One of the major pursuits of African Americans during slavery was the ability to learn to read and write. While legislation in 1865 established a public school system that included schools for black children, this system did not provide adequate funds for these schools to be built. Instead, setting up black schools became one of the tasks of the Freedman’s Bureau. Even then, odds were stacked against African American children: the funding structure for schools, as well as the need for children on plantations, led to poor learning conditions and obstacles that were difficult to overcome.
“In the Consideration of the Advantage of General Education”
In 1867, Dr. Brome and his wife, “in the consideration of the advantage of general education” donated a small plot of land to erect a schoolhouse for the “use, benefit and education of the colored people of St. Mary’s County”. It is unclear what Dr. Brome’s motivations were: it is likely that he was approached by the Freedman’s Bureau as one of the largest slaveowners in his district with the most land to spare. Eleven schools were set up in St. Mary’s County by the Freedman’s Bureau following the war, often on land donated by large landowners, many of whom were former slave owners. In 1872, when the Freedmen’s Bureau was disbanded and state and local funding controlled schools for blacks and whites, the trustees of these schools were encouraged to turn their schools over to the county. It is likely that this school became a county school for African Americans at that time.
The donated acre was located at the corner of Mattapany Road and Three Notched Road, on the edge of his property. While the land was donated, the deed specifically states that, if the land ceased to be used for those means, it would be returned to Dr. Brome or his heirs. A survey map from 1910 of the Slavakian Settlement does not include a small section at the location of this plot, indicating that the school was still in use. In 1937, a deed is transferred for the sale of this land from Dr. Brome’s children to Franklin and Clara Norris, suggesting that, by that time, the school no longer was in use.
Literacy at St. Mary’s Manor
Census records of this period identify the ability of individuals to read and write, and whether or not they attended school within the past year. In 1870, nearly all of the working men and women at St. Mary’s Manor were illiterate, including all of Dr. Brome’s former slaves. The youngest individual listed as illiterate was 10 years old, while every child below the age of 10 was listed as being able to read and write: it is likely that these children were simply not tallied one way or the other. Only one person, 13 year old George Bush, was listed as having attended school within the past year. It is possible that this low attendance may have been due to the removal of the Freedman’s Bureau in 1870, resulting in lowered attendance. By 1880, much had changed: all of the children between the ages of 7 and 12 were listed as having attended school during the census year. This may be due to the mandate by legislation that each election district have at least one school for black children: it is likely that the school that occupied the space donated by Dr. Brome, was one of the two schools for African Americans in the 1st District.
“Jno Bush col.”
All of the families listed on the 1870 census were formerly enslaved by Dr. Brome, except for John Bush. He and his wife, Ann, and their four children lived in building 97, next to George Whalen and Charles Biscoe. John and Anna were also the only two working for Dr. Brome who could read and write: all of Dr. Brome’s former slaves were illiterate. Their son, George, was also the only child who had attended school, and one of the few who could read and write. John Bush is also listed in the deed regarding the transfer of the land for the black school in 1867 as a Trustee, along with James Stevenson and William Kelly, two white men, and John Baley and John Holly, both “colored”. It is likely, therefore, that Bush was an instrumental part in brokering the school’s transition from the Freedmen’s Bureau to St. Mary’s County. Additionally, because he and his wife were the few individuals who were literate on the plantation, he likely played an important role in the community.
John and Ann Bush were the only literate individuals working at Dr. Brome’s plantation in 1870, and their son George was the only one attending school that year. John also served as a trustee for the school located on Three Notched Road.
This deed, dated to 1867, states the transfer of land on Three Notched Road from Dr. Brome to be used as a school for African Americans. One of the trustees is listed as John Bush, who lived on Dr. Brome’s property.
This map shows the land that originally belonged to Dr. Brome before it was sold to cover his debts in 1887. The remaining Brome farm is located to the west along the river, while the land given for the school is circled on the eastern part of the map.