African-American Education in Postbellum Maryland

Fragments of the alphabet plate found at Sukeek’s Cabin.

This blog post has its origins right here at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. In the summer of 2000, excavations got underway at the site of a small stone foundation that had been built on a small ridge of land behind the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab. A combination of oral history and documentary research revealed that the site, which came to be known as Sukeek’s Cabin (18CV426), had been occupied in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by several generations of an African American family who were tenants on the Peterson farm. The family can be traced back to an enslaved woman named Sukeek, who arrived on the property in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Some of the volunteers who worked on the excavation under the direction of Kirsti Uunila were Sukeek’s descendants. This blog post was very much influenced by conclusions Kirsti reached during this project (Uunila 2002).

Among the most interesting artifacts recovered during the excavation were fragments of a child’s alphabet plate. Alphabet wares, also called ABC wares, are tableware characterized by the inclusion of the alphabet as a component of their decoration. The full alphabet was molded or printed clockwise around the rim and child-friendly scenes decorated plate centers. First manufactured in the Staffordshire district of England in the late eighteenth century (Kovels 2011), these wares appear to have been created as educational tools, primarily for children.

A complete example of the Bear with Cubs plate made by Brownhills and Company.

A complete example of the Bear with Cubs plate made by Brownhill’s Pottery Company.

The registry mark on the reverse of the Sukeek’s Cabin site plate indicated that the pattern was registered on September 29, 1882 by the British firm of Brownhill’s Pottery Company (in business between 1872 and 1896), as part of their Wild Animal series. Slate pencil fragments and fragments of writing slates were also found during the excavation and, with the plate, provide a window into African American education during the postbellum era. In the 1880s, there was a school for African Americans at a church five miles from Sukeek’s residence. It is not known if the children who lived in the house attended that school, but the plate, pencils and slate suggest that educational activities were occurring at the house. In an interview, Sukeek’s great-great granddaughter, Octavia Gross Brown, talked about the importance her own mother placed on education and reading at home (Octavia Gross Brown interview, 1996)—values that probably extended back several generations to the time that Sukeek’s cabin was occupied.

By the mid-nineteenth century, laws were on the books in every southern state that banned education for African Americans. It has been estimated that at the beginning of the Civil War, less than five percent of the free and enslaved African Americans living in the American South could read (Powell 1998:98). Laws, however, did not quell the desire by the enslaved and, later the newly-emancipated, for an education, as so eloquently described by Horace Bond:

Grown men studied their alphabets in the fields, holding the “blue-back speller” with one hand while they guided the plow with the other. Mothers tramped scores of miles to towns where they could place their children in school. Pine torches illumined the dirt-floored cabins where men, women and children studied until far into the night (Bond 1934:23).

A small number of free blacks in Baltimore attended the Wells Free School, established around 1845 using money left expressly for that purpose by Nelson Wells, a Quaker free black who lived and worked in Baltimore in the second quarter of the nineteenth century (Putney 1977:238-240).

The vast majority of Maryland’s African Americans, however, were not as fortunate as those students. Following emancipation, not even Maryland’s Republican Party (the party of the Union) advocated funding public schools for African Americans (Bruegger 1988:308). Quakers, missionaries, private aid societies and the federal Freedmen’s Bureau stepped in with financial support. In August, 1864, the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People was created and by the close of the following year, seven schools had been established in the city (Bruegger 1988:308). By 1865, over 2,400 students attended day and evening classes at eight Baltimore schools, with many more students seeking to attend than could be accommodated. The number of students had almost doubled by the following year (Putney 1977:243-244). By 1867, the Board of Commissioners for the Public Schools took over the education of African Americans, in compliance with an ordinance passed by the Baltimore City Council (Putney 1977:244).

The Baltimore Association for the Moral and Educational Improvement of the Colored People also focused a great deal of their efforts setting up schools on the Eastern Shore (Bruegger 1988:309). In 1866, the Association established the Baltimore Normal School to train black teachers (Putney 1977). By 1870, the school, which was the forerunner of Bowie State University, had begun to receive support from the city and two years later from the state (Bowie 2013).

Formalized education for African Americans had a particularly difficult time gaining a foothold in largely rural Southern Maryland, the region that includes Calvert County and the Sukeek’s Cabin site (Browne 1991). For four years after the war, state and local governments refused to fund public schools for African Americans, forcing local black communities and churches to bear the costs and responsibilities of formalized education. The Freedmen’s Bureau agreed to pay the costs of building a schoolhouse, but each community had to first raise the money and purchase the land for the school. Even after money was in hand, local communities often struggled to find a landowner willing to sell the land and at a price that was affordable (Goddard 1996:7).

Students in a classroom at Seat Pleasant, Maryland all wear heavy coats, suggesting that the school is insufficiently heated.  Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (20.2) [Digital ID# cph 3e02156] Courtesy of the NAACP.

Students in a classroom at Seat Pleasant, Maryland all wear heavy coats, suggesting that the school is insufficiently heated. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (20.2) [Digital ID# cph 3e02156] Courtesy of the NAACP.

Before Brown v Board of Education  struck down school segregation laws in 1954, African American and white students attended separate schools in the South. The 1896 court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson brought an era of “separate but equal” facilities and treatment for blacks and whites, including in the area of education. Despite this ruling, African-American schools were woefully underfunded compared with schools for whites. Some sources suggest that by the mid 1930s, white schools in the South were worth, per student, more than five times what black schools were worth (Rosenwald 2013). Books and other school materials were often secondhand and out of date. The Old Wallville School, an 18 x 18’ one-room structure built by the early 1880s, is representative of African American schools that were built throughout the state. The schoolhouse, which has been moved from its original location and restored for visitors, served grades one through seven for students in Calvert County’s Wallville community in until 1934 (Wallville 2013).

The restored Old Wallville School in Calvert County.   Photograph from

The restored Old Wallville School in Calvert County. Photograph from

After Brown v Board of Education overturned segregation, much of Maryland quickly complied with the Supreme Court ruling (Bruegger 1988:579). Southern Maryland was more sluggish in its response, and more than a decade passed before Calvert County’s school board became fully compliant (Goddard 1996:66).

Visitors to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum can visit the ruins of Sukeek’s Cabin, which are located along one of the park’s trails, and learn more about the site from interpretive signs located there. The site is also a key component in our “Kid’s Work” program, which is attended by every Calvert County fourth grader.


Bond, Horace Mann
1934 The Education of the Negro in the American Social Order. Octagon Books.

Bowie State University
2013 History. Bowie State University. Page accessed August 26, 2013.

Brown, Octavia Gross
1996 Oral history interview. Tape and transcript on file at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, St. Leonard, Maryland.

Browne, Joseph L.
1991 “The Expenses Are Borne by Parents”: Freedmen’s Schools in Southern Maryland, 1865-1870. Maryland Historical Magazine v. 86, no. 4, Winter 1991.

Bruegger, Robert
1988 Maryland; A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Goddard, Richlyn F.
1996 Persistence, Perseverance and Progress: History of African American Schools in Calvert County, Maryland, 1865-1965. Calvert County Government, Prince Frederick, Maryland.
2011 ABC Plates; Collectors’ Concerns. Website accessed February 4, 2011.

Powell, Myrtis H.
1998 Campus Climate and Students of Color. In The Multicultural Campus: Strategies for Transforming Higher Education. Edited by Leonard A. Valverde, and Louis Anthony Castenell. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Putney, Martha Settle
1977 The Baltimore Normal School for the Education of Colored Teachers: its founders and its founding. Maryland Historical Magazine v. 72, no. 2, Summer 1977, p. 238-252.

2013 Rosenwald Schools. Website accessed August 27, 2013.

Uunila, Kirsti
2002 Draft Report on Archaeological Investigations at 18CV426, Sukeek’s Cabin Site, Calvert County, Maryland. Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

2013 The Old Wallville School; Calvert County’s Reconstructed African American One-Room School. Website accessed August 27, 2013.


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