The Rev. Cathy Schuyler, The Congregationalist Magazine

February 23, 2021

“After a schoolhouse in Namsemond, Virginia, burned to the ground, forty-five African American men gathered among the ashes and sent for the teacher. They told her that they would ‘build her a large and better house of timber, so green that it could not burn, and would keep her supplied with green schoolhouses as long as she would stay.’” .On the Hells of Freedom, p. 74 The American Missionary Association supported this teacher and thousands like her, in educating former slaves in the years after the Civil War. The association – a largely Congregational enterprise – built schools, established colleges, sent money and clothes, preached the gospel, lived the gospel, and made a difference in the lives of thousands of men, women and children. James Pennington, a black Congregational minister, and Arthur and Lewis Tappan, two white Presbyterians, founded the AMA in Albany, N.Y., in 1846, partly in response to the Amistad incident on 1839. The association respected and welcomed African American leadership in a society that, overwhelmingly, did not. Other societies and associations were started by Congregationalists in the 19th century, but none placed abolition of slavery at the center of its work as did the AMA. Ultimately, the AMA would focus its efforts on educating freed slaves and their descendants, as Congregationalists extended their long-standing educational emphasis to the post-bellum South. Many of the schools and colleges they founded there still thrive today. On the Hells of Freedom is Joyce Hollyday’s excellent history of the AMA’s work. She begins with the story of the Amistad, takes us through the Union Army’s early efforts to respond to fugitive slaves’ request for schooling, and through the first decade of Reconstruction, when AMA missionaries taught basic literacy skills all over the South. “In the first decade of its work,” she notes, “the AMA commissioned 3,470 teachers and ministers, serving 321,099 students in schools.” Hollyday then focuses her story on the long-term narratives of a few of the hundreds of schools established in that time. Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, are two of the success stories of the AMA’s work. When the AMA began its efforts, many whites, North and South, didn’t believe blacks could be educated. Fisk, Tougaloo, and other institutions like them have demonstrated otherwise for nearly 150 years. Where a school was planted, there usually was a Congregational church as well, and these churches are still strong anchors in their communities. Hollyday interviewed their members, many of whom are graduates of AMA-founded schools, or the children or grandchildren of graduates. Formed by the same understanding of the gospel that brought education tot so many, the churches have stayed involved with their communities. We, who belong to small churches, especially, can relish these words from Deborah Harris of Plymouth Church in Charleston, South Carolina: “Everyone knows Plymouth as a strong driving force in the community. We’ve never had over a hundred members, but the entire community is aware of who we are and what we’re all about.” All of this was made possible by gifts from Congregational churches, form believers willing to give of their time and money to change the world, to bring justice, to build the kingdom. This is our story one we should share with pride. On the Heels of Freedom is a book which tells that story with fervor, truth and love.

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