Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Joan N. Burstyn


African American, Antebellum, Education, Historiography, New York State, Research methods

Subject Categories

Education | History


In the mid-nineteenth century a compulsory education system was emerging that allowed all children to attend public schools in northern states. This dissertation investigates school attendance rates among African American children in New York State from 1850-1870 by examining household patterns and educational access for African American school-age children in three communities: Sandy Ground, Syracuse, and Watertown. These communities were selected because of their involvement in the Underground Railroad. I employed a combination of educational and social history methods, qualitative and quantitative. An analysis of federal census reports, state superintendent reports, city directories, area maps, and property records for the years 1820-1870 yielded comparative data on households, African American and European American, in which African American school-age children resided. The nature of schooling and the manner in which the household and community advocated for school attendance during this period are also described and compared. Between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, advocates were preparing African Americans for full citizenship (suffrage rights, educational access, and home ownership) in these three communities and throughout New York State. Using Pearson's correlational coefficient, the data reveal that before the U.S. Civil War there was a significant correlation between African American school-age children's attendance in school, the head of household's literacy, and the head of household home ownership. In Sandy Ground the significance level was .05; in Syracuse the significance level was .05; and in Watertown the significance level was .01. This study reveals that African American children in the communities under study, whether they attended school or not, had access to literate adults.

The dominant discourse on African American education in the United States is oftentimes told through the lens of post-Civil War emancipation in the South. In New York State, slavery was abolished in 1827, and the children identified in this study were the first generation of free-born African Americans in the state.


Open Access