“I have a tremendous large school. 92 names on my day school list.”

Sarah Thomas to Lavinia Goodell, January 22, 1871

Lavinia Goodell had lifelong friendships with many people who were active in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War. Once the war ended, many continued to work to gain equal opportunities for Blacks. One of those people, Sallie Holley, came to play an important part in the life of Lavinia’s cousin and close confidante, Sarah Thomas.

Sallie Holley was born in New York State in 1818. Her father, Myron, was an abolitionist and an associate of Lavinia Goodell’s father. Holley attended Oberlin College in Ohio, the first predominantly white college to admit Black male students (in 1835) and two years later the first college in the country to admit women. At Oberlin, Holley met Caroline Putnam. In later years Putnam described them as “the only two ultra radicals there.”

Sallie Holley and Caroline Putnam

After graduating from Oberlin, Holley and Putnam traveled on the lecture circuit, advocating for abolition. In the early 1860s, the women turned their attention to aiding the freed slaves. In 1868 Putnam moved to Lottsburg, Virginia to establish a school for freedmen. Carrie Jocelyn and Emma Eveleth , who were also friends of Lavinia Goodell and Sarah Thomas, taught at similar schools in South Carolina and Florida.  Although the Lottsburg school was named the Holley Graded School, Putnam was in charge, and Holley was not consistently on site.

The Holley School in Lottsburg, Virginia

Sarah Thomas left her home in Lebanon, Connecticut to teach at the Holley school from late 1868 until sometime in 1871.

Sarah Thomas

Sarah’s newsy – and often humorous – letters to her cousin Lavinia provide a vivid picture of the harsh living conditions for both teachers and students. In November 1868, soon after her arrival Sarah wrote:

When we do have wood we have a fire and by having a hot brick to your feet you can keep warm, but let me assure you that we do not always have wood. At day school we make our scholars bring in an armful of brush but it doesn’t last as long…. We live on the from “hand to mouth” principle…. I sleep on four posts with slats laid on them and a straw bed on the slats, and a comforter your mother gave me and a sheet, small pillow which sheds feathers and smells of tar.

Lottsburg is a village consisting of two houses. Two stores, one dry goods and groceries and the other liquor. Also a turn down blacksmith shop and a tremendously fierce dog. The school house is quarter of a mile from this lovely spot. I am assistant postmaster and was sworn in before a justice, solemnly affirming that I never was in the confederate service.

In November 1870 Sarah wrote, “Haven’t the remotest idea what time it is, as there is no time piece here. I have a clock at the schoolhouse which doesn’t go. ” In January 1871 she reported, “I have a tremendous large school. 92 names on my day school list and a prospect of more. It takes all my energies to keep them from becoming totally demoralized.” The following month she wrote:

The general feeling seemed to be to get rid of the northern teachers. So you needn’t be surprised to see me walking in some day.

Tuesday was so fearfully stormy that no scholars came…. This morning we awoke to find it raining hard. It is fearfully muddy and the woods horrible. I am of Miss Holley’s mind not to have anything to do with Virginia public schools. Miss Holley and Miss Putnam are both seemingly in good spirits, the former inquires after you.

And in March 1871 Sarah wrote:

I never saw such a set of pugilistic ragamuffins as my reader class. Their breeches are simply a mass of fluttering rags of every hue, and it wouldn’t take much of a kick to take them off.

My boy scholars and most of my grown girl scholars are out of school plowing and grubbing. I have had thirty-two day scholars and sixteen night scholars this week.

I accidentally heard today that the coloured people are going to sign a petition to present to the trustees begging them to appoint me as their teacher…. However I prefer smaller pay and not involve myself in the labyrinth of these white peoples’ schemes.

The school’s founders were pleased with its accomplishments. In 1875, eight years after the school opened, Sallie Holley reported:

By keeping the doors of our school ever open, hundreds have learned to read and write. When we first came, they did not know a letter of the alphabet, or the names of the days of the week; could not count on ten fingers, or name the State they lived in. And the ignorance of these white Virginians, too, is appalling. … These slaveholders, in shutting out the light of knowledge from the blacks, also shrouded themselves in the gloom of wretched ignorance.

Sallie Holley died in 1893. Caroline Putnam received ownership of the school grounds. Putnam stipulated that upon her death title would pass to a board of Black trustees who would continue to promote Black education.

Sources consulted: Sarah Thomas’s letters to Lavinia Goodell (November 7, 1868;  November 27, 1870; January 22, 1871; February 18, 1871; March 4, 1871 ); A Life for Liberty. Anti-Slavery and Other Letters of Sallie Holley, edited by John White Chadwick (G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1899); Jean Norris Booth, “A Study of the Holley School for Negroes, Lottsburg, Virginia, ‘Our Three Acres,'” (1956) University of Richmond Master’s Theses. Paper 107; Lebanon, Connecticut Historical Society 2015 Newsletters.  And special thanks to Rick Kane, president of the Lebanon, Connecticut Historical Society for sharing his wealth of knowledge about the Thomas family, their life and times, and making us realize that it was high time Sarah Thomas had a starring role in one of our posts.

1 comment

Beverly Wright

My great-grandparents, William Goodell Frost and Louise Foltz Raney Frost went to Oberlin, as did many of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My mother said it was still a very progressive school in the 1940’s. The last one who went was my brother, Tom.

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