From the Cotton Field and Corn Break to Cicero and Homer: The Classics as Tools of Social Uplift at Historically Black Colleges in the United States, 1870-1945

Kenneth W. Goings and Eugene O'Connor

In educational institutions from the time of the American colonies until the mid-twentieth century, a "classical education" (meaning training in Greek and Latin) was largely associated with elites, that is, white gentlemen. The received wisdom of the time was that those outside this chosen group, especially African Americans,  lacked the requisite mental capacity as well as the necessary leisure to study the classics.

However, even at the beginning of the Republic, free blacks in the North who had received a classical education in Negro schools or else abroad sought to show their link to the classics by documenting the achievement of Africans in classical antiquity. By showing that they were indeed the descendants of  "civilized humans," they made a claim that they and their brethren deserved full citizenship in the newly formed United States. By using this argument, African Americans were placing themselves within the larger American impulse of adducing classical, especially Roman republican, models to legitimate their efforts to define the nation and its citizenship. In the period after Reconstruction, black colleges and universities were established, chiefly in the South, by missionary societies and often funded by northern philanthropists.

Drawing on archival and other sources, we will describe the course offerings in classics at southern black colleges from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It will show the broad range of courses being offered by classicists, both black and white, who saw the classical curriculum not as a mere imitation of white schools, but as a way of gaining access to the best intellectual traditions of the era and the best means of realizing African Americans'  historical development and of promoting social uplift.

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