Week 4 – #52Ancestors

This week, I am not focusing on a specific ancestor. When I first looked at the theme for this week (Education), I thought about the fact that prior to 1900, all of my known ancestors were farmers, primarily in Ashe and Surry Counties in North Carolina; Johnson County, Tennessee; Washington and Scott Counties in Virginia. Many census records have the blocks ticked off for “Cannot Read” and “Cannot Write”. Occasionally the husband could read and write, but the wife could not. Often, though, both parents were illiterate.

Education in the late 1800s and early 1900s in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee was a diverse landscape. Each state had its own unique set of challenges and opportunities when it came to educating its children.

North Carolina, for example, had a relatively high illiteracy rate and a shortage of trained teachers. The state government, however, recognized the importance of education and made efforts to improve the system. In 1839, the state established a board of education and began offering teacher training programs. Between 1840 and 1860, the number of schools in the state increased by 562%. In 1885, the state also passed a law mandating that all children between the ages of 8 and 14 attend school. According to “A History of Public Education in North Carolina” by William W. Pierson Jr., this law helped to increase enrollment and improve the quality of education in the state. However, the law was not consistently enforced until the passage of the “Compulsory Attendance Act” in 1913, which required four months of school attendance per year.

Virginia, on the other hand, had a higher literacy rate and a more established system of education. However, the state struggled with issues of inequality and segregation. In the late 1800s, African American schools were underfunded and understaffed compared to white schools. Despite this, many African American communities in Virginia were able to establish their own schools and colleges, such as Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute. According to “Education in Virginia” by the Library of Virginia, these institutions played a crucial role in providing quality education for African American students during this time period. Compulsory school attendance in Virginia began in 1908.

Tennessee also had a relatively established system of education, but like Virginia, struggled with issues of segregation and inequality. The state had a long history of using poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent African Americans from voting, which also limited their access to education. However, in the early 1900s, the state began to take steps to improve the education of African American students by increasing funding for their schools and hiring more African American teachers. According to “Education in Tennessee” by the Tennessee State Library and Archives, this helped to improve enrollment and graduation rates among African American students. The compulsory education law in Tennessee went into effect in 1913. By 1920, however, school attendance (80 days per year) for white children increased to only 78.71% and to 65% for black children.

Overall, the late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great change and progress in the field of education in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. While each state faced its own unique set of challenges, they all recognized the importance of education and made efforts to improve the system for their children. Sadly, these changes would take a long time to be completely implemented.


1. Pierson, William W. A History of Public Education in North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

2. The History of Education in North Carolina. North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED369713.pdf.

3. “Education in Virginia” Library of Virginia, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/education/.

4. “Education in Tennessee”, Tennessee State Library and Archives, https://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/education-tennessee.

5. Hoffschwelle, Mary S. Ph.D. “Public Education in Tennessee”, Trials, Triumphs, and Transformations: Tennesseans’ Search for Citizenship, Community, and Opportunity, https://dsi.mtsu.edu/trials/hoffschwelle .

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