With the fall of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery, many northern reformers shifted their focus to the problem of educating the vast numbers of newly freed men, women and children. In 1866, Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Armstrong, who had organized and commanded several "colored" regiments during the war, secured an appointment as agent for the Freedmen's Bureau and Superintendent of Schools in Virginia, and turned his considerable energies to the task. Within a year, Armstrong had persuaded the American Missionary Association to purchase 159 acres near Hampton, Va., as site for a permanent school for African-American and Native American students, and he put into practice his beliefs that the standard academic education was less relevant to the needs of freedmen than the provision of a base level of literacy and some form of useful, industrial or agricultural skills. The Hampton Institute officially opened in April, 1868, was incorporated by the state two years later, and graduated its first class of men and women in 1871.
In January, 1869, Louise Lane Gilman, a sister of Daniel Coit Gilman, was offered a five-month teaching position at the Hampton Institute through the efforts of a friend, the well-known Civil War nurse, Georgeanna Woolsey. The Gilmans, a politically active family with strong abolitionist ties, supported the decision of their youngest daughter to accept the post, and at the end of January, Louise left her home in Norwich, Conn., for the south.
When Gilman arrived at Hampton, an air of uncertainty hung over the school. Several of the Institute's buildings were still under construction, and several of those that were not being renovated did not meet the needs of teachers and students. For a while, Gilman was forced to hold class in a recitation room without desks, but during the five months that she taught at Hampton, Armstrong managed to bring the school onto firmer footing by securing a $15,000 appropriation from the federal government to construct new buildings, and his tireless efforts to raise funds eventually paid dividends in the form of more suitable facilities.
Gilman's tenure at Hampton was spent in fairly intensive contact with the students, teaching them during the day and tutoring them evenings. On occasion, she found time to travel through the surrounding area, visiting Slabtown, a freedmen's village, attending freedmen's religious services and assisting with their Sunday School, and in general, soaking up the local flavor. She and Rebecca Bacon, another teacher at Hampton, were offered a teaching post at Church Hill, Va., but decided against for unstated reasons. Certainly, Gilman admired the tenacity of some of the African American teachers and students that she met, and was particularly impressed with the story of some African-American women teachers in a "country place" where whites torched the school, only to find that the women "nailed their blackboard to an elm tree & kept on teaching till some time in December when the cold forced [them] to give up" (after 1869 March 7).
Clearly, Gilman did not divest herself of all of the broader (white) cultural attitudes toward African-Americans, and clearly, too, there were differences in the educational philosophies of Armstrong and Gilman and those of their pupils. Gilman, for example, disapproved of Miss Clark, a graduate of Hampton who had "come back to her old friends among the colored people" to teach. The problem with Clark, according to Gilman, was that she "puts herself on a level with [her old friends], in a way which Gen. Armstrong says is a mistaken one," and she added, "I am glad that Rebecca & I did not go to Church Hill -- for if the people there have had this kind of teaching for four or five years, I don't know what hateful degrees of aristocratic pride they might have discovered in us!" (1869 April 24). Motivated by a true desire to help the disadvantaged and oppressed, Gilman nevertheless displayed a range of complex, often conflicting ideas about her students and her work. The ambiguity of her feelings is best summed up in her description of the African-American men at a sing-along she attended at Hampton: "Such a picture as it was -- these forty black faces huddled together around the piano -- singing army songs at the tops of their voices and with the utmost solemnity till they came to Dixie or some other rebel song -- and then the humour gleamed all over their faces as they promised to shoot the Yankees one by one, or described the valiant exploits of Jeff. Davis" (1869 March 5). How Gilman or her family understood this event is never explained. Gilman appears to have returned to Connecticut early in May, 1869.