colored people here are scattered, and many of them in very destitute circumstances. They do not now come into school so well as they did last term. The older ones are gone out at service, and smaller ones, who have long distances to come, fear to do so without protection; for the white boys will molest them when they find an opportunity. The boys of both races seem rather pugilistic about here. They have had several battles for the possession of this hill as a playground. The weapons were stones, and both parties were in earnest. My scholars at Martinsburg, though not destitute of spirit and courage, had the good sense to avoid collisions with the white boys, who often played marbles before the door. Jefferson County is much more aristocratic than Berkeley, and, as a consequence, the colored people seem much more degraded as a class here than they are there. Here is a field for much mission labor. In Berkeley County there are more of the blacks who are competent to care for the interests of their race. But they are not dull here. Several children, who two weeks ago did not
know the alphabet, are now reading in words of three letters. In the short time that we have taught out here, many, who did not know a letter, have learned to read in the Testament, and to spell well. The united testimony from all our schools is, that color is no barrier to progress.
“I have four boys in my school who are so white that I should not suspect their lineage elsewhere. One has straight, light hair, and all are fine looking. Miss Gibbs has several little girls who are even whiter, or “brighter,” as they call it here. One in particular, very appropriately named Lillie, has flaxen hair and grey blue eyes. One white boy comes to my school. His brother lives in the chambers here, and very wisely discards prejudice that he may have the benefit of a free school.
“Last Sabbath our Sabbath school was reorganized here, some colored teachers being appointed; as Mr. Brackett wishes to get them prepared to continue the school after we go home in hot weather. Each of us takes a class. I do not know personally a member of mine, but hope to get acquainted soon. When we go North, the people here will lose one of the best of their number; for Mr. Keyes will accompany us to perfect his education in Lewiston. But we hope that they will not let the Sabbath school die out. I feel confident that the one at Martinsburg will thrive under the management of those who will have charge of it, and, though indications are less favorable here, there is much interest in the maintenance of the school in this place. A number of conversions have taken place since Mr. Brackett came here, and the converts seem to be sincere and straightforward. We have good meetings each Wednesday night, and also Sabbath afternoon and evening. A colored preacher addressed the audience last Sabbath. He is a man of excellent abilities, though without much education. He now preaches on a circuit comprising all the places where our schools are located. As Mr. Given also takes the same circuit, they will have preaching quite often.
“We daily expect the arrival of the Misses Stuart, transferred from Eastern Virginia. They design to open a school at Front Royal. They have been long in the field and are excellent teachers. Should our school not increase here, one of us will be at liberty, and start a school at Smithfield, five miles from Charlestown. It is Mr. Brackett’s design to open as many schools as possible, for we expect a larger force in the autumn, and wish to occupy as much of the Valley as we can. A better superintendent than Mr. Brackett could not be obtained. Since talking with him, I feel much more reconciled to my change of schools.
“Miss Dudley has taken my former place. The school there too is much reduced from its size last term, but will doubtless be hard enough for warm weather work. Miss Wright returned to Shepherdstown, and Mrs. Smith and Miss Libby took the school at Charlestown. If either of us change again, I shall be likely to go to Smithfield. Mr. Brackett has asked me if I would be willing to do so. I think that I would, but find this a very pleasant place. It is easy to take long rambles here. The other day after school, Miss Gibbs and I started with a basket to search for wild flowers. We visited a small Catholic burying ground over toward Bolivar Heights, beautifully situated in a grove of pines and cedars, and covered with myrtle in blossom. It was unenclosed. Nor was another that we saw on the same ramble at all protected from the hogs and cattle that roam at large. The soldiers’ burying ground, not far from here, has a slight protection; but hogs have intruded upon it and have rooted out some of the head boards already.
“We found a plenty of violets, a few anemones, and some flowers very much like our garden pansy covered a whole hillside with their velvety blue and purple blossoms. Some other unfamiliar flowers made up a choice collection, to obtain, which, however, we strolled at least two miles from home. On our return we skirted the cliffs that hang over the Shenandoah, designing to ascend by some steps before reaching Camp Hill. But we unwillingly passed a long distance by the place of ascent, and, coming around through the Ferry, and mounting the steps in front of the hill, we could not have made much less than five miles for an afternoon walk over rocks, hills, and rough roads. I felt as well as ever though the next morning, and weigh now five or six pounds more than I ever did at home. I have a passion for scrambling over rocks and exploring wild places, which will insure an abundance of out door exercise should I stay here. And in a new place the necessary missionary explorations would have the same effect.
“A few days since I had a pleasing evidence that the religious interest in my old school still goes on. A lady told one of my larger school boys that she was going to write to me, and asked what message he would send. Said he, with starting tears: ‘Tell Miss Jane that I’m still trying to find the way to heaven.’ I hope I may meet him and many others for whom I have labored and prayed, in that home above. I seem now to appreciate the feeling of Rutherford when he said:
“’Oh, if one soul from Anworth Meet me at God’s right hand, My heaven will be two heavens In Emmanuel’s land.’
“Oh it is sweet to labor with and for the Lord thus, and the unavoidable interest in one’s work prevents all weariness and lassitude. There is very much to be done. Years of bondage leave traces that only time can efface. The colored people have a prejudice of color themselves. They do not know how to be treated as equals. In most cases an attempt to treat them so would result in the loss of their esteem, and do more harm than good. There are exceptions, but I speak of the mass. While all are trying to prejudice them against us, undue familiarity would tend to make them believe that we are, as they have been told, low and unworthy of respect. With the children lies the hope of the race, and there indeed then is hope. There is need of inspiring them with loftier ideas of education. To be able to read and write seems now a great deal to them. We hope, however, to induce a few, such as Mr. Keyes and John Brown, to acquire a thorough knowledge of English literature, hoping thus to elevate the standard among them. I am satisfied that there is no lack of mental ability.
“I hear that several more packages of papers have been sent to Martinsburg. I ordered that such parcels should not be remailed to me. Many thanks to the donors. With all your giving, give us your prayers, and, God helping us, we will do all that we can.
Sarah J. Foster”