Springfield school teacher Mary Ames and her friend Emily Bliss opened a school for the liberated slaves on Edisto Island, S.C., after the Civil War. The Freedman’s Bureau swore them in in Boston shortly after the war ended.
They went to a region of former cotton plantations, where the Reconstruction government settled many freed slaves. Mary Ames kept a diary describing the poor living conditions, the decay and squalor of the housing, the poverty and illness. More than 100 children and adults came to their school.
A Springfield School Teacher Writes
By mid-July, Mary Ames stopped updating her diary every day, instead writing narratives summing up weeks’ worth of activities. She and Emily had moved from one abandoned house to another. In July 1865, she described how they moved into a pleasant and comfortable house. It did, however, lack a front door and some windows. They took two rooms, one for sleep and one for eating.
The kitchen is across the yard, which is deep with sand, washed up by the creek. At high tide we are wholly surrounded by water. Besides Rhoda and “her man,” Robert, we have George, who sleeps across the threshold where the door should be; so we feel safe.
A Mr. Alden, who has horses, servants and soldiers, promised to bring mail from the landing, seven miles away. The found the bathing delightful until Rhoda’s man Robert caught a shark.
Jim has been down, bringing little Ben for a visit. I have dressed him in a suit of underwear which came in a barrel of clothing from the “Church of the Disciples” (Boston). He sleeps on the floor beside my bed. One night, as he hung over my chair, he was uneasy, and I asked what troubled him. He whispered, “Is the reason you don’t kiss me ’cause I’m black?” I took him into my lap and held him till he slept.
No Water, Little Food
Mary Ames continued:
Miss Kempton and Miss Stanton will occupy two rooms of this house. They will do their own cooking and will not interfere with us. We have only two chairs–mine, a steamer chair; Emily’s, a pretty straight-backed one; very tiresome to sit in long at a time; we often exchange and oftener stretch ourselves on the floor to rest. Our great need is drinking water. There is an open cistern back of the house; this we used till a party of our colored visitors in a frolic threw their hats into it. A burly old darky waded in and fished them out, and since then we have used watermelons to quench our thirst. A coat, vest, or hat in exchange will get us a plenty. We keep a pile on the floor of our dining-room, and cut one when thirsty.
Our food is getting low. We are often hungry. Government flour is full of weevils, little bugs, that baking does not kill. We pick out the wriggling creatures and eat the bread dipped in molasses, but soon we shall have eggs and vegetables.
A child has been born to Sarah. She has not named it yet, as it is considered bad luck to give a name to a child before it is a month old. She means to call her Mary Emily.
This story was updated in 2021.