In June 1864, nearly 80 children stepped into a classroom for the first time in Jefferson City. Since 1847, it had been illegal in Missouri to teach a Black person, free or slave. Despite the Union occupation, Jefferson City townspeople mostly were secession-minded and vocally opposed to educating African-Americans.
Nevertheless, members of the two Black congregations, what would become Quinn Chapel A.M.E. and 2nd Baptist churches, requested a teacher from the American Missionary Association.
New York native and Michigan pioneer Lydia Gaylord Hess Montague found it to be her mission. Three sons and her second husband were fighting for the Union, and her two daughters were already teaching for the association. Montague, 47, saw the influence such a school could have on the legislature.
The school opened June 13, 1864, in a "small log barn."
She immediately was disappointed to "find the people mostly of strong secesh principles," she wrote in a letter preserved at the American Missionary Association archives, Amistad Research Center, at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Within just her first week, a group of white boys ransacked the school. Then the young, white mob made a habit of throwing rocks at Black students going to and from the school, until a father intervened and admonished them.
The mayor, Thomas Lawson Price, who had painted and hoisted a secession flag over the city, threatened her on more than one occasion, at one point saying, "The thing must be stopped,'" she wrote.
Even the local provost marshal said he could not protect the school, unless he had orders from Gen. William Rosecrans, commander of the Department of Missouri at the time.
And she was turned away from many boarding rooms, because of her occupation, causing her to walk three-fourths of a mile each morning.
"Whoever teaches in this city must need have a brave heart," she later wrote.
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Despite white opposition, 60 students attended the first day, and a week later she averaged 80.
"The prospects of the school are most favorable. This is the first effort of the kind here and the colored people are so very grateful," Montague wrote.
Several of her students still were enslaved. They would hurry in at the end of the day's lessons, after completing their work.
After the school had been open nearly two months, the "radicals" who supported her efforts, began to step up. They circulated a petition and influenced their neighbors. Supporters even encouraged her to "go on at all hazards to hold our ground, stone them or take any course I thought best to protect the school," Montague's letters said.
During her three years in Jefferson City, Montague constantly struggled financially. The association was slow to pay its teachers' wages and the local black community could not pay her board, as arranged.
At the same time, the Black Baptist congregation was trying to buy a house. And it didn't help that the two Black churches wanted separate schools. Then, after the Baptists acquired a building, they charged her rent. Eventually, she began charging 50 cents per month, but still allowed anyone in regardless.
"The children all want to come to school, but their parents do not send the money and I do not like to turn them away. There are a good many widows, whose husbands have been impressed into the service, and they receive no money from them nor rations from the government."
Montague left her school for the safety of St. Louis in August 1864, while guerrilla activity around the city increased as Confederate Gen. Sterling Price's raid approached.
"The school had been prospering finely, until the guerrillas came so near us as to kill one of the boarders and wound another," she wrote. "The colored people were so badly frightened that I was not easy to induce them to come to school."
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Although she hoped to return after the November presidential election, it wasn't until March 1865 when the school resumed in Jefferson City, with the help of her daughter Diantha in the Baptists' building. There she met Lt. Richard Baxter Foster, first principal of Lincoln Institute, in May 1866 and supported that effort for the future.
Montague also taught a Sabbath school, which was attended by more than 100, walking up to 3 miles. And she visited and cared for the sick.
"In all the places where I have been acquainted, I have never had my sympathies called out for them as here," Montague said. "This has been to me a work of deep interest, and I am truly thankful to God for giving me strength to be the means of aiding this unfortunate race in their initiatory experience in passing from the habits of slave life to that of freemen."
A former reporter for the Jefferson City News Tribune, Michelle Brooks enjoys researching the history of Jefferson City, specifically Lincoln University.