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Date of Award

Spring 2010

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Department of History


Raymond Hyser


Prior to 1870 there was no such thing as a public school in the state of Virginia, nor in most of the United States. History regards Reconstruction as a lost moment in time which failed to realize its potential to secure the full promises of freedom. The historiography rightly focuses on this ugly legacy of Reconstruction in a racially segregated south. Virginia’s Redeemer Democrats had rested political control from Radical Republicans by the ratification of the state’s 1870 Constitution. Virginia’s 1902 Constitution is rightly remembered for effectively disenfranchising blacks and poor whites. Yet, the promise of education was introduced to Virginia overnight thanks to the same 1870 Constitution and expanded by the 1902 Constitution. This study examines the evolution of education and progressive education in the form of curriculum, modernization, professionalization, and organizational reform in several periods. The first, 1870 to 1886, will be examined as the period in which Virginia was solely focused on entrenching the idea of universal public education in the minds of its citizenry. Simultaneously it worked to co-opt the already existing rudimentary common school system which existed prior to the Civil War. The second, 1886-1900, is examined as the period when the first fifteen years of experience produced a large degree of organization and standardization across the state; which was ahead of the national movement of the 1900s. This organization and standardization would not be led by national figures but by the new cadre of professional educators at the local level who capitalized on the initiative, work, and experience they had gained in the first period. The period of 1900-1912 will be viewed as the time when Virginia leapt onto the national stage as an educational leader in its own right. It installed an array of progressive educational initiatives and ideals. Finally, the period from 1912-1920 will serve as an epilogue to portray an entrenched System of Public Free Schools which remains largely unchanged today. This system, though segregated, served both black and poor white alike and radically transformed life in Virginia.

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