Edmonia Highgate: Teacher, Orator, Freedom Worker

Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, born in upstate New York in 1844, grew up in a community of free blacks committed to ending slavery and pursuing equality. Her hard-working parents made sure all seven of their children attended high school. In 1861, the year the Civil War started, Edmonia was one of the few African Americans to graduate from Syracuse High School. Though the Syracuse Board of Education issued her a teaching certificate, she could not get a job in the city because of her race.

She found a teaching position in Montrose, Pennsylvania, where she also volunteered with the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association, which worked with newly-freed African Americans. She moved back to New York after finding a teaching job in Binghampton. In 1864, the American Missionary Association hired her to teach in Norfolk, Virginia.

The conditions Edmonia Highgate faced there prompted a breakdown, and she returned home for about a year to recover. Once she did, she set off again, this time to Darlington, Maryland to establish a school in 1865 before moving to New Orleans in 1866, where she and her sister taught school and founded the Louisiana Educational Relief Association. That summer, Edmonia witnessed a riot launched by ex-Confederates determined to regain control of the state. They killed over 200 African Americans.

New York Public Library

Edmonia Highgate wrote about this and her other experiences for the Christian Recorder. She remained in Louisiana until 1868, despite acts of violence aimed at her. The next year she gave up teaching for work as a paid lecturer, traveling through the north speaking on “Five Years Among Southern Loyalists.”

In 1870, before Edmonia Highgate moved to Mississippi to take a teaching position at Tougaloo College, she had an abortion. On October 16, she was found dead in Syracuse. She was 26 years old.

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For more on Edmonia Highgate, take a look at the work of literary scholar Eric Gardner.