History Behind the Story: A Black Teacher in Georgia
Most of the women who taught at black schools in the Reconstruction South were Northerners. In Let Me Fly, the character of Frankie Williamson, who teaches in the Cass County school, is an Oberlin graduate from Ohio. She is based on the lives of four real women, free before the war, all of them Oberlin alumnae, who did just that. But Hettie Sabattie, a black woman born and raised in Georgia, who taught in Darien just after the Civil War, had an equally interesting background.
Hettie Sabattie was born in 1836 in Darien to free black parents: Mary Garey of Darien and Clemente Sabattie of San Domingo, scene of the Western hemisphere’s bloodiest slave uprising, who came to the United States in 1795. Her father moved the family to Savannah when she was a child and prospered there. By the 1850s, he owned property worth $500; he also owned four slaves, unusual in Savannah. Sabbatie may have received her education in a school run by Mary Woodhouse in Savannah in the 1850s, who--presaging Sabattie's own career--was a seamstress who doubled as a teacher.
After Sabattie’s father died in 1856, Sabattie found a white legal guardian, a Savannah attorney named John M. B. Lovell. For free persons of color, guardianship was a common safeguard against being sold back into slavery. During the Civil War, she supported herself as a dressmaker. While she never married, she had a child in 1862, whom she named Mary after her mother.
After the war, Sabattie returned to Darien and began to teach. In 1868, the Freedmen’s Bureau took an interest in her school and offered it some financial support. She remained in Darien to teach until 1869.
For a record of Sabattie's correspondence with the Freedmen’s Bureau, see Whittington B. Johnson, “A Black Teacher and her School: the Correspondence of Hettie Sabattie and J. Murray Hoag, 1868-1869,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 90-105.