Antebellum Rhetorical Education at Myrtilla Miner's School for Colored Girls: Cultural Rhetoric and Epistolary Writing at the First African American Normal School

Date of Award

July 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Rebecca M. Howard


African American, Antebellum, Literacy, Pedagogy, Rhetorical Education, women

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation is a rhetorical historiography that shows archival evidence of Myrtilla Miner’s School for Colored Girls, which was founded in 1851. Antebellum Rhetorical Education at Myrtilla Miner’s School for Colored Girls reflects the advanced rhetorical education and literacy practices of free colored women at the School for Colored Girls, as the first colored normal school established for free people of African descent prior to the American Civil War. This study examines recovered student compositions and epistolary forms of the free colored women as rhetorical artifacts of nineteenth-century teacher training and cultural activism. The study also provides an analysis of Myrtilla Miner’s pedagogical practices and writings, reflects the inter- and intra-cultural discourses and influence of the emerging Free Colored People’s Movement, and illuminates the social and rhetorical power of affluent white women in antebellum society, in support of the school. Under the direction Dr. Rebecca Moore Howard, this study utilizes a plural qualitative methodological approach, which includes (1) historical case studies, (2) critical rhetoric, and (3) grounded theory. The study is situated alongside scholarship from David Gold, Shirley Wilson Logan, Jessica Enoch, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and others, who add to our understanding of nineteenth-century African American rhetoric, antebellum pedagogy, and literacy practices as social and cultural activism, in the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies.

In addition, this study looks forward from the American Revolutionary War, rather than back from the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as uses the postcolonial fabrication of race in the United States or American Africanism (as Toni Morrison defines it) as a lens to examine the tensions that effected the Miner School for Colored Girls as a cultural phenomenon, despite the systematic political and social activisms that were enacted to deny free people of African descent access to the “higher branches of learning.” Supported by public discourses and United States Congressional records that state the School for Colored Girls was the first antebellum colored normal school in the United States, this dissertation reflects writing and advanced literacy as markers of American citizenship and whiteness, and signifies the artifacts as early representations of black modes of discourse (as Geneva Smitherman defines it). This study speaks to the nuances of race, gender, rhetorical activism, and marginalization, where the artifacts from the Miner School for Colored Girls are compared to and contextualize with antebellum discourses and hegemonic social/political practices on the free people of African descent’s access to and restrictions from rhetorical education, advanced literacy, and institutions of higher learning, and where the artifacts from the Miner School for Colored Girls are compared to and contextualize with antebellum discourses on access to rhetorical education and institutions of higher learning for Native Americans, White women, and free Colored people. Antebellum Rhetorical Education at Myrtilla Miner’s School for Colored Girls adds to our understanding on pre-American Civil War advanced literacy and writing practices of free people of African descent, women’s rhetoric and activism, antebellum teacher training, and the professionalization and representation of black women in the American Normal School Movement narrative.


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