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Answering the Call: The History of NEA, Part 1

We start the year by looking back at NEA’s rich history—the impact it has had on the lives of public school educators and the children they serve. First of a four-part series.

By Sabrina Holcomb

On a summer afternoon in 1857, 43 educators gathered in Philadelphia, answering a national call to unite as one voice in the cause of public education.

A Journey Through Time

Miss Blanche Lamont and Montana Log School

The young women who staffed the new schools often had to choose between marriage and teaching, since many states had laws barring married teachers. Eventually marriage became acceptable; but pregnancy was not. A teacher had to leave her job as soon as her condition showed --a practice that continued until the 1970s, when NEA won the fight to overrule mandatory leave for expectant teachers.

Early Schools (Circa 1890s)

Integration (Circa 1960s)

Members Rally (Circa 1970s)

At the time, learning to read and write was a luxury for most children—and for many children of color, it was actually a crime. But almost 150 years later,  the voice of the fledgling Association has risen to represent 2.7 million educators, and what was once a privilege for a fortunate few is now a rite of passage for every American child.

Over the years, NEA has played an increasingly vital role in improving the conditions under which teachers work and children learn. In the turbulent 1960s, the historic merger of the NEA and the predominantly Black American Teachers Association promoted the human and civil rights of educators and students of all ethnicities.

Today, public schools guarantee every American child a free education, regardless of race or gender, religion or spoken language, social class or disability. And when this diverse group heads to school each morning, dedicated NEA members are there to teach, drive, feed, counsel, nurse—and inspire.

A Single Voice

A hundred years before the birth of NEA, education was largely informal—the main requirements for teaching were the ability to read, write, and stay out of trouble. By the mid-1800s, however, widespread education reforms had led to an emerging public school system and professional training for teachers.

Despite reforms, many teachers continued to work in lonely isolation in one-room schoolhouses with scanty teaching materials, uncertain public support, and salaries of less than $100 a year—sometimes the “salary” was food and lodging.

Lafayette, Indiana, August 21, 1854

“And I must not forget the Schoolhouse which is a log house thirty-five by thirty with four windows & two doors… The cracks are filled with mud and plaster & there is no ‘loft’ & the shingles are very holey so that when it rains we take the books and stand in one place till it begins to drop down & then we move to an other spot & then an other…”
Affectionately Yours,
M.M. Rogers
Excerpt from a letter written by Martha M. Rogers, a young female pioneer who headed West to teach. Reprinted with permission from Women Teachers on the Frontier by Polly Welts Kauffman.

Who would champion the nation’s teachers? State education associations existed in 15 of the 31 states in the Union, but there was no national organization to serve as a single clear voice for America’s teachers. Until one day in 1857, when 10 state associations sent out “The Call,” an invitation to the nation’s educators to unite.

Although membership in the new National Teachers Association (NTA) was restricted to “gentlemen,”  the two women who answered the call were made honorary members and permitted to sign the constitution. This restriction would last for nine years.

The Call

The 1857 invitation to form the National Teachers Association:

Believing that what has been accomplished for the states by state associations may be done for the whole country by a National Association, we, the undersigned, invite our fellow-educators throughout the United States to assemble...for the purpose of organizing a National Teachers Association...We cordially extend this invitation to all practical teachers in the North, the South, the East, and the West, who are willing to unite in a general effort to promote the general welfare of our country by concentrating the wisdom and power of numerous minds, and distributing among all the accumulated experiences of all; who are ready to devote their energies and their means to advance the dignity, respectability and usefulness of their calling; and who, in fine, believe that the time has come when the teachers of the nation should gather into one great educational brotherhood...

The 1857 invitation to form the National Teachers Association was written by Thomas Valentine, president of the New York Teachers Association.

African American Teachers

By 1857, half a million free people of African descent lived in the United States. In some communities, “free people of color” had built their own schools. Robert Campbell, the single Black founding member of NTA, taught at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Children, which educated Black, bi-racial, and American Indian children. Four years after the birth of NTA, 23 Ohio teachers formed the earliest known Black teacher’s association. Members reported salaries of $18 to $50 per month.

Education for people of color was a controversial issue. Some states had established public schools for Black children as early as the 1820s. However, the slaveholding states had outlawed education for slaves, and some states had even outlawed education for free Blacks. Even so, some took risks to learn to read.

The Civil War

Black school children during the Civil War era.

In 1861, the issue of slavery dominated the minds and conversations of many Americans. As the quarrel between the North and the South over slavery and other issues worsened, a troubled nation descended into Civil War. The war and its consequences naturally preoccupied the members of the National Teachers Association. During this difficult era, NTA focused on the impact of the war on public education.

Most Americans believed the war wouldn’t last long. But after four long years and over half a million lives lost, the Civil War finally came to an end in the spring of 1865. At that summer’s convention, NTA President J.P. Wilkersham denounced slavery and recommended that no seceded states be readmitted to the Union until they agreed to provide a free public school system for Black as well as White children. The hard work of Reconstruction had begun—for the nation and for its educators.

“My first school consisted of three children, for each of whom I was paid fifty cents a month. I also taught three adult slaves at night, thus making my monthly income from teaching only three dollars...The next thing which arrested my attention was botany… Descriptive chemistry, natural philosophy, and descriptive astronomy followed in rapid succession... My researches in botany gave me a relish for zoology; but as I could never get hold of any work on this science I had to make books for myself. This I did by killing such insects, toads, snakes, young alligators, fishes, and young sharks as I could catch. I then cleaned and stuffed those that I could, and hung them upon the walls of my school-room.” 

Daniel Alexander Payne, President of Wilberforce University in Ohio, was the first African-American college president in the United States. Born to free parents, Payne opened his own school at the age of 19. He wrote about educating himself and his students in his autobiography.

—Excerpt from Recollections of Seventy Years by Daniel Alexander Payne, c. 1830

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