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The American Missionary Association (AMA) was a nondenominational abolitionist society dedicated to providing education and political rights to African Americans. Founded on the premise that denying citizenship to African Americans was a violation of the Declaration of Independence, the AMA sought to find solutions to what was called the “Negro problem” in a divided America. In Arkansas, the AMA focused its efforts on providing education to freedmen and women, seeking to train them to survive in the antebellum South. Although the AMA’s efforts in Arkansas lasted barely a decade, the educational push of the organization persists in several remaining educational institutions.
The AMA was founded in Syracuse, New York, in 1846 through the merger of a group of abolitionists who supported the uprising of slaves on the Amistad in 1839 with several small missionary organizations. Though the AMA’s constitution stated that spreading the Christian gospel to America and other nations was the primary goal of the association, it quickly began to center its activities around anti-slavery missions. Prior to the Civil War, the AMA worked with the Freedmen’s Aid Society to promote the abolitionist cause, refusing to allow slave holders as members or to accept funds from unknown sources.
As slaves were freed during the Civil War, the AMA altered its mission to making provisions for them. More than 500 churches and schools were set up by the AMA to help acculturate the newly freed slaves. Open to students of all races, the schools became early examples of mostly successful integrated institutions. Although the churches and most of the schools were initially led by white men and women, the AMA sought to train African Americans to fill their places gradually. The AMA held fast to the belief that “no race should be permanently dependent upon another for their own development.”
Prior to the creation of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau), the efforts of the AMA in Arkansas consisted of individual teachers attempting to establish schools under the protection of the Federal army. In December 1863, twelve teachers from Chicago, Illinois, were commissioned by the AMA to teach in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Little Rock (Pulaski County), and Helena (Phillips County). Of the twelve, nine (three Iowa natives and six Illinois natives) arrived in Arkansas by December 15. Upon arrival, the teachers found that the freedmen’s camps were plagued with illness, deprived of educational materials, and subject to guerrilla attacks from Confederate armies. Often, the schools did not even have rooms in which to meet. In 1864, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends began to operate alongside the AMA and eventually took over the education of freedmen in Little Rock and Helena. Although the AMA was left focusing solely on Pine Bluff, the schools there lacked sufficient funds and staff to remain consistently open. Despite these hardships, the teachers reported high attendance figures and a willingness in their pupils to learn.
With the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865, the AMA found that its operations in Arkansas fell under the jurisdiction of Major W. G. Sargent, the state superintendent of all the freedmen’s districts. The bureau gave much of the responsibility for funding education of the freedmen and women in Arkansas to the AMA. The AMA attempted to found sixteen new schools between 1866 and 1867, but nearly all of them floundered as the freedmen were unable to pay for their education. Expanding outward from the original cities, some of these schools were started on private plantations, such as the Lewis Plantation in Arkansas County and the Lennox Plantation in Desha County. Others were founded in small towns such as Oak Bluff in Hot Spring County. Despite the initial difficulties, mixed reactions from the whites in the area, the instability of racial relations, and financial hardships, twenty-seven day and night schools, twenty-four Sabbath schools, and two high schools were in operation by 1868 in areas as far-reaching as Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Fayetteville (Washington County), Little Rock (Pulaski County), and New Gascony (Jefferson County).
The infrastructure of this school system changed, however, when Arkansas was readmitted to the Union. The newly instated governor established a multi-level public school system founded on tax dollars. Beginning in March 1868 and lasting for several years, there was a tenuous period of transition as previously independent or AMA-funded schools came under government control. Some AMA teachers were successfully integrated into the new state systems, while others were forced out due to tensions from competing schools. In 1878, the job of the last independently operating AMA teacher, M. W. Martin, who was operating in Pine Bluff, fell victim to a defeated mill tax that cut school funding. He left the state, effectively ending the work of the AMA in Arkansas.
In 1947, one of the last schools in the nation under the AMA’s guidance became a public institution. The society’s influence rapidly began to wane, and, in 1999, it was eliminated due to a restructuring of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with which it had been closely aligned. The influence of the society, however, persists nationally in the many remaining colleges, universities, and secondary schools that the AMA founded throughout the nation.
For additional information:American Missionary Association Archives. Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.
History of the American Missionary Association: Its Constitution and Principles. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library, 1969.
Holladay, Joyce. On the Heels of Freedom: The American Missionary Association’s Bold Campaign to Educate Minds, Open Hearts, and Heal the Soul of a Divided Nation. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005.
Pearce, Larry Wesley. “The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen in Arkansas, 1863–1878.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Summer 1971): 123–144.
———. “The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1866–1868.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Autumn 1971): 242–259.
Richardson, Joe M. Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861–1890. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Evelyn Baldwin Siloam Springs, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/27/2010
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