The long struggle of the African American community to secure the right to an education reflects the struggle of many other oppressed groups. The African American community, perhaps more than any other group, has worked diligently to obtain that highly regarded commodity only to encounter great opposition at almost every turn. Despite the vigilance with which their attempts were thwarted, the Black community has been able to make extraordinary strides and forever change the landscape of education in the United States. Characterized by oppression, resistance, and proactive effort, the complex history of African American education is not only the study of a marginalized group but is central to a holistic understanding of the social and cultural foundations of education.
This entry unfolds primarily chronologically, beginning with African American education in slavery and moving through Reconstruction, segregated schools, and the move for desegregation before reflecting upon contemporary issues related to African American education.
Education In Slavery
Although art and culture had been an integral part of their lives in Africa, the Africans forcibly brought to the United States from 1619 on found opportunities to expand their minds were actively limited. While their technical classification at this time was as indentured servants, their journey was not voluntary, and, unlike White indentured servants, their term of service had no time limit. The fear that an educated Black population would be a rebellious one led to the proliferation of laws against educating Blacks across the South beginning in 1680 in Virginia.
By the mid-1800s most Southern states had enacted laws prohibiting Black literacy, which often applied to free Blacks as well. While much focus is on the South’s role at this time, Black children attempting to enter White schools in the North often met with hostility and even violence. The Roberts v. Boston (1949) decision upholding school segregation in Boston would later serve as precedent for the Supreme Court’s sanction of segregated public schools nationwide in 1896.
The concern over Black literacy in the South may have had some merit since many successful escapees and leaders of slave rebellions were literate. The penalty for learning to read and write varied, but included having a thumb or forefinger removed, being whipped, and in some cases, even death. The vigilance with which these laws were enforced merely served to strengthen the resolve among many Black people to learn to read and write. Across the nation many Black people learned to read and write in any way they could—often teaching themselves, learning secretly at night or in clandestine schools, and even taking informal lessons from the school-age children of White slave owners. Booker T. Washington taught himself to read while enslaved, remarking that the prohibited nature of learning to read only further fueled his curiosity and tenacity to do so.
The Postwar Years And Reconstruction
After their emancipation and the end of slavery in 1865, the thirst for an education among the newly freed people was acute; however, the Black community quickly found that obtaining an education would still be a difficult task. The value of an education was well known to the Black community, especially when it came time to negotiate labor contracts and settle prices for their crops after harvest. The ease with which illiterate Blacks could be taken advantage of was another motivation to push for an education.
Although their position in the new market was often precarious, many Blacks made the provision of a schoolhouse and teacher a condition of their employment contracts. One of the biggest problems was that very few school facilities existed in the South, even for White children, as the former planter class strongly opposed the concept of public education. The Black community used their newfound political power as well as their collective resources in the early years of Reconstruction to campaign for state sponsored education. These efforts were largely successful, and in a few short years every Southern state had a provision for separate public schools for Blacks and Whites, albeit with limited funding for additional resources such as buildings, teachers, and supplies for poor White and Black children.
By 1870 nearly one quarter of Black school-age children were enrolled in school. The majority of the support came from within their own African American communities, but they also relied upon support from the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Rosenwald Fund, benevolent Northern missionaries, and Southern Whites. Many Northern missionaries came south looking to assist with this enormous project and taught in freedman’s schools, but also found an extensive existing network of stable and self-sufficient African American education collectives.
The tremendous progress made by the Black community toward the provision of education was abruptly ended in 1877. Reconstruction was effectively over when the botched presidential election of 1876 led to the famed Compromise of 1877, which elected Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South. The former planter class had been campaigning to end Reconstruction efforts, particularly those directed toward education, because they threatened the hierarchical agrarian society integral to their continued rule. As they regained control of Southern governments, their efforts to thwart Black education became more entrenched.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Black community’s drive to provide education to its members could not be reversed. Blacks saw education as inextricably tied to their true exercise of freedom. This unyielding passion eventually forced the former planter class to become more moderate in their views of education, especially as it became clear that without intervention it was possible for a literate Black population to emerge in the face of a largely illiterate White population. However, as the system of public education became more widespread, the money collected from all taxpayers was systematically diverted toward the provision of education for White students.
The Black community continued to rely on itself to provide educational resources for its schools, often imposing a system of “double taxation” on itself whereby after their tax money was diverted to White schools they would tax themselves again to provide financial and tangible resources to their own schools. The support did not end there, as the Black community also contributed many tangible resources as well, including buses (transportation), desks, land, fuel and other essential resources. They continued to provide these resources even as these materials were freely provided to White schools.
The Black community was largely committed to a liberal education that would prepare Blacks for economic and political independence. Many Whites, however, including those providing critical (although meager) financial support, saw more merit in the provision of vocational education that would prepare Black people for lower agricultural and technical positions and facilitate the continued control of the planter aristocracy. They saw the schoolhouse as an opportunity to educate Black children to accept their place in the Southern racial hierarchy. Educational materials furnished to Black schools, including materials received from Northern missionaries, were often designed to foster feelings of racial subordination.
This debate over the purpose and direction of Black education was captured by two central Black leaders of the time. Booker T. Washington, a former slave, advocated for the uplifting of the Black community through vocational education at institutions— such as Hampton, where he was educated, and Tuskegee, which he founded—to foster widespread economic and political independence. Harvard-educated W. E. B. Du Bois felt strongly about a classical liberal arts education, particularly for an elite “Talented Tenth” of the Black community.
Jim Crow Segregation
While segregation by race was the norm in the postwar years, it was formally codified into law in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case where Homer Plessy, a man who was seven-eighths White, sued after being removed from the Whites-only car of a segregated train in Louisiana. He had intentionally sat in the car to challenge the constitutionality of the segregation law. To his surprise, the Supreme Court ruled that providing separate accommodations, as long as they were equal, was not a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
From here the Jim Crow era of segregation began and separate accommodations for Blacks and Whites were seen in every aspect of society, including education. However, while segregated facilities were common, they were seldom equal. For example, at the turn of the century, Mississippi’s Black students comprised almost 60 percent of the school-age population yet received only 19 percent of the education expenditures. Alabama spent almost $23 for each of its White students, but less than $1 for each Black student. This trend continued throughout the era. In 1930 Alabama spent $37 per White student versus only $7 per Black student, Georgia spent $32 versus $7, Mississippi $31 versus $6, and South Carolina $53 per White student versus $5 per Black student. Despite the glaring disparities in Black-White school expenditures, historians such as Vanessa Siddle Walker have documented the success some of these Black schools had in educating their students.
Brown V. Board Of Education And School Desegregation
In the late 1920s the fight against segregated schools began at Howard Law School under Charles Hamilton Houston. His vision was to train a cadre of Black lawyers who would go on, through what became the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to fight Jim Crow segregation in schools. After a successful attack on racial segregation in higher education, the team, now led by Thurgood Marshall, turned its attention to segregation in elementary and secondary schools.
The case argued before the Supreme Court was actually comprised of five separate cases from across the nation. These were Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina, Davis v. Prince Edward County in Virginia, Bolling v. Sharpe in Washington, D.C., Beulah v. Gebhart and Belton v. Gebhart in Delaware, and the infamous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which originated in Kansas and became the banner under which all five cases would be brought to court. The Supreme Court issued its ruling, after some delay, on May 17, 1954, marking a historic moment in U.S. education.
Chief Justice Earl Warren read the unanimous opinion of the Court, which held that separating students for instruction solely on the basis of race, even if facilities were equal, was a denial of equal protection rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment. The doctrine of equal educational opportunity was created with this ruling. The Court offered a second ruling the following year as to the implementation of its decision. In this decision, referred to as Brown II, the Court held that these changes should occur “with all deliberate speed,” a ruling for which the Court has been criticized for inciting massive delays and resistance to its prior ruling.
Reaction to the decision from Whites across the South was swift and overwhelmingly negative. There was little support from President Eisenhower or Congress either. Delays using the courts were a popular tactic in avoiding desegregation and at this time nearly 500 laws and resolutions to thwart desegregation efforts were undertaken across the South. Some schools opted to shut their public schools down entirely rather than submit to desegregation. In Little Rock, Arkansas, nine Black high school students, known as the “Little Rock Nine” faced opposition from the governor when trying to integrate Central High School and could only attend when President Eisenhower reluctantly sent in the National Guard.
Desegregation occurred very slowly, if at all, into the 1960s until the civil rights movement and a more favorable president and Congress enacted legislation containing the enforcement power to mandate desegregation without further delay. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and the 1972 Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA) all served to forward the cause of school desegregation. Further legislative and judiciary action in the next several years continued the forward progress and rates of desegregation began to rise significantly.
The Brown decision could address desegregation only in the places where it was codified by law, known as de jure (by law) segregation. In other places racial segregation was known as de facto, or due to circumstances not mandated by law, such as residential segregation. Therefore, some schools, particularly in the North, were not held to the Brown decision even though Northern schools were often just as segregated. The 1974 Milliken v. Bradley case addressed desegregation in the North, where it was common for predominantly minority urban centers to be surrounded by White suburban districts. In this case, a plan to integrate Detroit through an interdistrict, city-suburban desegregation plan was implemented. It was blocked by the Supreme Court, which ruled that unless it could be proven that the suburban districts were liable for causing the segregation in the city, they could not be held to the remedy. The inability to include suburban districts in desegregation plans proved to be a significant roadblock to achieving meaningful desegregation in the North.
The Milliken case marked the beginning of the federal retreat from school desegregation efforts. School desegregation rates continued to climb, but the federal government increasingly backed away from these efforts. The tide of forward progress shifted drastically in the 1990s with three important Supreme Court cases, Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991), Freeman v. Pitts (1992), and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995). Collectively, these cases served to remove federal mandates for further desegregation, effectively allowing schools to return to segregated schooling options, and preventing many school districts from continuing desegregation plans on even a voluntary basis.
With the reversal of support from the Supreme Court, a rapid rise in resegregation can be seen in schools today. Researchers from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University have documented this change. Some school districts are actually more segregated than they were before desegregation was implemented, even as schools today are more diverse than ever. Black and Latino students are the most segregated students, and many of these students find themselves in “apartheid” schools where over 99 percent of the student body is Black or Latino.
In addition to these segregation issues, known as between-school segregation (or first-generation segregation), there is also a phenomenon of within-school segregation (or second-generation segregation), which includes tactics that perpetuate segregation at the classroom level. For example, tracking, abuse of suspensions and expulsions, and inappropriate gifted and special education placements are all methods that can segregate students by race. African American students are disproportionately represented in low-track and special education classes, as well as among disciplinary cases.
Today’s schools continue to struggle to best meet the needs of African American students. The legacy of the historical and contemporary disenfranchisement of these students can be seen in the achievement gap that exists between African American and, in particular, White and Asian students. It remains to be seen how schools will honor the legacy of passion for and dedication to education historically shown by the Black community and successfully support the learning needs of all students.
- Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935.
- Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Kluger, R. (1975). Simple justice: The history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality. New York: Knopf.
- Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Walker, V. S. (1996). Their highest potential: An African American school community in the segregated South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Williams, H. A. (2005). Self-taught: African American education in slavery and freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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