Located in 1867, Flora Beach Burlingame’s Ophelia and the school of liberation is a historical fiction for children. The story follows twin sisters Ophelia and Melinda as they begin schooling in the small Texas town of Lavaca, now known as Port Lavaca. Illiterate ten-year-olds are attending a liberation school, one of many created throughout the South during the Civil War and reconstruction to provide free education to former slaves and refugees. The only whites among forty students, girls can study without being ashamed of their dresses in flour bags, bare feet or lack of schooling.
At first, Ophelia doesn’t like the classes held in the old warehouse in the bay, where the only teaching materials are boards and pieces of charcoal. She says: “I was a little pinched inside because I couldn’t understand why a white teacher would choose this colored girl instead of Melinda or me.” Her sense of right realistically reflects the opinion of whites at the time, as well as her surprise that some “coloreds” like Patsy are smarter than her.
Yet everyone’s enthusiasm for learning is contagious. Soon students will be able to read and solve simple math problems. When Patsy says she will one day become a teacher, that idea fascinates Ophelia as well. They celebrate on the day “better than Christmas”, when a box of slate and chalk arrives. “Scholars” welcome every acquisition with joy, but white resistance encourages an escalation of fear.
Girls’ education is expanding beyond the classroom. Soon Ophelia and her sister face “dissidents” in the city who are against schools. Despite that, the girls make new friends with their classmates. When the teacher Mr. Ogilvie asks Ophelia to send a letter asking for more supplies, she goes to town with Ezra, a black boy who knows how to drop his hand and not go into the store with her. But a fisherman in the street scolds Ophelia, saying, “It doesn’t seem right to me,” and then throws stones as the children retreat, injuring Ezra.
After little Ezra brags that the whites don’t “stab” him, Ophelia says, “Some people got mad at me for bringing all of us whites together. Melinda and I were not enemies just because we were white. Then the thought upset me a little. ” She realizes that she once thought of “colored” as “different” and “separate,” but now she sees classmates Patsy, Ezra, and Jeremiah as equal and friends. Ophelia also gets a new perspective on the reality of slavery when she hears adults in evening school talking about former masters. There is honesty in the perception of the girl and the author.
At great risk to her family, Patsy’s mom welcomes white girls into her home, but because of her fear of KKK revenge, the twins ’mom doesn’t fight back. Ophelia and Melinda worry that the KKK will hang their friends or harm their teacher. The girls realize that the members are “right here among us.” The pace and tension work well, followed by the inevitable violence.
A skilled writer, Burlingame uses figurative language that fits into the story’s environment. Her protagonist Ophelia says that something “disappeared like a horny frog jumping under a rock”. She describes “scholars so excited that they sounded like a bunch of rattlesnakes that couldn’t stop screaming.”
When I first read the description Ophelia and the school of liberation, however, I wondered why the protagonist was white. The liberated schools were, after all, created during the Reconstruction to educate former slaves, so why write a story from her point of view?
On the other hand, TCU Press, the publisher of the book, has a catalog full of well-researched historical fiction. That motivated me to take a closer look. As soon as I read the author’s notes, I discovered the background. John Ogilvie (Stephenson), a white educator at the Lavaca School of Liberation in Texas, was the great-grandfather of author Flora Beach Burlingame.
This is Burlingame’s third book based on research on her ancestor. She began her writing career at the age of fifty after raising three children. The author returned to the faculty to teach journalism and participated in other creative writing programs. While living in California, Burlingame sold articles to magazines and wrote articles and columns for several publications.
Ogilvy’s letters, confirmations, and scrapbook provided the basis for the narrative in Ophelia and the school of liberation. Several photographs and scanned documents also appear in the author’s notes. Rosenberg’s Galveston Library now keeps his work in its archives.
Many of the in-depth details of the harassment of those involved in the education of ex-slaves are historical facts. John Ogilvy, for example, built a small house and lived among his “colored” scholars so that his presence would not endanger any white man who would offer him a room and food. His neighbors were his students and they nursed him until he fell ill with yellow fever during an epidemic on the Gulf Coast.
Ophelia plays a heroic role in the story, but with the help of an adult black man. If the author had created two points of view in alternating chapters, common in modern children’s books, the story could have had different twists. She and Jeremy or Patsy or Ezra would all have different perspectives on the same events. What did these characters think of white girls going to their school? Should a white author write like a black man or should a book be written together? The well-researched and well-written book Flora Beach Burlingame is great food for these discussions.
When I was a school librarian, I would buy this book and share it with my students. There is now incredible pressure on public schools to close their eyes to history. Like the author’s great-grandfather, educators face a tough battle with state politicians and frightened parents interfering at every turn. Reading, sharing and discussing this book is one way to combat this trend.
I hope to one day read a TCU Press publication by a black author who has a family history with the Liberation Schools or the Rosenwald Schools in Texas. He would be the perfect companion for Ophelia and the school of liberation.
Featured inscription on the picture: Liberation School in South Carolina