The American Indian at Hampton Institute, Virginia


“Louis Firetail (Sioux, Crow Creek), wearing tribal clothing, in American history class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia”; late 1890s. From the Library of Congress.

The grace, dignity, and poignancy of the photos in this blog entry belie a bitter memory for many Indigenous people: Indian boarding schools, such as the one at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which is now called Hampton University.

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in response to a question he often heard from whites – “What shall we do with the Negro?” – said “Do nothing with us!” Leave us alone, he said… haven’t you done enough to us already?

Those comments were probably echoed by the American Indian of the day. The 1800s were a century long battle between Indigenous and European-descent peoples for American land. Whether destined or not, the European peoples would have the land, and control it from sea to sea by the end of the century.

One solution for dealing with Indigenous peoples was to “civilize” them. Reservation schools were created with funding from the US government and often the support of Christian missionaries. Their purpose was to inculcate the Indian with white culture and prepare him for life among European Americans – to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In addition, numbers of Indigenous young were placed in boarding schools where they were educated and acculturated away from their families.

Hampton Institute seemed a good fit for them. It was founded in 1868 by General Samuel Armstrong, who commanded colored troops during the Civil War. Armstrong had proposed the Institute as a way to “to prepare colored teachers for southern schools; teachers who will cost less than white; who can live the year through in one place, thus saving expense of transportation; who, in fact, can make a living out of their schools, and after being started, support themselves [through augmenting their low salaries with money earned through manual skills learned at school]; who will penetrate the country and, singly, occupy isolated remote places where our [northern white] ladies could never go.”

The United States’ Indian policy eventually funneled Indigenous students to the Institute. As noted here, “Armstrong’s dual mission at Hampton quickly became clear – ‘uplift’ the Negro from his state of degradation; ‘civilize’ the savage and teach him how to work. Members of both races would be taught to dress, speak, work, behave as whites– despite the fact that they were offered no guarantee that they would ever be offered powers and privileges equivalent to those enjoyed by whites.”


“Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. – before entering school – seven Indian children of uneducated parents 1897.” The caption indicates these are Sioux children. From the Library of Congress.

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