Education in a rural northern community, 1850-1880

African American school attendance in the 19th century: Education in a rural northern community, 1850-1880

Enomoto, Ernestine K


Studies of African American education in the 19th century have focused primarily on developments after the Civil War, concentrating on the creation of segregated schools in the South (Bond, 1934; Frazier, 1949; Woodson, 1968, 1918/1969; Woodson & Wesley, 1922/1966). Prior to the antebellum era, documentation was sketchy and few schools existed in either the North or the South. The education of northern Blacks was decidedly different from that of southern Blacks. Much of what is known of African American education in the South during this period is based upon events that transpired in rural areas, primarily on southern plantations, where arrangements were most often made clandestinely and on pain of prosecution. The education of enslaved Blacks was forbidden by law in many southern states. In the North, if schools for African Americans did exist, they were generally housed in crowded, inferior buildings staffed by less-than-qualified teachers of either race, and restricted in their curricula offerings. Being freedmen and freedwomen rather than slaves, the educational demands of northern African Americans were for public education that would include them in common school reform efforts despite their small numbers and “colored skin” (Woodson & Wesley, 1922/1966, p. 256). They also banded together to make private arrangements for schooling and hired their own teachers.

Frazier (1949) contends that northern Blacks in the antebellum period tended to locate in urban areas where skilled labor was sought; however, not all settled in urban areas. Despite the rapid industrialization that occurred during the 19th century and the increasing urbanization of the North, much of that region consisted of small, rural communities. Among these were communities in which African Americans settled and lived together with White Americans with no indication of racial intolerance. One such rural northern community was Calvin Township, located in Cass County in southwestern Michigan. Many of Calvin Township’s African American citizens arrived a decade or more before the Civil War. Located at the junction of the Underground Railroad’s(1) “Quaker Line” out of Kentucky and its “Illinois Line” to Canada, this community became a haven for African American fugitives from slavery in the mid-19th century (Dancy, 1940).

Given this rural northern setting and a substantial population of African Americans, the present study sought answers to the following questions: What provisions were made for the schooling of the African Americans who settled in Calvin Township? Did they attend separate schools? Who among them attended school? Were there differences in the school attendance patterns between the township’s Black and White children? What personal and family factors contributed to the former’s school attendance? How did these change over time? This study addresses these questions by analyzing federal Census records, annual school district reports, and area maps to describe the school attendance of African Americans in Calvin Township in the 30 years from 1850 through 1880, before and after the Civil War. The findings of the study are presented in terms of characterizing the schooling experience of African Americans in a rural northern setting in the 19th century.


Calvin Township in Cass County, Michigan, is an excellent focus for such an investigation for several reasons. First, during the years in question it was a rural northern farming community with a sizeable African American population established before the Civil War (Cass County Historical Commission, 1981; Claspy, 1967; Rogers, 1875; Schoelzow, 1935). By 1850, African Americans made up 3.6% of the population of Cass County, a percentage that, in the territory of Michigan, was surpassed only by Wayne County, which included the city of Detroit. Together with nearby Porter Township, Calvin Township accounted for two-thirds of the entire African American population in the county before the Civil War (Glover, 1906). Indeed, there were more African Americans living in Calvin Township than in the city of Chicago, Illinois, at that time (Hesslink, 1968; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1850/1976). Establishing themselves as a distinct community, the African Americans of Calvin Township were fully a fourth (25.3%) of the township’s population. According to Matthews (1882), “Calvin was

therefore one of the Republican strongholds of the county; and did the Colored people desire, they could elect one of their number to represent them and the township on the Board of Supervisors” (p. 387).

Second, the African American population of Calvin Township grew rapidly from the antebellum period until the end of the century. The largest increase noted in Census records occurred between 1850 and 1860, when the Black population grew from 389 to 1,368, up 252%. Increases of 24% and 9% were recorded in 1870 and 1880, respectively (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1850/1976, 1870, 1880). As a “station” along the Underground Railroad, the county was viewed as a “refuge and secure retreat” for the thousands of African Americans who fled from slavery (Glover, 1906, p. 287). An estimated 25,000 fugitive slaves passed through Cass County en route to Canada, and many of them decided to settle in the area (Schoelzow, 1935). The relationship between the races seemed to be cordial in Cass County (Hesslink, 1968). Glover (1906) notes that the influential African American educator and president of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, described Cass County at the turn of the century in an 1903 article entitled “Two Generations Under Freedom.” As Washington observed, “There


no social mingling but otherwise the relations of the races


entirely friendly” (Glover, 1906, p. 294).

A third reason for selecting Cass County as the subject of this investigation relates to the nature of its school system. In 1827, Michigan established a common school system, requiring that every township of 50 or more families support and govern a local school (Glover, 1906; Hoyt & Ford, 1905; Kaestle, 1983; Putnam, 1904). In Calvin Township, the first schoolhouse was a modest, one-room log cabin built around 1834 (Schoelzow, 1935). By 1850, the territory’s common school system was firmly in place with its basic units, the district schools, located “close to the homes and hearths of the people” and directly controlled by their communities (Putnam, 1904, p. 65). The school system was comprised of 143 district schools, each staffed by a single teacher, locally directed, and independent of each other (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1850/1976). Unlike the schools in Michigan’s urban areas, which provided separate facilities for non-Whites, Cass County’s schools accommodated the different races together (Glover, 1906; Hesslink, 1968; Matthews, 1882). However, some of the county’s African American students might have attended separate schools. In his 1903 article, Booker T. Washington mentioned the presence of a colored school in Calvin Center, a residential community of African Americans in Calvin Township (Glover, 1906).


As noted by Angus and Mirel (1985), the study of school attendance has stimulated vigorous research in understanding the “rise of mass schooling” and the social distribution of schooling (p. 123). The present study focuses on the latter, utilizing a sampling of Census records obtained for the years 1850 through 1880, before and after the Civil War. The data retrieved from these records included family last names; family size; ages, genders, and races of family members; occupations of the heads-of-household; real estate owned by family members; estimated family wealth; and school attendance. The initial sample consisted of equivalent numbers of African American and White American families obtained in each year. Selection was made of contiguous records, assuming that the Census taker was surveying families living in the same communities whose children would likely attend the same school.

In the second phase of the investigation, 19th-century maps of the Cass County area and annual county school inspector reports were obtained to cross-reference and thus validate the inferences of family residence based on Census data. The earliest map indicating school districts was dated 1861 and specified eight districts in Calvin Township. Using the 1872 map of Calvin township because of its superior legibility, school district boundaries were drawn as designated in the annual reports made to the state superintendent of the Michigan Department of Public Instruction in 1866 and 1873.(2) Census data from 1870 seed as the base year. Family names taken from the Census were matched against area maps, and family residences were located. Apparently, the Census taker gathered information of families living in “neighborhoods” and recorded their family numbers in consecutive order.(3) After matching as many records as possible and identifying a school district, a sequence of family numbers was determined. For example, family numbers from 93 to 126 matched names of those families whose residences were within the District 7 school boundaries. If there was a match for a family name out of the sequence (e.g., family number 244), then that record was not included in the data set. The rationale was to eliminate a family with a similar name that was not likely to be living in the selected school district. Based on a very high percentage of matches, inferences were made of the locations of property-owning and non-property-owning families, school locations, and the races of the school-aged children who likely resided in each district.

During the period covered by this study, Calvin Township was divided into as few as five and as many as eight school districts. These districts had almost total autonomy to arrange the details of the quantity, quality, and type of schooling they would provide. Two districts (districts 3 and 9) were mainly settled by African Americans, and two (districts 6 and 7) were racially integrated. Of the approximately 84 residences in these four districts, 56 families (67%) were matched and included in the sample. This sample reflected 16% of the total Calvin Township population, or 290 out of 1,788 residents (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1870).

At least the following caveats should be noted. First, this investigation covered a span of 30 years during which both the country and the state of Michigan experienced tremendous socioeconomic change. Major educational reforms enacted during this period might account for the school attendance findings reported in this article. Legislation was passed mandating the creation of union graded schools in 1859, the establishment of high schools in 1869, free primary education in 1869, and compulsory school attendance laws in 1871, 1883, and 1885 (Putnam, 1904). Second, records from the 1860 and 1870 censuses were not as legible as those from 1850 and 1880, nor were the same categories of data maintained between 1850 and 1880. Consequently, efforts were made to substantiate Census data with data taken from other sources such as county and state archival records. Third, despite the availability of data indicating school attendance, neither the length of time nor the regularity of school attendance among children could be determined (e.g., a child might have school attended only a few months out of an entire year).(4) Discrepancies between attendance figures were found within Census data records and between Census and school inspector reports. Given these caveats, the findings presented herein offer a gross picture of what occurred between 1850 and 1880, suggesting factors that might have influenced families’ decisions regarding schooling and the provisions made within this rural northern community for the education of its African American children.


By 1850, the population of Calvin Township had reached 624, of whom 158 (25.3%) were listed in the Census as being either “Black” or “mulatto” (mixed race). Most of the African American families lived in the eastern section of the township, clustering in the middle and lower eastern quadrant. Settlements in this section radiated around the area known as Calvin Center (Larrie, 1975). Eighty percent of the township’s African American families were identified as property owners and farmers.

Typical of the period and region, public schooling for Michigan’s children was provided for through a combination of local property taxes, a pro-rated share of the state’s common school fund, and a modest “rate-bill” or tuition charge based on a per-child, per-day rate of a few cents (Glover, 1906; Putnam, 1904; Van Buren, 1889). These sources of income were supplemented by an assessment of a certain amount of firewood and by requiring local families to provide room and board for teachers during the school term.

It is likely that most if not all of the schools in Calvin Township in 1850 were crude, one-room log structures wherein schooling was provided for no more than three or four winter months (Salmon, 1885). Despite the harshness of these conditions, the rate of school attendance was surprisingly high. By 1850, the state had a highly stable school enrollment rate of roughly 50%, meaning that half of all school-aged children between the legal school-going ages of 4 and 19 attended school some time during the year (Kaestle, 1983). Of school-aged children in Calvin Township in the 1850 sample, 49% (69 out of 142) attended school; however, neither the length of time nor the regularity of school attendance can be specified.

A substantial difference was found between the school attendance rate of the township’s African American and White American students. Of the 67 African American children of legal school age, only 16 (24%) attended school in contrast to 71% (53 out of 75) of White American children. A number of reasons can be proffered to account for this difference. Perhaps the rate-bill was prohibitive, as suggested by the finding that the average real estate value of local African American property owners’ land ($418) was considerably less than that of their White American neighbors ($816). On the other hand, the value of the real estate owned by the township’s African American households with children in school was only modestly higher than that of African American resident families whose children did not attend school ($371 compared to $261).

Another explanation is that the distance between home and school was greater for African American families. However, White families with school-attending children were found on contiguous records in the Census manuscript near African American families with similarly aged children not attending school. If contiguous Census records can be presumed to indicate location of households, then these families lived in close proximity. Therefore, the suggestion that distance from school restricted Black school attendance is not an adequate explanation, but the unavailability of a school map for this period makes this assertion impossible to validate.

A third explanation is that African American children were discouraged from attending school by their White neighbors. This seems unlikely, given the many other forms of support that the Whites of Calvin Township, primarily its Quaker citizens, provided to African American settlers in the region. Fourth, it could have been that the township’s African Americans simply placed less value on school attendance. However, no solid basis exists to support such a proposition in accounts of African American attitudes and behavior toward education during the period under study. Indeed, historical evidence points to the contrary. Blacks in both the antebellum and postbellum periods demonstrated a keen interest in education and formal schooling (Woodson, 1968, 1969). Thus, this too is highly unlikely.

The explanation that seems most plausible is that by 1850 the African American families in Calvin Township simply had not been established in the area long enough to be able to take full advantage of the schooling provided. Indeed, most of the area’s African American settlers arrived in two large contingents in 1848 and 1849. Thus, it might be presumed that in 1850 they were still heavily engaged in establishing their farmsteads, clearing land, building outbuildings, expanding and improving their houses, and so forth. The labor of children was a necessary component of this activity. Accordingly, the 1850 data reveal that the differences in African American and White American school attendance rates were greatest in the 13- to 15- and 16- to 18-year-old age ranges, ages at which children of that era could reasonably be expected to add their labor to the welfare of the household albeit at the expense of regular formal schooling.

Not surprisingly, the age of the child was the strongest factor determining the likelihood of a child attending school. No significant difference was found between male and female children with regard to school attendance in 1850, nor did there appear to be more than trivial gender differences within age groups or between the races. The rates of attendance for boys and girls were 66% and 63%, respectively.


By the 1860s, the demographics of Calvin Township had changed quite dramatically. While the total population had increased, the African American population had increased by 403%, such that African Americans comprised the majority of the township’s population (58%). Yet, this increase in numbers does not tell the whole story behind the period Hesslink (1968) calls a “decade of crisis.” According to Hesslink:

The provisions o the Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in September, 1850, were much harsher

than the local “Black Laws”

because they greatly simplified the process by which a plantation owner might prove a slave to be his “property.” Fugitive slaves, indeed all Negroes, were thus placed in jeopardy. The resulting threat to the community in Calvin Township, and other areas of the North, became so severe that many fled from there to Canada–the “North Star.” (p. 49)

Nonetheless, African Americans continued to make their way to Calvin Township, settling there, buying land, establishing farms, and building homes in hopes of a better life. The area’s Quakers, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, continued to assist the operations of the Underground Railroad and provide small plots of land and cabins to those African Americans who braved the journey to freedom in the North.

Evidence from 1860 Census data suggests that the area’s African Americans also made considerable progress in the schooling of their children. Of the 561 school-aged children listed as residents of Calvin Township, 335 (or 60%) were recorded as having attended school during the Census year. This rate was well above the state norm. The enrollment rate for White children in the township declined by about 8% to 70%, while the African American rate nearly doubled that of a decade earlier, reaching 54%. Thus it appears that even during a decade of great uncertainty, the African Americans of Calvin Township were pulling even educationally.

The racial difference in school enrollment noted in 1860 was particularly pronounced with respect to young children. While local White American families sent 65% of their 4- to 7-year-olds to school, African American families sent only half as many. In contrast, the school enrollment rate for the township’s 16- to 18-year-olds was about two-thirds for both groups. In the middling ranges, ages 8 to 12 and 13 to 15, two-thirds of African American children attended school, while White American children were enrolled at rates of 85% and 73%, respectively. The age structure of the African American and White American difference in 1860 does not support the explanation offered for the difference in 1850, namely, the need for the home and farm labor of children. Rather, it suggests either a genuine cultural difference, such as has been found between ethnic groups in cities for this period (Kaestle, 1983), or a distance-from-school disparity as a determining factor.


In 1867, the Michigan state legislature enacted a law that stated the following:

“…all persons resident of any school districts and five years of age, shall have an equal right to attend any school therein, and no separate school or department shall be kept for any person on account of race or color; provided that this shall not be construed to prevent the grading of schools according to the intellectual progress of the pupil, to be taught in separate places as may be deemed expedient. (Hayden, n.d., p. 47)

However, it was not until 1868 that this law was invoked as a result of appeals made to the state supreme court by African American residents of Detroit (Larrie, 1975). Legislation passed in 1871 reiterated the above stipulations and ruled that there was no upward age restriction to its provisions; thus, anyone desiring to could attend school in the state of Michigan (Gower, 1881).

Despite such legislation and legal action, the school attendance of African Americans in Calvin Township was slightly below state norms in 1870. Of the township’s 132 school-aged children between 5 and 20 years old identified in the 1870 Census, only 19 (14%) attended school. This was far fewer than would be expected, given the 1850 state norm for school attendance of roughly 50% and local 1850 Census figures of 49% school attendance.

However, data from the 1870 annual reports for two of the four districts serving the township’s African American children (districts 6 and 9; data from districts 3 and 7 were missing) indicate a school-attending rate of 75%, or 105 out of 139. This is comparable to statewide 1870 Census data indicating a 74% school attendance rate (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1870). In 1871, with all four of these districts reporting the number of schoolaged children and those attending, the rate was 59% (161 out of 274). These rates suggest that the sample’s attendance rate was substantially lower than would be expected. They also raise the question of data reliability.

Although the small sample count and data discrepancy on attendance between Census and annual school report figures made it impossible to conduct significance testing among the four school districts, a comparison among them is noteworthy. The majority of those African American school-aged children identified as attending school in the township’s districts, (74%) were enrolled in District 7, which had a predominantly African American student population (37 out of 39, or 95%). The school district with the greatest percentage of African Americans was District 9, in which all students were reported to be Black or mulatto. District 3 was also predominantly African American (85%). The average age of the students in these three districts was older than the norm, between 11.9 and 12.5 years. The average family size ranged between 7.5 and 9 members. The average family wealth was between $394 and $506, or roughly $300 less than that in District 6, the most integrated of the four Calvin Township school districts that enrolled African American students.

District 6, with its 50% Black or mulatto and 50% White student mix of students, had the least percentage of African American pupils of the four districts studied. It also had the lowest mean student age (11.5 years), the highest family wealth reported ($800), and the smallest family size (5.9 members). While these figures are similar to those found in the township’s predominantly White school districts,(5) the low school attendance rate reported in District 6 in 2870 (only 2 out of 14 school-aged children, or 14%) remains puzzling.

All four school districts reported roughly half male students and half female students of school age (between 5 and 20 years old). This counters the notion that one gender was favored to attend school–either males because education would be more valued for them, or females because they could be spared from farm labor. All schools in the four districts were in session for approximately the same duration (5 or 6 months out of the year). This was comparable to the township average of 6.5 months but two months less than the o comparison schools that served only White American students. Interestingly, districts 3 and 7 did not report having a schoolhouse. Though this might explain the low school attendance rate in District 3 (2 out of 39 school-aged children, or 5%), it raises questions about the much higher attendance rate in District 7 (14 out of 39, or 36%). Two school districts reported having schoolhouses that were wooden frame structures valued between $500 and $600. This indicates an improvement over the earlier log cabins but not the permanence of brick buildings.

District 3 had only one male teacher in 1870. This contrasts with districts 6, 7, and 9, which each reported having one male and one female teacher. The wages paid to the male teachers ranged from $105 to $190, while the female teachers received half that amount ($46 to $54). The wages paid to male teachers in the two White comparison school districts were about the same ($160 to $200) as the former, but female teachers in the White districts received more than their counterparts in the districts serving African American students ($64 to $100). Variations among teachers’ wages were partly due to length of service, as some teachers served longer school terms than others. Additionally, room and board were commonly used to compensate teachers, thus supplementing their wages. In the White school districts, teachers were boarded for as many as eight months. As none of the teachers in the four districts serving African American students were boarded, teachers’ wages represented the total amount of their compensation, indicating an even greater disparity between districts.


By the 1880s, state laws instituting compulsory schooling were firmly in place. A compulsory school attendance law passed in 1871 required all children between the ages of 8 and 14 to be sent to school and fined their parents for noncompliance. Initially, enforcement of this legislation was lax, but in 1883 and 1885, additional laws were passed that addressed enforcement of the compulsory attendance legislation and increased the amount of school attendance required. In Calvin Township in 1880, “there


615 school children between 5 and 20 years”; additionally, “For fiscal year ending August 31, 1881, there was paid $464 for female and $1356 for male teachers in the township” (Matthews, 1882, p. 388).

Though Michigan retained a system of decentralized district schools that were locally administered and overseen by the state superintendent, monies for the school system were increasingly provided through publicly generated revenues rather than privately contributed funds (Glover, 1906). In his 1880 annual report, Superintendent Cornelius A. Gower (1881) commented that “Michigan was among the very last states to make her public schools free schools for all the people…the primary schools are now entirely free, and the school interest fund increased” (p. 9). By 1880, statewide school attendance was 75.6%, with schools in operation for 7.5 months of the year (Gower, 1881, p. 35). The percentage of African American children attending Calvin Township’s schools was 77%, a marked contrast from three decades prior when only 24% attended, and a level at parity with statewide attendance rates for African Americans.

Comparing the school-attending African Americans with their White counterparts before and after the Civil War, one sees that the differences between the races were considerably minimized over the 30-year period. Initially, Calvin Township’s African American students were of a higher mean age, which suggests that they went to school later and perhaps for a shorter time. However, by 1880, with the passage of laws regulating the age at which children had to be sent to school, the average age of those attending was not significantly different between the races. In 1850, the average family size for African Americans was slightly lower (6.6 members) compared to Whites, whose family size averaged 7.8 members. By 1880, White family size had decreased and was lower than that of African Americans but not significantly so, at least not among those in the sample.(6)

Having migrated north under what Matthews (1882) describes as “destitute conditions” (p. 387), the improvements in school attendance noted among the African Americans of Calvin Township by the 1880s could be credited as an important achievement. According to Matthews:

They take justifiable pride in the churches of which they have three, and schools which reflect great credit upon them….Some of the schools are even now taught by colored teachers and are attended by a greater or lesser number of white children. (p. 387)


Given the unique settlement patterns and activities of African Americans in Cass County in the 19th century, this study has attempted to characterize the school attendance of African Americans in a rural northern community prior to and following the Civil War. The substantial differences noted between African American and White American school attendance in the county’s Calvin Township in 1850 (24%, compared to 71%) seems related to the African American newcomers’ emphasis on establishing residence above other concerns. During the “decade of crisis,” the 1860s, the township’s African Americans made considerable progress in schooling their children, increasing their school attendance rate to 54%. By 1880, school-attendance differences between the races had been minimized such that 77% of school-aged African American children attended compared to 67% of White American children. Moreover, school inspector reports suggest that at least some of the township’s schools were racially integrated.

It would be useful to extend this research investigation in the following directions. First, using the same research methodology, all of the 1870 and 1880 Census records could be retrieved. Consequently, all of the school-aged children in Calvin Township could be identified and placed in their respective school districts. In this manner, all of the township’s school districts could be contrasted such that predominantly White American, predominantly African American, and integrated schools could be characterized in terms of school attendance, duration, facilities, and teaching staff. Second, historical writings suggest that Calvin Township “presented a marked contrast when compared with the other townships of the county” (Matthews, 1882, p. 380). Further study might explore this anomaly by comparing the township with other Cass County townships like Penn and Porter, which also had sizable African American settlements. A comparison could also be made between Cass County and the more urban Wayne County. Finally, the present investigation covered an era of vast socioeconomic changes in Michigan and the nation. Situating future research on the 15 years following the Civil War and contrasting educational reforms in the South and North might place the findings of this study within a larger historical context.

1 The Underground Railroad was a clandestine network of private homes and shelters used by abolitionists to harbor runaway slaves from the South and assist their escape to freedom in the North and Canada (Dancy, 1940; Larrie, 1975; Woodson, 1918/1969). Members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, actively supported and staffed the Underground Railroad. The Quaker Line ran from Kentucky to Michigan, where it joined the Illinois Line, which extended from St. Louis, Missouri, through Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, to the Canadian border.

2 The collection of report from 1836 to 1915 is available on microfiche (L162.B2) at the State of Michigan Historical Archives in Lansing, Michigan.

3 Family number refers to a designation for all those in the same household. These included those who might not share the same last name but resided together. For the families in this 1870 sample, all did have the same last name.

4 For a discussion of the difference between school attendance and enrollment, see Kaestle and Vinovskis (1979).

5 These comparisons were made with two predominantly White districts (districts 1 and 2) on the basis of the 1870 annual school reports.

6 Though family wealth was a distinguishing factor between the races in 1850, it could not be contrasted in the 1880 sample because of the lack of comparable data in the 1880 Census.


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