After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, South Carolina and other former Confederate states had to reform their legal systems under the federal Reconstruction government to regain admission into the United States. With the protection of federal troops, formerly enslaved African American men and free men of color in the U.S. South could vote and run for political office for the first time. (Women in the United States did not gain the right to vote until 1920, and African American women had to push past the barriers of Black disenfranchisement before they could access the ballot in the mid-twentieth century.) The Reconstruction Era in the 1865 and 1877 proved to be a tumultuous period in the South as former Confederates, free African Americans, and northern transplants to the region struggled to restructure a society and economy that had revolved around slavery for centuries. It was also a period of fundamental political change. With the support of newly elected African American politicians, establishing a public school system to educate all children throughout the region became one of the most significant and long-lasting legacies of this time period.
In South Carolina, African American representatives and sympathetic Whites elected during Reconstruction took the lead in implementing progressive legislation through the 1868 convention, which led to the adoption of a new state constitution that same year. This constitution featured many new amendments, including provisions for free public education for all children in the state, regardless of race or class. Prior to the Civil War, southern states generally did not provide public education. White elites sent their children to private institutions, while passing increasingly strict laws that denied educational access to enslaved African Americans. Poor Whites, free people of color, and other marginalized populations generally did not receive a formal education, though some had access to informal schooling. Black South Carolinians saw newly acquired freedom and citizenship as an avenue to systematically obtain formal schooling and literacy for all.
Even before the ratification of South Carolina’s 1868 constitution, Freedmen’s Bureaus, northern philanthropic and missionary associations, and African American leaders established private schools for Black youth in the state. For example, in 1865 the American Missionary Association (AMA) established the Avery Normal Institute as a secondary private school for African Americans in Charleston. The Avery Normal Institute required tuition fees and focused on training professionals and leaders from the local Black community through a classical education curriculum, though they also featured vocational classes. In subsequent decades, Avery emerged as a premier private institution and remained one of the few secondary schools for African Americans in Charleston until the end of the nineteenth century, when the city finally began to fund public schools for Black children such as the Charleston Industrial Institute (later renamed Burke High School).
Reconstruction ultimately ended in South Carolina after Democrats elected the former Confederate general Wade Hampton as governor in 1876, following a campaign of extralegal violence against Black voters and White Republicans throughout the state. This was followed by the Compromise of 1877, which led to the election of Republican Rutherford Hayes as President of the United States, in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from former Confederate states. For the developing system of public education in the U.S. South, this compromise was politically disastrous. Former Confederate legislators increasingly pushed African American politicians out of southern politics, and repealed numerous progressive measures that had facilitated the growth of private and public schools for African Americans throughout the region, including in South Carolina. Rather than dismantling public education, however, the state of South Carolina maintained a racially segregated elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education system. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court legally sanctioned this practice of racially segregating public facilities, including schools, through Plessy v. Ferguson. Black public schools within this system still served as empowering educational and community spaces, but they were drastically underfunded compared to White schools. In Charleston and across the U.S. South, many Black parents and civic leaders would spend decades organizing and petitioning local school districts to support equal education for their children.