Proud Shoes: The Fitzgerald Family

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 11:52   /   Views: 845
Proud Shoes: How Education Plays a Central Role in the Fitzgerald Family

Since the inception of slavery in the United States education was socially, and often legally, forbidden to slaves and African Americans, and it was not until the conclusion of the Civil War that any substantial hope for an educated African American populace finally arose. In Proud Shoes, the biography of Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald as told by Pauli Murray, education plays a central role in the development of Robert Fitzgerald and his family’s life. The contrast between Robert and his wife Cornelia, the educated African Americans, and the uneducated, and the accepting white Americans, with those holding onto the past, depicts African Americans as having given up iron chains to struggle to remove those of ignorance. As the primary distance between white and black Americans, creating educational opportunities was a fundamental goal in assuring a move towards equality, and the experiences and struggles Robert Fitzgerald faced in his pursuit exemplify those of the African Americans living during the same defining era in American history.

Robert Fitzgerald’s entire life was focused on obtaining an education and educating others. When he was whipped by a racist white man Robert’s mother swore she would not let him hire out again, and instead sent him to school in Wilmington. This proved to be a great opportunity for Robert Fitzgerald. He “grew up with a passion for knowledge (102)” and his brothers admired him and often followed his advice in important family decisions. Eventually Robert Fitzgerald discontinued his studies on his own accord to move to the south and become a teacher. When he did return home “he was leaving behind him a school valued at $250, an enrollment of 160 scholars, and a freedman’s store (185).” The community had grown largely self sufficient because of the institution of education within it. Further, six of these scholars later became prominent leaders.

Even when Robert Fitzgerald had started his own family his determination towards educating his fellow African American’s did not falter. He passed his respect for education onto his progeny. His three daughters all became teachers such as the very passionate Aunt Pauline who “began a teaching career which did not end until [she] was seventy six (240).” He and his daughters took utmost pride in being schoolteachers and felt it was a patriotic profession because they were advancing the African American. Robert Fitzgerald also continued to instill this passion for learning in his great grandchild Pauli Murray. “His first pupils had learned to read from newspapers, almanacs and pages from the Bible and he was teaching me by the same method (2)” she explains.

The Fitzgerald family had tremendous respect for education. The reason for this great respect was, similar to Frederick Douglass, Robert Fitzgerald was able to see the power that knowledge held. As Pauli Murray describes, Robert felt as though “there was the miracle of knowledge through which he could leap over barriers and elevate himself above the miserable anthill of color (11).” He saw that education was the key to creating a stable black family, and an equal America. For example, when he was in the war his captain had immediately appointed him as the company clerk when he found out he had some education. After the war, Robert knew that “he was a soldier in a ‘second war,’ this time against ignorance (197).”

The freed black man now hungered greatly for an education because they realized an education is what would truly grant them freedom and prove they were as capable of any task as a white man. Robert Fitzgerald castigated Pauli Murray for improper grammar saying, “You’re getting so you speak just like that ignorant riffraff in the Bottoms (5).” The uneducated black man simply confirmed the suspicions of white men that black men were ignorant. “It is something terrible to have our people grow up with the additional evil of ignorance upon them, shut out from the world on account of the many prejudices, especially against their ignorance (197).” Robert Fitzgerald believed the same as the Quakers did, “that emancipation and education went hand and hand…every child of color properly fitted for an occupation was further proof that Negroes were capable and worthy of freedom (81).”

It was this belief that demanded such respect of education. This respect of education ran throughout the African American community and a Freedmen’s Bureau inspector commented that “If knowledge elevates, then this people is destined to rise (186),” because of the tremendous effort and dedication the African American scholars exhibited. The white man had worked so hard to keep slaves from learning that they wanted it even more, and after the war a battle still raged for the right of African American education. “No group of people had hungered more for education and nowhere had it been more stubbornly withheld or more grudgingly bestowed. The school was a community project, involving the labor and skills of most of the men in the immediate neighborhood and attracting laborers for miles around (107).” The outpour of community support shows the desire to be educated and create a self-sustained society that demonstrated the abilities of African Americans.

While slaves had once taken pride in having the kinder master, they were now quick to accept the titles of scholar, and took pride in having educated family in their history. The very fact that Great Grandfather Thomas could read at all gave the Fitzgeralds a great sense of pride. The irony in the Fitzgerald home was that they were even restricted from educational facilities that were created because of their direct family. Even though “education was a household god at home, none of us could attend the university or share the benefits bestowed upon it by Miss Mary Ruffin Smith,” Pauli Murray explains. “Before freedom, ‘stealing learning’ was a crime for which they could be whipped; now it held the magic of the rainbow after a violent storm…They wept tears of joy when they could recite the alphabet or read a line from the Bible or write their names (168).” While there were very eager black pupils, they still had few opportunities for education particularly in the South.

“Black codes,” that attempted to keep black labor in the south, and prevent them from establishing themselves independently had enraged republican’s and initiated the process of reconstruction. However, organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, unable to win fairly, began to fraudulently reclaim the South and destroy the chances of reconstruction soon after. Even the 15th Amendment had left loopholes to limit voting rights. Legislation, intimidation and sheer violence put a damper on the African American voice that had rushed so quickly to the polls when the prospect had opened up. It seemed normal to Pauli Murray that her grandfather would attend school as a boy. However, at the time it was very unusual for a black child “to receive any formal education in those days, especially in a slave state. Free public schools were just getting under way in the northern states and Negro children were not encouraged to attend (80).” Further, many laws deemed teaching an African American to read and write a criminal offense punishable by fines, imprisonment, or even flogging. “Only 197 of more than 18,000 free people of color in the state…were attending school in 1850 (80).”

While Robert Fitzgerald’s life had been encompassed by the importance of education, Cornelia Fitzgerald had been very much sheltered from it. Although she was practically free under the care of Miss Mary Smith, Cornelia was doubly barred from education because she was both a woman and a mulatto. When Pauli Murray complains to her grandfather that she hears her grandmother talking with improper grammar he replies “I’ve told you before, Grandma is old enough to speak as she pleases…I won’t have any grandchild of mine sounding as if he is a nobody and came from nothing (5).” Again, even though Miss Mary Smith’s donation had helped pave the road to an educational institution, Cornelia was never given the opportunity to learn to read and write.

Cornelia lived in a precarious position because she was as much special to Miss Mary Smith as she was despised. Her father had promised to take care of her, but because he had left her uneducated there was no way for her to argue that she deserved more as an heir and she always felt she had been cheated out of much of her inheritance. While she had been provided for financially, she had not been educated so that she might be able to provide for herself if necessary. Of all the family members she took most pride in having family who were doctors, lawyers, judges, and legislators because they had proven the possibilities available with an education.

Characteristic of Robert Fitzgerald’s time was a passionate outcry of African Americans for an education system that they could use as a stepping-stone to proving themselves and integrating into broader America. Respect for education was wove into the African American people far deeper than many of their contemporary white counterparts. Individuals such as Robert Fitzgerald helped herald this dream through their persistent efforts, only to be fought harder by racist officials and outlaw organizations. Later, Reconstruction had failed and politicians would no longer strongly enforce African American rights. However, the drive of nearly the entire African American populace that demanded the education that had been denied for so long only continued to grow and move the country towards an egalitarian society.

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