Abolitionist Colleges and the Transatlantic Education of West African Students

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:20 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
John Bell, Harvard University
This paper examines the relationship between white paternalism and black self-advancement in the transatlantic reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century by analyzing West African students’ education at American colleges. From the late 1840s through the 1860s, the American Missionary Association and the American Baptist Free Mission Society recruited Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, Sarah Margru Kinson, and Barnabas Root to study at affiliated abolitionist colleges in the United States. At the time, Knox, New York Central, and Oberlin were some of the few institutions of higher learning in the world to admit students irrespective of color or sex. Baquaqua, Kinson, and Root attended these schools for a combined twelve years. Drawing on their correspondence with white philanthropists while at school and afterward, this paper argues that abolitionist education gave the three students substantive knowledge of white institutions which each employed to pursue personal material and religious goals. Together, their stories shed new light on questions of race, agency, and accommodation within the educational branches of American abolitionism and overseas missions.

Baquaqua, Kinson, and Root converted traumatic individual and familial experiences of forced migration into social capital with which to navigate white-led reform networks in the U.S. and West Africa. Within these circles, their powerful personal narratives, fluency in African languages, and reputations as converted Christians made them highly eligible for white patronage. It was education at predominantly white institutions, however, that became their most important credential. Beyond the obvious academic benefits, schooling at Knox, New York Central, and Oberlin acquainted the three with the culture of religious reform and lent the students respectability in the estimation of white reformers. In subsequent job inquiries to missionary associations, Baquaqua, Kinson, and Root marshaled all these skills and qualifications. They hoped the knowledge they gained from their first Atlantic crossings would enable their passages home.