Mary Ames and Emily Bliss, young women from Springfield, Mass., opened a school for the liberated slaves on Edisto Island, S.C., in the year after the Civil War. They had been sworn in as teachers for the Freedman’s Bureau in Boston shortly after the war ended.
They were in a region of former cotton plantations, where the Reconstruction government settled many freed slaves. Mary Ames kept a diary describing the poor living conditions, the decay and squalor of the housing, the poverty and illness. More than 100 children and adults came to their school.
By mid-July, Mary Ames stopped updating her diary every day, instead writing narratives summing up weeks’ worth of activities. She and Emily had moved from one abandoned house to another. Here’s what happened to her in July 1865.
Our house is pleasant and comfortable, though minus a front door and some of the windows. We have taken two lower rooms; one looking on the water, for our sleeping and living-room, and, the other for the dining-room. The kitchen is across the yard, which is deep with sand, washed up by the creek. At high tide we are wholly surrounded by water. Besides Rhoda and “her man,” Robert, we have George, who sleeps across the threshold where the door should be; so we feel safe.
We have called upon Mr. Alden, who has horses, servants, and some colored soldiers, and he has promised to bring our mail from the landing, seven miles away. This is a great relief.
We find the bathing delightful, and ventured out quite far, until Robert caught a shark in shore.
Jim has been down, bringing little Ben for a visit. I have dressed him in a suit of underwear which came in a barrel of clothing from the “Church of the Disciples” (Boston). He sleeps on the floor beside my bed. One night, as he hung over my chair, he was uneasy, and I asked what troubled him. He whispered, “Is the reason you don’t kiss me ’cause I’m black?” I took him into my lap and held him till he slept.
Miss Kempton and Miss Stanton will occupy two rooms of this house. They will do their own cooking and will not interfere with us. We have only two chairs–mine, a steamer chair; Emily’s, a pretty straight-backed one; very tiresome to sit in long at a time; we often exchange and oftener stretch ourselves on the floor to rest. Our great need is drinking water. There is an open cistern back of the house; this we used till a party of our colored visitors in a frolic threw their hats into it. A burly old darky waded in and fished them out, and since then we have used watermelons to quench our thirst. A coat, vest, or hat in exchange will get us a plenty. We keep a pile on the floor of our dining-room, and cut one when thirsty.
Our food is getting low. We are often hungry. Government flour is full of weevils, little bugs, that baking does not kill. We pick out the wriggling creatures and eat the bread dipped in molasses, but soon we shall have eggs and vegetables.
A child has been born to Sarah. She has not named it yet, as it is considered bad luck to give a name to a child before it is a month old. She means to call her Mary Emily.