Education at Hampton Institute: An experiment in race relations and assimilation


HAMPTON, Va. - A train bound for the first meeting place of Indians, English and Africans - a peninsula located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay not far from Jamestown - traveled north in 1878 along the East Coast with about 63 Indian prisoners.

The prisoners, some of the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Commanche and Arapaho tribes, had been held captive by Capt. Richard H. Pratt at the end of the Red River War in the Southwest on charges of murder and destruction. They had spent their past three years at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Fla. But despite the accusations against them, Pratt, who had led a "colored" group of soldiers with Indian scouts during the Civil War, had theorized that in order to elevate the status of the "savages" they needed an education just as the free African slaves were receiving, according to his letters.

So the Indian men came to Hampton, Va., where, ironically, Indians, Europeans and Africans would meet again. This time, the meeting involved Indians receiving a basic education, room and board at the 10-year-old Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school opened to educate and create teachers of the newly freed Southern slaves.

When the Indian prisoners arrived, the school officials welcomed them with coffee and warm words, wrote the authors of "Twenty-Two Years' Work of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute at Hampton."

"The next night old chief Lone Wolf told the large audience gathered to hear him, 'We have started on God's road now, because God's road is the same for the red man as for the white man,'" wrote an observer quoted in "Twenty-Two Years' Work of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute at Hampton."

While Pratt, a white man with a basic education who eventually founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, spent his time theorizing on the benefits of education for Indians - the son of a missionary from Hawaii who had already established a school in Virginia to educate and create black teachers of the newly freed slaves. Brig. Gen. Samuel Chapman, a Union officer during the Civil War, founded Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in April 1868 - just three years after he witnessed Gen. Robert E. Lee surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Armstrong initially wanted to reform and educate the Nez Perce, who were being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. But when no government agency agreed to fund his proposal to educate the Nez Perce, Armstrong later accepted an offer by Pratt to educate the Indian prisoners from St. Augustine, according to Donal F. Lindsey, author of "Indians at Hampton Institute, 1877 - 1923."

Of the 63 Indian prisoners from St. Augustine, the 15 to stay in Hampton caused quite a stir when they arrived, but their interest in getting an education at Hampton Institute in 1878 helped the teacher training and trades school create its first Indian Department. Through the establishment of the Indian Department with dormitories for the male and female Indian students, Hampton Institute became the precursor to the Indian boarding school movement such as that at Carlisle. But more importantly, Hampton Institute's instruction of American Indians evolved into the beginnings of Indian higher education as it is known today. Indians were able to get teacher training at Hampton, and many of Hampton Institute's Indian graduates went on to study for advanced degrees in medicine, law and art at colleges and universities for white students.

"The only people I know of that went on to college then did so by going through the churches on the reservations and were sponsored to go to a white college," said James R. Young, great-grandson of Hampton Institute student, Tom Smith, a Hadatsu-Arikara.

When Tom Smith left Hampton Institute, he returned to the reservation in North Dakota and recruited other Indians to attend the school. He eventually became a teacher and a politician in North Dakota, said Young, who retired from the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., and is now writing a book. Young's great-grandfather sought a basic education at Hampton during the 1870s when he attended, but Young added most people, white, Indian or black, with an eight-grade education in the late 1800s were considered well educated.

For Wilbur Pleets, who had many relatives that attended Hampton Institute, including his grandfather, Joseph Pleets, Hampton Institute was responsible for getting Indians vocational training, "which was lacking on the reservations," he said.

"They were probably the pioneers of Indian education as we know it today," said Wilbur Pleets, a Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and a contracting officer there.

In spite of the advanced education that Indians received when Hampton Institute opened its doors to teaching them, Pleets said the outcome for Indians who received an education and training were, at times, mixed. Even though the Hampton education enabled the Indian students to develop the ways and means to support themselves once back at the reservations, it also caused friction for them with their families and people once they returned home.

"The Indians didn't accept my aunt, Rosa Pleets, because she was bilingual," Wilbur Pleets said. "They no longer trusted her."

Part of the education that Armstrong encouraged at Hampton was creating Indian graduates who could successfully teach new skills and ways of living on the reservations. Some Hampton Institute teachers traveled to the Midwestern reservations many times to follow up on the success of the students who had returned home. Teachers also wrote students to provide support once they returned to the reservations, according to documents exhibited in the Hampton University Museum. Students, likewise, wrote back to their teachers, letting them know how well they were doing.

In a letter to Hampton Institute dated 1890, Tom Smith, wrote, "I am wearing citizen's clothes since I left Hampton," as quoted by his great-grandson, James R. Young in an article he wrote, "Thomas Smith: A Personal Perspective," published in the "North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains." Smith, in the same letter, also wrote, "... I have a child. I want him to be in school, and after he grew up, I wanted him to be like white man."

As more Indians began attending Hampton Institute, the curriculum and teacher training evolved. For the first Indian students, the prisoners from St. Augustine, they studied carpentry and farming. During the summer, they worked on the school farms to raise money for their clothing and other needs. They also took English conversation classes, and they had to attend church and prayer meetings, according to "To Lead and to Serve: American Indian Education at Hampton Institute 1878-1923" by Paulette F. Molin and Mary Lou Hultgren.

Those who studied the same curriculum as the black students took English, arithmetic, geography, natural philosophy, natural history and teacher-training classes. Male Indian students could also enroll in an apprenticeship program that began in 1882 where they could study farming, carpentry, shoemaking, tinsmithing, butchering, blacksmithing, printing, painting, harness making, engineering and wheelwright. Female Indian students also received technical training but in sewing by hand and machine, knitting, crocheting, making and mending garments along with household training.

Wilbur Pleets' grandfather, Joseph Pleets studied carpentry and harness making at Hampton Institute. He utilized his education back home on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation as a dairy farmer and mail carrier in North Dakota. He also retired from the BIA, Wilbur Pleets said.

Because the first Indian students to arrive at Hampton spoke little English fluently, the school created in 1879 its Indian Department to develop a special program for the Indian students. "As soon as Indian students were deemed academically proficient, they entered Hampton's normal or teacher-training course of study," wrote Hultgren and Molin.

"Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was started as a normal school, which in the late 1800s was a school to train teachers for public elementary schools," said Hultgren, also a Hampton University Museum collection curator and anthropologist. "The course of study was three years."

One year after the Indian students arrived at Hampton, Armstrong hired Booker T. Washington, a former slave who graduated from Hampton and later became principal of Tuskegee Institute, to work with the Indian students, Hultgren and Molin wrote. Washington was reported as saying that the Indians students disliked having their hair cut, giving up smoking and their blankets.

Eventually, the school had separate dormitories, classes and teachers for the Indian students. Because Virginia law prohibited education with blacks, Hampton Institute received a lot of criticism for having both black and Indian students on the same campus. However, the school had the support of the wealthier whites, Lindsey wrote.

The next group of students to arrive at Hampton Institute in 1878 were "forty boys and nine girls" who were Sioux from the Dakota territory of Fort Berthold, Standing Rock, Crow Creek, Yankton, Cheyenne River and Lower Brule agencies.

By 1882, Hampton Institute had its first three Indian graduates, listed in "To Lead and To Serve: American Indian Education at Hampton Institute 1878-1923" as Michael Oshkneny (Menonminee), Thomas Wildcat Alford (Absentee Shawnee) and John Downing(Cherokee/adopted Witchita). A decade later, the school had graduated 31 Indian students.

After the beginnings of Hampton Institute's Indian education, it continued to evolve until 1923 when funding for it ended, and the political climate changed. Overall, Hampton Institute had about 1,387 Indian students during the Indian education program's 45-year history, according to the university records.

(Continued in Part 2)