By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR The Portsmouth Herald
DURHAM, N.H. (AP) — In her first book published this month, University of New Hampshire assistant professor Kabria Baumgartner brings to the public eye the often hidden advocacy and perseverance of African American girls and women in their own education during the 19th century.
History books usually paint the story of school desegregation in the United States often beginning in the mid-20th century South. But in Baumgartner’s book, “In Pursuit of Knowledge,” utilizing archival sources and genealogical records, she tells a different story — one that began in the Northeast in the mid-1800s.
The book details the great lengths to which African American girls and women went to secure their educational futures — from petitions, to boycotts, to published reflections. Their actions, Baumgartner argues, “over time helped usher in” state legislation prohibiting school segregation.
“They know what rights are being denied to them and they are very intentional in arguing for those rights,” said Baumgartner. “I was really struck by that.”
Baumgartner is an assistant professor in the UNH English Department, specializing in 19th century African American history, culture and literature. She has a Ph.D. in African-American/Black Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“I really just study all of African American life as much as I can find to represent and understand what life was like in the 19th century,” she said.
Baumgartner was led to write “In Pursuit of Knowledge” following her Ph.D. dissertation, which homed in on African American education in the 19th century. She became interested in a few particular cases involving violent attacks in the North against schools for African Americans, including one at Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, where townspeople actually tried to drag the structure into a swamp.
“I was just shocked to learn that had happened in the North,” Baumgartner said. “This is not what you think about when you think about the North, particularly in the 19th century. And I wanted to investigate that more. I ended up moving towards girls and women navigating that.”
The book is an exploration of how girls and women fought for equal school rights amid a hostile environment, and what is unique about her research, Baumgartner said, is that it focuses on the African American experience.
In 1840, a girl in Nantucket, Massachusetts, wanted to attend the Nantucket public high school, but the school denied her admission on account of her race, Baumgartner said. Over the course of a four- or five-year fight, the girl and her African American community sent petitions to the Massachusetts Legislature.
Petitionings also occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, where in the 1830s, they segregated their public schools. By the 1840s, they had integrated, and in 1855, the state passed a law prohibiting school segregation.
“All of these cases led to bigger and bigger and bigger victories,” Baumgartner said, calling the girls and women featured in her book “brave, courageous, very resourceful and purposeful, intentional in what they’re doing.”
Baumgartner also explores writing as a form of protest, as some women would publish their reflections in anti-slavery newspapers. One young woman in Connecticut, Baumgartner said, essentially theorized the idea of White privilege in 1834.
“You see these ideas that we might see today, African Americans were talking about them in the 19th century,” she said. “This is a deep history that I’m trying to bring to the surface.”