Aug 25

The Case of the Missing Freedman College 8-4.4

This lesson addresses the problematic existence of one Freedman college in South Carolina established during the reconstruction era.  Students pose as history detectives trying to unlock the clues behind the mystery of The Missing Freedman College.

Click here to download the full lesson with attached handouts. The Case of the Missing Freedman College

Historical Background

“The Bureau of Refuges, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, known as the Freedman’s Bureau, was established by Congress prior to the end of the Civil War. The Bureau was the first line of assistance to everyone affected by the war, including whites, as well as destitute freedmen. Northern philanthropists also contributed to the education of the freedman. The Northern Aid Society created the Penn School in Beaufort. Religious denominations and Northern philanthropists also provided support for the establishment of colleges for African Americans in South Carolina. [The Harbison Agricultural College established in 1885 in Abbeville, SC was one of these schools.] Both men and women traveled to the South to serve as teachers at schools established by philanthropists or the Freedman’s Bureau. African Americans flocked to the privately supported freedom schools and the new public schools, anxious for the opportunity to learn to read and write denied them during slavery. Most freedmen, young and old, desperately wanted to learn. Prior to the end of slavery, some blacks had established schools.”

South Carolina Social Studies Support Document, Grade 8, 2008 http://ed.sc.gov/agency/Standards-and-Learning/Academic-Standards/old/cso/social_studies/social.html


South Carolina Standards

8-4.4 Explain how events during Reconstruction improved opportunities for African Americans but created a backlash that, by the end of Reconstruction, negated the gains African Americans had made, including the philanthropy of northern aid societies, the assistance provided by the federal government such as the Freedmen’s Bureau, and their advancement in politics and education.

8-4.2 Summarize Reconstruction in South Carolina and its effects on daily life in South Carolina, including the experiences of plantation owners, small farmers, freedmen, women, and northern immigrants.

3-4.7 Summarize the effects of Reconstruction in South Carolina, including the development of public education, racial advancements and tensions, and economic changes.

5-1.3 Explain the effects of Reconstruction on African Americans, including their new rights and restrictions, their motivations to relocate to the North and the West, and the actions of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

5-1.4 Compare the economic and social effects of Reconstruction on different populations, including the move from farms to factories and the change from the plantation system to sharecropping.

USHC-4.5 Summarize the progress made by African Americans during Reconstruction and the subsequent reversals brought by Reconstruction’s end, including the creation of the

Freedmen’s Bureau, gains in educational and political opportunity, and the rise of anti–African American factions and legislation.





  • Students will use primary and secondary evidence to solve the case of the Missing Freedman College (Harbison Agricultural College)
  • Students will develop a researched-based opinion by examining primary and secondary information.
  • Students will defend their conclusions by citing specific evidence from photographic and written information.

Time Required                                                                    Recommended Grade Level

2 class periods                                                                        Middle/High

Lesson Materials

Lesson Preparation

  1. Visit the Harbison Agricultural College Photograph Collection
  2. Navigate the site to become more familiar.  Click the “About the Collection” button to learn the history of the school. Click “Browse All” to view the photographs included in the collection
  3. Download several pictures of the college that would help students develop clues to solve the mystery.
  4. Develop a list of information that is important for students to understand about the relationship between the Freedman’s Bureau and Black colleges like the Harbison Agricultural College in the South. (Refer to the background passage above)
  5. Print the paragraphs provided in the “Industrial History” section of the collection individually (see attached).  Divide students into pairs so that each has a paragraph of information to work with.
  6. Print and provide students with a timeline of Reconstruction in the South.


Lesson Procedure

  1. Explain to students that establishing colleges to educate freedmen was one of the efforts of Reconstruction by northern philanthropists.  Then explain that students will learn about a freedman college that was established but no longer exist and it is up to the class to find out why?
  2. Begin by showing students the images from the collection
  3. As the teacher displays each image, she/he helps students observe, reflect and make inferences about each. Students should make brief notes of their analysis so they will have more evidence to solve the mystery.
  4. Distribute the paragraphs to each pair.  With each paragraph, students should:
    1. Note the date or time period.
    2. Find the facts. Determine what happened.
    3. Determine the parties.  Who was involved?
    4. Examine the place. Where did the action take place?
    5. Consider the time period.  What else was happening during this time period? (Use the timeline provided to determine if other events may have had an impact on the disappearance of this freedman college.)
    6. Reconvene to collect information from the class.  Allow each pair to give feedback on their findings.  Post feedback in the classroom for all to see. (You may want to have students record their findings on large chart paper so that you can easily display the information.)
    7. Allow students time to look over all of the information and ponder the evidence.
    8. Have students draw conclusions to determine what really happened to the Harbison Agricultural College?
    9. Collect student work then explain the evidential reason for the decline of Harbison Agricultural College.


Have students write out their solution to the mystery and provide evidence from their analysis and other students’ analyses to support their claims.

Lesson Extension Options

  • Take students to computer lab.  Allow them to create their own PowerPoint presentations.
  • Have students research the history of other colleges and schools that were created for freedmen during Reconstruction (examples: Allen, Benedict, Claflin, South Carolina State University)

Digital Collections Information

This lesson plan is based on images and/or documents derived from the Harbison Agricultural College Photograph Collection available from the University of South Carolina’s Digital Collections Library.


To see other collections that may be helpful to your search, visit the Digital Collections homepage or visit SCDL’s collections.