The Bookshelf: The Little-Known History Of Violence At New England's African American Schools | New Hampshire Public Radio

The Bookshelf: The Little-Known History Of Violence At New England's African American Schools

Jun 16, 2020

Courtesy of Kabria Baumgartner

The history of school desegregation in America has long been centered around the southern United States.

But in her new book, "In Pursuit of Knowledge," University of New Hampshire Professor Dr. Kabria Baumgartner explores an earlier story from much closer to home.

She joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello.

Note: The following transcript is lightly edited for clarity

What happened in the Northeast that warrants more attention, in your view?

Well, I think there were quite a few episodes of violence where African American schools were attacked. So I had come across an illustration from the late 1830s that described three incidents of violence against African American schools and I wanted to investigate those incidents of violence, and I wanted to figure out, well why are African American schools attacked? And the process of researching those four incidents then prompted me to look more closely at African American girls and women and their educational experiences.

The book starts off with stories about what happened in Connecticut, but there are also some incidents in New Hampshire. Can you tell us about what happened in Canaan?

Yes, so it’s the case of Noyes Academy in the mid-1830s there was an idea among proprietors to establish an institution for higher education in New Hampshire, and that was noyes Academy But this institution would be a little bit different because it would be open to men and women as well as African-Americans and whites. So it would be one of the few racially integrated academies. And it opened, it was established, students enrolled, and the townspeople of Canaan were so upset that they did everything they could to destroy the school, and they were actually successful in doing that and the school ended up closing in 1835.

Is what happened in New Hampshire typical of what happened in the Northeast as desegregation was slowly setting in?

I think in the 1830s yes. So there were three other cases of attacks that were documented of attacks against African American schools in the Northeast in the 1830s.Now things change a little bit in the 1840s and 1850s. There’s less physical violence targeted against African American schools, and there are more examples of racially integrated schools, and so that violence lessens over time.   

So the Noyes Academy case is representative of just general vitriol and violence in the 1830s, but I think twenty years later,  that violence recedes. And so, you do get conversations, even in New Hampshire, about how schools might actually become racially integrated. 

And since writing this book you’ve learned a little bit more about Portsmouth high schools in the 1950s, can you tell us a little more about what happened there? 

An archivist emailed me, she’s an archivist at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, she shared with me this document of the Portsmouth school committee where the committee is debating whether or not to integrate its schools, and ultimately they decide not to, but they’re very well aware of other cities and towns in Massachusetts that have integrated their schools, like Salem and nantucket. So what’s interesting to me is how the activism of African Americans in Salem and in Nantucket, Massachusetts then reaches New Hampshire and reaches places like Portsmouth. 

Broadly speaking, in your studies of what happened in the Northeast, as far as desegregation of schools went, was this process primarily driven by white abolitionists? Or what was the role of black women themselves, in making sure that they can get an education for themselves?

So you definitely had white abolitionists that acted as allies, but in the book I really talk about how African-American girls and women as sort of self-starters. They had their own sense of ambition, and they had their own dreams, their own goals, and they went in pursuit of that.

Kabria Baumgartner, thanks so much for speaking with me, I really appreciate it.

Thank you.  

We're always looking for reading recommendations from listeners like you. What should we bring to the beach in this last month of summer? Tell us by e-mail. The address is books@nhpr.org. We want to know the title, the author, and why you think other readers should check out what you found. You can also tweet us @NHPRbookshelf.