Sunday, August 5, 2012

Della Barber: Teacher for the Freedmen

Della Barber
(Colonel Seth M. Barber Collection)

When Della Barber passed away in Norwalk, Ohio in 1928, her obituary stated that she was a “teacher” and “highly respected.” No truer words were ever spoken. But they did not begin to tell her story. Born shortly before the Civil War into a well-educated and deeply religious family, Della Barber committed her life to teaching the children of former slaves. She chose to leave Ohio at the age of 25 and travel alone to Concord, North Carolina where she began her career at Scotia Seminary

Established in 1867 by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, Scotia educated young African American girls in “religion and in the arts and sciences usually taught in seminaries of a high order.” In fact, the board modeled the school after New England’s Mount Holyoke. New students were astounded to see their teachers - white and African American, dining and socializing together. The board believed that whether its students became Christian teachers, social workers, nurses, wives, or mothers, Scotia graduates would pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Della Barber was one of the six teachers responsible for educating more than 200 young women at Scotia.

Unidentified Photograph from Della Barber's Album
North Carolina, dtd.1883

Four years later, the Board of Missions sent Della to Point Coupee, Louisiana to open a new school. It was a rude awakening for the young Ohio missionary teacher. Northern congregations sent books, clothing, and money, but it was not enough. Della labored, often alone against poverty and growing racial tensions. Even though the school was strongly supported by prominent Creole families, intimidation and threats on Della’s life forced the Board of Missions to give up its efforts at Point Coupee in 1892.

Unidentified Photograph from Della Barber's Album
North Carolina, no date

Della found safe haven at the church’s Mary Holmes Seminary in West Point, Mississippi. Ever the devoted teacher, she worked to secure funds so that of some of her Point Coupee students could join her or board at other Presbyterian schools.

Finally, Della was appointed to the Mary Allen Seminary in Crockett, Texas. The town of Crockett donated land. The Board of Missions funded the seminary’s construction. The curriculum prepared young women for teaching. Later, courses for elementary and secondary students were added. Eight teachers conducted classes for more than 200 students. The death of the school’s president in 1910 and a devastating fire a short time later sent the seminary into decline.

After more than 30 years, Della Barber retired and returned to Norwalk, where she lived with her brother. She continued to keep in touch with her colleagues and former students. Many became the educators she had envisioned.

Some criticized the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen for not challenging the segregation that increased as Jim Crow laws took hold in the Deep South. Others believed the opposite: by ignoring racial tensions around them, efforts to educate the first generation of young African American women grew and flourished in the first critical decades after the Civil War.

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