Laura Ann Cansler was the first black teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee. The North Carolina native moved to Knoxville during the Civil War. Her sibling, William Cansler, was taken during a raid by rebel soldiers and had escaped a few days later. Their family home was invaded and soldiers took supplies.
An Episcopal reverend named Thomas Humes taught Cansler and her siblings. Laura Ann soon became a schoolteacher and married at age 17. By 1863, the Union troops controlled Knoxville so the former slaves were allowed to be educated with the permission of General Ambrose Burnside. Cansler took the opportunity to open The Burnside School where she would teach former slaves, young and old. The school opened its doors in 1864 and was located on Detroit Avenue in Knoxville.
Cansler’s students ranged in ages up to 70 years old. Many former slaves wished to read the bible. Cansler’s influence as a teacher reached her own children as well; several of them became educators.
The legacy of Laura Ann Cansler lives with the memory of The Burnside School. In 1952 the Cansler Elementary School was established and named in honor of Knoxville’s first black teacher. It is now the Laura Cansler Boy’s and Girl’s Club.