During the slave-holding era and after Emancipation, Central Virginia’s African Americans struggled and sacrificed to educate themselves and their children.
In the time of slavery, more free blacks than slaves were literate, but some slaves did learn to read and write. At least two of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest slaves were probably literate.
But as anti-slavery sentiment and fears of slave revolt grew, Virginia and other states passed laws against educating slaves. Owners whipped slaves who tried to write even their own names, but that did not stop some from secretly learning anyway.
During the Civil War, fugitive slaves sometimes had a chance for informal schooling. So did blacks who joined the Union Army, since literacy was important to being a good soldier. After the war, abandoned Confederate military camps like Camp Davis, located at Twelfth and Kemper Streets in Lynchburg, became schools for African American children.
Just as literacy among slaves had threatened the institution of slavery, so the advancement of blacks after Emancipation depended on education. And African Americans were determined to be educated.
In 1866, a Mennonite from Pennsylvania, Jacob Yoder, began a school for black children at Camp Davis under the auspices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, a branch of the United States War Department. One eager student came to the Camp Davis school from five miles away.
Two years later Yoder’s school moved to the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Jackson Street. Private freedmen’s schools were also established on Twelfth, Thirteenth, Clay, and Federal Streets in Lynchburg.
In rural areas, schools often sprang up in or near churches. In Campbell County there were freedmen’s schools at Yellow Branch and Mount Zion, in Bedford County at Body Camp and Bunker Hill, in Amherst County at Timothy, Galilee, and Mount Olive. In 1870 a teacher in Appomattox County, Thomas J. Lythgoe, wrote Jacob Yoder that “the people are so anxious for a school that I cannot very well refuse them.”
The early efforts of Central Virginia’s African Americans to educate themselves drew support from northern philanthropists. The Peabody, Slater, Jeanes, and Rosenwald funds all supported black schools, teachers, and supervisors in Central Virginia, as did the missionary societies of several religious denominations.