In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America
(NYU Press, 2019) is an intellectual and cultural history of the educational activism of African American women and girls in the long nineteenth century. Kabria Baumgartner
focuses her narrative on the actions of “African American women and girls living in the antebellum Northeast” in cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. These women including individuals such as Sarah Mapps Douglas and Sarah Parker Remond wrote essays about education, built schools, and became educators in their own right while living their lives with a “sense of purpose” defined as a “purposeful womanhood”. Activism is “broadly construed” by the author to note that Black women engaged in “concerted efforts to procure advancing schooling (beyond the primary level) and teaching opportunities for themselves and their community”. Baumgartner notes that not only did these women advocate for entrance into educational institutions for themselves, but that they also developed schools that welcomed students of all races.
In this text, the author essentially traces the historical development of victories against segregation won at the state and local level, in the educational system, a century before the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, Topeka Kansas in 1954 that helped to make the Civil Rights Movement a mass movement across the United States (U.S.). Baumgartner, in her text, importantly notes that these achievements gained in the nineteenth century were the result of both individual and collective efforts of Black women such as Sarah Harris, Mary E. Miles, Serena de Grasse, Rosetta Morrison, Sarah Parker Remond, Susan Paul, Sarah Mapps Douglass and Charlotte Forten.
This text is concisely organized around two major sections and six chapters with an “Introduction” and a “Conclusion.” Baumgartner reads the activism of Black women in the nineteenth century as “continuous and dynamic, becoming more and more organized” by the mid-nineteenth century. For women such as Sarah Harris, profiled in Chapter One of the text, the schoolhouse was both “an extension of the home and a defining civic space” or place for these women to define a purposeful womanhood. Harris and other Black women who helped to integrate schools in Connecticut such as the Canterbury Female Boarding School did so with the larger goal of securing rights as citizens beyond the schoolhouse. Baumgartner weaves together a network of Black women activists in her narrative who forged a collective attack against school segregation and laid the foundations for the ideology of a beloved community moving beyond the schoolhouse that eventually became the intellectual basis for the Black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. She does this by reading an array of sources against the grain including census records, letters, pamphlets, school records, annual reports, almanacks, petitions, newspapers, abolitionist literature and published writings.
At the core of Baumgartner’s argument is the idea of purposefulness advanced by Black women intellectuals. This idea embraced by Black women activists in the nineteenth century was that by embodying purposefulness defined as resilience, intellectual vitality, usefulness, morality, and civic-mindedness they could fight white supremacy inside and outside of the education system. By eradicating prejudice in the education system and promoting a philosophy of Christian love, these women demanded full equality in society for themselves and in the nation as a whole.
Hettie V. Williams PhD is an Assistant Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. She has published book chapters, essays, and edited/authored five books. Her latest publications include Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History (Praeger, 2017) and, with Dr G. Reginald Daniel, professor of historical sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Website: hettiewilliams.com/ Follow me on twitter: @DrHettie2017