Blackboard jumble yields schools' past Archaeologist James Gibb reconstructs early education from bits and pieces of old schoolhouses


With its pillars and stone walls on a prominent hilltop in Ellicott City, the Patapsco Female Institute was once a 19th-century vision of a Greek temple: an academy to educate and refine young ladies and "future mothers."

But in southern Anne Arundel County, a humble, even homely one-room structure built several decades later was all the Nutwell School could offer its students.

The myth of the little red schoolhouse has only a kernel of truth, says James G. Gibb, an Annapolis-based archaeologist. From town to town, they varied in size, shape and stature. In a sense, each early school building was a measure, along with teacher pay, attendance rates and textbooks, of how high a community aimed in educating the next generation.

"Schoolhouses were the most common public buildings on the landscape," Gibb says. "They are a great place to look at a community, since so much of our lives are spent in school. The differences tell a lot. You get a view of a community's ambition, or lack thereof."

Gibb has photographed, excavated artifacts and compiled data on hundreds of the state's schoolhouses - some still standing, many gone - from the post-Civil War period, 1865 to 1920.

His latest project, funded by a Historical Society of Talbot County grant, involves analyzing that county's school board reports to the state for all four seasonal school terms. He uses the same 55-year time frame for this project because 1865 was the starting point of a new state constitution and school system after the shambles of the war. Local control over school governance predominated across the counties, even under the statewide organization.

The project's goal, society Director Glenn Uminowicz says, is to create "living history" for children who visit the Longwoods School outside Easton. The program will be taught in a restored red schoolhouse built in the late 19th century.

Gibb's findings "will help us design this as a representative site, incorporating other county schools," Uminowicz says. "We'll pass out slate pencils to fourth-graders and say, `This is your laptop today.'"

Complete with a pot-bellied stove, the Eastern Shore school would fit well into a Laura Ingalls Wilder book - the one where the teenage Laura Ingalls becomes a teacher in a strange town. Like hers, the Talbot County school was meant to educate children of all ages in one classroom. And it was whites-only, like Southern schools of its time.

The Talbot survey is just the kind of project that has fascinated Gibb, 48, for 15 years. The archaeologist, a native New Yorker who keeps artifacts of old school desks in his living room, holds a doctorate from Binghamton University. He previously worked as a consultant archaeologist for the city of Annapolis.

Gibb says he concentrates his studies on the post-Civil War era because of the clear demarcation: "1865 was when slavery goes out and public education comes in."

Yet his research reveals a state that remained divided. The shadow of Jim Crow can be seen in the pages of county reports made to state headquarters with "colored" school statistics routinely listed at the back of the books. The state's large agrarian sector put school cycles on the planting and harvest calendar, but it was African-American children, forced to labor as family farmhands, who were most likely to miss half of the school year.

In contrast to New England and the Upper Midwest, Maryland was far behind in instituting mandatory school enrollment - a step that did not occur until 1919.

"You start developing tidbits into a larger story and narrative," Gibb says in his study, where he works with a summer assistant, 25-year-old Dionisios Kavadias.

Kavadias says, "What strikes me the most is how different the environment was, with 20 square feet of blackboard and two maps for the whole school. You also see how they're trying to standardize the curriculum from year to year."

Gibb recently presented a slide show and lecture on Maryland schoolhouses, sponsored by the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

"Jim does tend to concentrate on things historians and archaeologists have overlooked. Most of them look at the grander things that have survived, not the humbler ones made of collective sweat, labor and material," says the nonprofit's director, Gregory A. Stiverson.

Gibb tells audiences that if a female teacher got married, she lost her job. And that teenage teachers might be intimidated by the "big boys" in the classroom. Other commonplace details, like classrooms drinking from the same bucket of water, are part of the past he seeks to paint.

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