(December 12, 2016) Even though Emancipation was a national policy the burden of educating the children of former slaves fell almost entirely upon the country’s most impoverished states. At the end of the Civil War in 1865 almost 90% of African-Americans lived in the former Confederate states where they represented 40% of the population. In contrast, only about 10% lived in the Union-loyal states where the represented less than 3% of the population.
To be sure, until 1872 some black children were educated at federally funded Freedmen’s Bureau schools. Due to bellum and post-bellum federal cotton taxes, however, Southern farmers—not Northerners—actually paid for the schools. By 1869 cotton taxes totaling $68 million had been collected, which was four-times the Bureau’s $17 million budget during its entire existence.* Southerners were unable to pass along the taxes to the buyers because the bulk of the cotton was sold overseas where it had to compete with tax-free cotton produced elsewhere. While most Southern Democrats admittedly disapproved of the Freedmen’s Bureau due to its promotion of the Republican Party among blacks, they had little to do with the federal government’s decision to abolish it. By 1872 Southern Democrats controlled only three of the eleven former Rebel states. The rest were under the thumbs of Republican Carpetbag regimes.
After 1872 the Southern states had to pay for the public education of their white and black children without any federal assistance even as the region’s residents lived under conditions of peonage. The war-devastated South endured some the highest property taxes in relation to wealth in American history. Even though 1870 property values in the eleven Rebel states were less than half the value in 1860, the amount of property taxes paid was four times greater. In contrast, from 1860 to 1870 property values in the North and West increased by 150%. The wealth of New York State alone was more than twice as great as all of the former Confederate states. In 1890 per pupil spending in the South was less than $1.00 annually as compared to $2.24 for the entire nation, including the South.
Eventually New Hampshire Senator Henry Blair put forth the hope of federal aid to education as a scheme to enlist Southern support for high tariffs, which were decidedly harmful to the region’s economy. In 1883 he introduced a bill offering temporary federal education funding to be provided to all states based upon their respective rates of illiteracy. The initial amount was to be $15 million annually, but it would decline each year until it reached $1 million. Based upon the South’s higher illiteracy, the region would be allocated over two-thirds of the total.
The Senate voted on the bill repeatedly over the next decade but it never came to a vote in the House. Most of the South’s senators voted in favor it. Within three years ten Southern state legislatures also passed resolutions supporting the bill. Some Southern representatives, however, balked because they did not want to create the appearance of supporting protective tariffs. They were also concerned that once the temporary federal subsidies expired the Southern states would be left with higher educational budgets than they could sustain from their own tax base. Nonetheless, in 1890, following years of tariff-imposed budget surpluses, the Republican Party greatly liberalized the pensions for Union Civil War veterans as a means of bribing the constituency, eliminating the surplus, and justifying continued high protective tariffs. Consequently, no money was left for education.
The prolonged poverty partially caused by high tariffs continued to plague Southern education well into the twentieth century. For example, although the South had one-third of America’s school children during the Great Depression of the 1930s it had only one-sixth of the education revenues. Teachers in Arkansas were paid about $500 annually compared to about $2,400 in New York State. Southern states spent an average of about $25 per child in schools. It was only half of the amount for the entire country and only about one-fourth of the amount spent in New York State.
Since present narratives of the post Civil War era focus on racism, they overlook factors affecting Southerners of all races that can provide revealing perspectives that are too often unexmained.
*John Ezell The South Since 1865, 53