How One Abolitionist Educated Freed Slaves

Martha Schofield traveled south to teach and along the way, learned some things herself.

The Schofield Normal and Industrial School, circa 1910

Things look different with experience.

When Martha Fell Schofield of Darby arrived at Wadmalaw Island, S.C., to teach freed slaves in 1865, she thought the three Rs and some Yankee attitude would make African Americans self-sufficient. Fifty years later, Schofield and the school she founded emphasized more practical things—like carpentry and sewing.

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“[Recently freed] blacks had no role models in personal industry,” wrote Schofield biographer Katherine Smedley. “In slavery, free [white] people were mainly shiftless, living on the labor of others.” 

As she experienced Southern conditions, Schofield became determined that her students would have such role models. And become them, as well.

Born to a Quaker family in Bucks County, Schofield was one of the five children of Oliver and Mary (Jackson) Schofield. Her mother was a recorded Quaker minister, a position that often took her away from home. In her absence, the Schofield children were in the care of a mother’s helper, who educated them on the second floor of the springhouse. 

Oliver Schofield ran the farm, Pine Grove, which was also a station on the Underground Railroad. One of Martha’s childhood memories was of looking from her bedroom window after hearing her father’s carriage. “She saw by the light of the lantern that her father was helping someone dressed in her mother’s garments into the carriage,” wrote biographer Mary S. Patterson. “But the woman in the Quaker bonnet and shawl had a dark face.”

The Schofields’ social circle included Lucretia and James Mott, William Lloyd Garrison and Susan B. Anthony, among other notables. Exposure to such people instilled in Martha the idea of devoting her life to a great cause.

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After Oliver Schofield’s death in 1852, Martha’s mother sold the farm and moved the family to Byberry for several years, then to Darby. Her formal education over, Martha went off to Bayside, Long Island, in 1857 to teach her young maternal cousins. It was a teaching apprenticeship, of sorts, and she was later hired to teach at a Quaker school in Purchase, N.Y.

Schofield also apparently had a brief romance in Purchase. But, alas, the fellow was Orthodox, a member of Quakerism’s conservative branch, and she was from the liberal wing. In the end, she wrote in her diary, “The Hicksite was too strong in me.” 

That failed romance may have been why she returned to Darby in 1860.

Back in the Delaware Valley, Schofield soon found that her friend network had shattered. Many young men were in the Army. Schofield threw herself into work on behalf of African Americans, including teaching at a black school in Philadelphia. Her enthusiasm on their behalf had awkward moments. “Once on a horsecar (bus), she gave up her seat so that a colored woman with a baby might sit,” related Patterson. Whites were shocked and so, probably, was the young black mother.

When Summit House military hospital opened on Darby Road in West Philadelphia, Schofield volunteered her services. Forbidden to work as nurses, women were restricted to serving meals and securing provisions to supplement the hospital’s meager rations. Schofield ended up in charge of fundraising, which she did by organizing benefit concerts and soliciting contributions. But she wanted more.

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Like most abolitionists, Schofield was thrilled by the Emancipation Proclamation. “For Martha, personally, the proclamation opened a door into the future,” wrote Smedley. “Her mind jumped immediately to the millions of slaves now needing education.” 

She applied to the new Freedmen’s Bureau—a federal agency established in 1865 to assist former slaves in their transition to freedom—for a teaching position in the South. In October, a government transport delivered Schofield and several other Quaker women to Wadmalaw, south of Charleston. “One, Annie Heacock, wrote in her diary that it was the most comfortable ship and smoothest sailing she had ever experienced,” wrote Patterson. “Martha spent a lot of time laying down and sucking on a lemon to prevent sea sickness.”

Wadmalaw was home to 1,500 blacks, who had followed Sherman’s army on its March to the Sea and had since been left there destitute. The island was 20 miles from a physician and 30 from the nearest store. Schofield slept on a mattress filled with corn husks and a pillow stuffed with sawdust. There was no cookstove in the house she shared with three other teachers, so she made her own bread dough and carried it half a mile to be baked. “But the sunsets across the water were heavenly,” wrote Patterson. “And there were some gorgeous deserted plantations, one approached by a drive of live oaks almost two miles long.”

Schofield called her makeshift classroom the Garrison School, after the notorious abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper, The Liberator, had once been banned in the South. Inside, she hung a portrait of John Brown.

Soon after Schofield arrived, she found out that federal authorities had decided to restore property used by the Freedmen’s Bureau to its original owners. Nevertheless, she resisted when, a few months later, the owner of the house occupied by her school notified Schofield of his intention to resume possession. “I cannot treat a rebel with the cordiality of an acquaintance,” she wrote to her family. “No! No! They get too much with their lands.” However, her school was subsequently forced to relocate.

Schofield delighted a bit in twisting the knife in the wound of Southern defeat. She declined to help local whites recruit black workers, and she enjoyed wearing what she called her “patriotic apron” and displaying the U.S. flag.

In 1909, hundreds of alums attended the school’s annual Founders Day celebration to pay tribute to the institution and its founder.

Like many abolitionists, Martha Schofield initially believed that rapid doses of book learning and moral values would enable African Americans to live in equality with whites. In those early days, she not only rejected the idea of black inferiority, but also went to the opposite extreme of insisting that those with the darkest skin were the most intelligent. Convinced that any wrong ideas were due to the influence of slavery, Schofield was also unusually patient with frequent instances of lying and theft.

“Our girl has been purloining,” she wrote to her sister. “We found the (stolen) things (on a neighboring plantation), and she brought them back. She got down on her knees and begged us to forgive her. Poor thing. I would rather save her than the clothes.”

Most teachers went home after a year or two, but Schofield decided early on that this would be her life’s work. She moved from island to island, serving where she was needed and always naming her school for Garrison.

In 1868, Schofield and another teacher came to the inland city of Aiken. A Freedmen’s school had been established there two years earlier, but local hostility had since forced three teachers to leave. Despite that precedent, Schofield—who wanted to escape the malarial coast—liked the location. A high elevation and temperate climate gave the city a reputation as a health resort.

The Aiken school opened with about a hundred students. The house requisitioned by the Freedmen’s Bureau was cramped, so Schofield and her colleague paid to have partitions removed from between too-small rooms. Schofield wrote home about her students’ “radiant faces.”

After two years, the bureau announced the end of its educational programs, including Schofield’s salary and most support to the school. “Seeing no help forthcoming,” wrote Patterson, “she took $468 of her own money and bought some inexpensive land located at the northern edge of town.” 

Schofield then used her Freedmen’s Bureau connections. In exchange for the bureau building a schoolhouse on it, she turned over half of her own property. After joining the public school system in 1953, it survives today as a middle school. Schofield later built a house for herself on the rest of the land.

The Schofield Normal and Industrial School didn’t graduate its first student until 1885. Most students couldn’t afford to stay in school for the 10 years required. But Schofield would likely have insisted that that wasn’t the point. “State certification requirements were never strictly enforced,” wrote Smedley. “So some students went out to instruct as soon as they acquired even a slight proficiency.” 

In 1883, Schofield counted 25 former students teaching in Aiken or adjacent counties and estimated that at least a thousand children must be benefiting from their instruction. The vocational program, however, may have had an even more profound impact. Each boy was required to master at least one manual skill, either agricultural or industrial. Girls had to acquire an array of “housekeeping arts”—cooking, sewing, cleaning and laundering. As a result, “Aiken became increasingly dependent on the skills of competent black workers, even student workers,” wrote Smedley. 

The shoe-repair shop mended more than 250 pairs of shoes a year for local residents. The print shop was the largest and best in the county. The farm, host to annual agricultural conferences, was its most productive. Rather than infuse her students with attitude, Schofield had chosen the highly practical strategy of making them indispensable. “Shortly after the print shop opened, the Journal and Review—which only the previous year had questioned how long Aiken could tolerate Martha’s presence—now suggested that the white schools follow her example,” Smedley wrote. “Her vocational program, it stated, was ‘a reproach, a warning and an encouragement to the white people to do the same in their schools.’” 

Once, in 1892, Schofield felt burned out at the end of the school year and resigned. By the end of the summer, she felt better. So she returned and resumed her duties. 

In 1909, hundreds of alums—doctors, shoemakers, letter carriers, lady’s maids, farmers, nurses and blacksmiths—attended the school’s annual Founders Day celebration to pay tribute to the institution and its founder. Schofield later remarked that she wouldn’t exchange their praise for $10,000.

“What they said had made her more than ever certain that the rights of such a body of educated, responsible, skilled citizens as were represented there that day would before long be recognized,” wrote Smedley. “To hasten that end, the work of education must go on.”

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