Anna Gardner went south during and after the Civil War to teach freedmen. Twice her assignments took her to North Carolina. In 1863, she traveled by military transport to the newly occupied city of New Bern, optimistic about the prospect of teaching freedmen. She returned to the state in 1871 to be the principal of a teacher training, or “normal” school” in Elizabeth City. After her eight years teaching in the South, she was much less optimistic, realizing that the promises of Reconstruction were unlikely to be realized in her lifetime.
Anna “was not typical of her fellow teachers. For one, she was forty-six years old, sixteen years older than the average teacher. More importantly, she was an active abolitionist who had previous experience teaching black students” at the African School on Nantucket. A member of Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Society, Anna was instrumental in the six-year long struggle to integrate the Nantucket public schools. “Unlike some of the teachers, Anna had no doubts about the intellectual abilities and potential of the newly freed slaves.”
“… What must it have been like for Anna to travel to New Bern, North Carolina, one of the first Confederate cities to fall into Union hands? Anna had never traveled outside of the Northeast, and her head was full of horror stories about enslavers she heard from fugitives….Anna was aware of the toll that the war was taking on the men of Nantucket. At least twenty-three Nantucket men died between October 21, 1861, and February 16, 1863, about the time she set out for New Bern…Anna knew many of those young men as former students and neighbors….
Anna was blind to the so-called charms of the South and not impressed by New Bern. “Like most old Southern cities, it has a decayed, dilapidated appearance,” she wrote. The city “presents a dingy aspect, unsightly to the eye of a New Englander, accustomed to the trim, well-painted cottages and elegant mansions of the North.” She blamed the South’s lack of progress on slavery, which she said was ‘incompatible with such improvements as serve to renew and impart a fresh aspect to old cities at the North.’
… The scenes that greeted Anna were chaotic and unfamiliar to anything she had ever witnessed. Tens of thousands of soldiers and thousands of freedmen milled in the streets and in the camps set up inside and outside the town. Wounded soldiers arrived to be treated in the many hospitals established around the town. …Writing at the end of her first year in New Bern, Anna expressed confidence in the military. The town “is too well fortified to be in danger of falling again into the hands of the enemy.”
The number of freedmen within the city comprised the largest number of freedmen under Union control in North Carolina. Their desire for education prompted a call for teachers, initially supported by philanthropic organizations. “Anna wrote that freedmen “swarm in the streets” enjoying “their deliverance from cruel task-masters.” They exuded hope, she wrote, having previously seen no hope of deliverance other than “through the gates of death.”
Anna’s first classroom was in a building owned by the Masons, also used as a Union hospital. Later, she moved to James City, a freedmen’s camp outside the city.
“Anna recorded that a few of her students could read….Books and teaching materials were scarce, and the freedmen were too poor to own books. Anna taught in New Bern for almost two months without any textbooks….Anna was optimistic about the future of black education. She wrote that teachers and superintendents “from Norfolk to New Orleans” reported that the freedmen were acquiring “the elements of learning with astonishing rapidity.”
Her optimism was tempered with realism, writing that Southern whites were “so averse to believing that the light of intelligence beams beneath a swarthy complexion.” She predicted a backlash: ‘Action and reaction are equal, in ethics as in matter. The strength and tenacity of the wicked, unnatural prejudice which exists toward the colored race, is itself a sufficient guarantee that public sentiment must receive a reactionary impulse.’
During the summer of 1864, disease hit New Bern again when yellow fever ravaged the white community. As many as one in four whites went “under the sod in the short space of six weeks,” and the epidemic brought the city to its knees. The town was “deserted and forsaken, shut out from intercourse with the world.” Supplies ran short, and businesses were shuttered, “except the undertaker’s.” …while the disease mainly struck the white community, the black community was also affected. Freedmen were called upon to guard the town as well as to bury the dead, as there were not enough whites healthy enough to inter their own…
It was a grim time for Anna and her colleagues. They had suffered through two epidemics and a military attack in the span of a few months… The schools were forced to close on July 23, 1864 because of yellow fever. Those, like Anna, who were healthy enough to leave, went home for the summer, but many did not return until mid-December when it was finally deemed safe to do so.”
By the time Anna left New Bern, the Freedmen’s Bureau had been created by the federal government. Anna was assigned to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she stayed for six years. By the time she left Charlottesville, Radical Reconstruction had come to an end, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, always underfunded, had even less money. (Congress withdrew its funding entirely in 1872.) The New England Freedmen’s Aid Society paid Anna to return to one of the two remaining schools it supported in North Carolina, this one in Elizabeth City, a small town on the banks of the Pasquotank River. Anna’s assignment was to teach a normal school class for prospective teachers, building on her success in Charlottesville.
“Overall, however, Anna found the white people of Elizabeth City hostile to black education. In 1866, a black church had been burned down as it was being readied to be a freedmen’s school. Anna did not mince words describing Elizabeth City, which she described as a “grotesque, tumbled-down dilapidated place.” The houses were “dingy, forlorn-looking dwellings…thrown together with less regard to taste and method than could be found among barbarians.” She tried to look on the positive side, stating, “Yet the town must have some attraction or compensating advantage, since I am told some sixty Northern families have emigrated and are now residing in the town or vicinity.” Anna opened a normal class on November 1 with 40 students…Anna wrote that Elizabeth City was an “unfavorable place for a Normal school…”
By year’s end, Anna recommended that the school be discontinued. She returned to Nantucket in 1875, age 59, after more than a dozen years of teaching freedmen. She left behind a small cadre of black teachers who kept the flame of education lit during the bleak years of Jim Crow that followed.
Not idle in her retirement, she was active in reform movements, especially that of women’s suffrage. She was one of thirteen women to cast the first ballots on the island, albeit only for school committee members, the only officers for which they were allowed to vote. Anna was an early member of the Nantucket Historical Association, organized in 1894, where her papers are archived.