Notes on Colonial-Era Education on St. John and the Annaberg School
In 1853 the Annaberg Country School opened to provide free, compulsory education to the children of St. John’s rural Maho Bay Quarter. But, while the opening of the Annaberg facility is indeed a notable milestone in the history of St. John, the school was not the first of the “Country Schools” to be established on the island; in fact, it may well have been the last.
Florence Lewisohn and Don Bowry in front of the
renamed La Grande Princess School on St. Croix…
It was one of the first of 8 country schools (c 1982)
The Moravian, Dutch, and Lutheran Churches had long provided educational opportunities for free children of the privileged class in the Danish West Indies (DWI). As for the enslaved population, it had been a primary goal of the Moravian missionaries to provide reading instruction to slaves from their arrival in 1732, as it was felt that only through personal interpretation of the scripture could one find true salvation. Initially no one was to be baptized until they could read the Bible, but after confronting many communications difficulties in the multi-lingual colony, it became clear that it would be necessary to transcribe religious materials into the Creole dialect.
A school ordinance issued on December 21, 1787 marks the first attempt by government to institute public education for the DWI’s enslaved population. Under this ordinance, the Lutheran (State) Church was to select 4 schoolmasters from the “most well-beloved and capable Free Negroes,” who were also to act as church clerks and funeral masters for the “Creole Congregation.” No child of the Lutheran congregation (free or enslaved) could be denied attendance in school, and free children of all denominations could attend for a monthly fee. The ordinance also stated that “wealthy” slave parents could volunteer to pay if they were able.
It was, however, not until 1839, 52 years later that a proposal was put forward by Governor-General Peter vonScholten to establish an organized system of free, compulsory education for all unfree children throughout the Danish colony. Between 1839 and 1842, 8 “Landskole,” or Country Schools, were built on St. Croix. The first school to be completed was on Estate La Grand Princess, which opened for class in 1841.
Unfortunately, all available funding to establish the Country Schools throughout the colony went into the building of the St. Croix schools, leaving no resources to build the proposed schools on St. Thomas and St. John — a situation that did not bother the planters on those islands, who still opposed education of the enslaved.
To comply, at least in part, with vonScholten’s directive to provide compulsory education throughout the colony, an agreement was reached between the Moravian Church and the Royal Council of St. Thomas and St. John for the Moravians to provide compulsory education for all free-colored children, and by 1841 classes were being held at both the Emmaus and Bethany Mission Stations on St. John. By 1842 there were 28 children attending classes at Bethany, and 40 attending classes at Emmaus. Classes were held from 9am to 1pm, and focused on “the three R’s”, as well as Bible study, geography and singing. Throughout this period the schools proved hard to staff and at least one teacher at Bethany had to be relived due to “mental suffering.”
In February of 1843, in an effort to bring broader educational opportunities to the rural areas of the colony, funding of 1500 Rigsdallers (Rd) was allocated to build the first Country Schools on St. John. On September 9 of that year, Governor vonScholten attended a meeting at the Susannaberg plantation to launch the Country School project. In attendance at the meeting were Hans H. Berg, Stadshouptsman Knevels, Landfoged Brahde, Agent Hjardemaal, Alexander Fraiser Esq., Reverend Tolderlund, and Moravian missionaries Houser, Gardin, Blatt and Kramer, as well as one Brother Wolter.
- It was decided at this meeting that:
- 4 Country Schools were to be built on St. John at Beverhoudtsberg, Annaberg (near the Munsbury line), Emmaus and Par Force. (Note that these school locations were on estates of the more enlightened landowners.)
- The Country School plan by architect Albert Lovmand was to be used, but would be modified for each site. The school at Par Force was to include a dwelling for the teacher.
- Once completed, the schools for free children were to be annexed to the Country Schools.
- School hours were to be 8-11am for all children 4-8 years old; older children, 8-16, were to attend Sunday school. Free children attended for an additional 2 hours per day.
The school at Beverhoudtsberg was the first to be completed in 1845; Annaberg was completed by December of 1847. However, construction of the two schools had cost 3,592 Rd, more than double the amount allocated for all 4 planned schools, leaving no funds for operational expenses or further construction. Therefore, the Annaberg school was left vacant, while the Beverhoudtsberg school was given over to the Lutheran congregation to hold monthly services (hence, the area where it once stood is still known to this day as “Danish Church Hill”).
In the end it was not Royal decree, but Emancipation, that finally forced vonScholten’s plan for free, compulsory education for all children in the colony to occur. Since the Moravian Missions had long been mandated to provide education to all free children, when Emancipation from slavery was achieved in 1848, all children in the colony gained the immediate right to attend the Mission Schools.
At first, Mission Schools took on the de-facto role of the Country Schools, and so many children rushed to attend that the planters complained there was hardly anyone left on the estates to do the work. This situation soon forced a reassessment of the earlier ordinances governing the Country Schools. On November 25, 1849 a circular outlining new regulations for the Country Schools on St. John made the rounds to all estates.
- These regulations stated that:
- Only children 5-9 years old were to attend “day school”
- The school day was 8am-11am, Monday through Friday
- Children 9-12 years old were to attend Sunday school; older children could be kept an additional 2 hours as teachers’ assistants, but no more than one child from each estate.
- Vacations were a fortnight from December 24, a fortnight in June, and a sennight from the Wednesday before Easter.
- Children were to be moved from day school to Sunday school at vacation breaks.
- Estate managers were to be notified of any child leaving school.
- Parents were responsible for their children’s school attendance under penalty of a fine. Any owner or manager of an estate who prevented a child from attending school would be fined.
Concern over lingering problems with the schools led Landfoged Carl Hanschell to pen a long and detailed report to the DWI School Commission regarding St. John. In this February 6, 1851 correspondence, Judge Hanschell noted that the Mission Schools had never been formally acknowledged as part of the Country School system, and that they received almost no funding or support. He also suggested that the Annaberg schoolhouse, which had remained unused since its construction in 1847, be put to use. At this point some 228 students were overcrowding the schools at Emmaus and Bethany on a daily basis. Despite the evident need, no significant changes were forthcoming; the Commission pled lack of funds.
On August 3, 1852 the Moravians took it upon themselves to open a third school to service the growing community on St. John’s East End. At the new school, 30-some students were instructed in singing, prayer and bible history by Mary Dorothy Sewer, and it was stated that basic arithmetic, spelling and writing would be added to the curriculum, “…as soon as Mary Sewer mastered the topics a little better.”
Finally, in August of 1856 it was reported by brother Gardin in a Moravian Periodical account that: “In St. Jan we have, this year, opened a school at Annaberg, on the north side of the island. The schoolhouse, which is a very fine one, and in a charming situation near the sea, was built many years ago, but never used. There are now seventy-five children in attendance. We have also opened a school in the south [at Lameshur]; but it is very small, numbering only eight children. In general, the attendance in the schools in St. Jan is good, and the children are mostly connected with our congregation.”
In the end, operating the remote Annaberg School proved problematic. Outbreaks of cholera and a lack of staffing forced intermittent closings, and after schoolmaster Augustus Knevels was dismissed for certain unnamed indiscretions, the school closed its doors after only five years of service. The building was eventually dismantled for reuse of its building materials and its foundations left forgotten, only to be overtaken by bush.
- Brother J. Gardin, Account 22, August 12, 1856, Periodical Accounts Relating To The Missions Of The Church Of The United Brethren, Established Among the Heathen, (London, England, Walter m’Dowall, 1856).
- Birgit Julie Fryd Johansen, Slave Schools in the Danish West Indies, 1839-1853 (Copenhagen, Denmark, The University of Copenhagen Historical Institute, 1988).
- David W. Knight, Understanding Annaberg, A Brief History of Estate Annaberg on St. John, U. S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, USVI, Little Nordside Press, 2002).
- Eva Lawaetz, Black Education in the Danish West Indies from 1732 to 1853 (St. Croix, USVI, St. Croix Friends of Denmark, 1980).