The schooling of American blacks, both within and without the mainstream educational establishment. Historically, the quality of education received by African Americans has been far below that offered whites. Only the education of Hispanic Americans in the United States
has produced worse results than that of African Americans.
Little is known about the early history of African-American education in America. Whatever education they received in the 17th century was probably the result of occasional instruction by a benevolent slave master. The nearest resemblance to formal education did not begin until the first decades of the 18th century, when a handful of public-spirited churchmen and pioneer educators such as Anthony Benezet
established small schools for black freedmen in such cities as New York, Philadelphia and even Charleston, South Carolina. By the Civil War, there were also three colleges for blacks, Wilberforce College (later, University) in Ohio, Berea College in Kentucky and Ashmun Institute (later, Lincoln University). All three had been founded in the mid- 1850s, to train freed slaves as missionaries, some to migrate to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society.
Although “common,” or public, elementary schools for white boys had sprung up in hundreds of northern towns and cities after American independence, almost none were open to blacks. In the South, so-called black codes made teaching literacy to blacks a felony punishable by heavy fines and imprisonment. Nevertheless, black literacy climbed to 5% by 1860, according to the historian W. E. B. DuBois. Some gains were the work of sympathetic white churchmen. Others came in private classes run by black freedmen. In the South, semiliterate black preachers who held services in the slave quarters of southern plantations spread literacy by holding clandestine classes for black children to help them read the Bible.
Separate-but-equal schools such as this one for African-American children in rural Tennessee subjected them to unconstitutional educational deprivation, according to the United States Supreme Court in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. (Library of Congress)
After the Civil War, Northern generals who controlled civil government in the South attempted to establish Northern-style public school systems in the former Confederate states. For the first time, Southern communities that could afford to do so built common schools, open to all children, black and white. At the same time, white missionary societies, backed by wealthy northern industrialists, sent thousands of white teachers to found schools and speed the education of former slaves.
The result was a dramatic increase in the number of schools and colleges for blacks. By 1895, there were 62 secondary schools and 27 colleges, in addition to the 3 that had been founded before the Civil War. In addition, independent sponsors founded Atlanta, Howard and Leland Universities, and 13 other schools were founded under the provisions of the LAND-GRANT COLLEGES.
Together, these institutions began turning out the first generation of African-American leaders who would guide their race into the 20th century. By 1900, more than half the graduates of the black colleges had become teachers, while nearly 20% had become clergymen, most of whom were either directly or indirectly involved with education.
To most blacks, literacy became a symbol of liberation, and, with the Emancipation Proclamation, the eagerness of southern blacks to get an education grew into what pioneer black educator BOOKER T. WASHINGTON called a “fever.” The fever affected not only children but men and women in their seventies, whom Washington recalled seeing “tramping along the country roads with a spelling book or a Bible in their hands.”
“The places for holding school,” he wrote in his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901), “were anywhere and everywhere; the freedmen could not wait for schoolhouses to be built or for teachers to be provided. They got up before day and studied in their cabins . . . late at night, drooping over their books, trying to master the secrets they contained. More than once, I have seen a fire in the woods at night with a dozen or more people of both sexes and of all ages sitting about with book in hands studying their lessons. Sometimes they would fasten their primers between the ploughshares, so that they could read as they ploughed.”
In addition to literacy, many educators also tried to teach former slaves various skills and trades that would give them economic independence. Backed by northern philanthropists, General Samuel C. Armstrong founded the pioneering Hampton Institute in Virginia. Booker T. Washington later founded a similar, trade-oriented school, the TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE, in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Washington believed that the minority status of blacks would prevent them from ever winning political or social equality. He proposed that blacks buy farmland and learn trades with which they could offer goods and services indispensable to the white community. He believed such products and skills would give blacks economic independence and establish mutually beneficial economic ties to whites without necessitating any social or political ties.
Ironically, Washington’s success at Tuskegee became the center of one of the most important controversies ever to affect African-American education. Northern black intellectuals such as DuBois believed academic education would serve blacks better than vocational education. DuBois believed vocational education would leave blacks in permanent servitude to whites. Only academic education, he said, would lead to complete social, civil and political equality. The Washington-DuBois debate produced a bitter split among black educators, and, before the issue was resolved, profound legal and demographic changes destroyed both men’s dreams for universal education of black Americans.
When Southern states regained home rule in the 1870s, they segregated the races and slashed budgets earmarked for black schools. Black churches tried to pick up the slack by operating day schools as well as Sunday schools. Trade schools such as Washington’s at Tuskegee staged vast expansions. Washington envisioned such schools not just as educational institutions that would give blacks economic independence, but as instruments in an eventual “accommodation” between blacks and whites.
In 1896, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in PLESSY V. FERGUSON that states had the constitutional right to segregate the races in “separate but equal” school systems. For the next 60 years, the SEPARATE-BUT-EQUAL DOCTRINE kept blacks segregated from whites in almost all areas of American life and condemned African- American children to substandard education in the North as well as the South. While the latter subjected black children to de jure segregation
, the North subjected them to de facto segregation
in equally inferior schools. In the 1946–47 school year, 17 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia), as well as the District of Columbia
, had laws that segregated blacks and whites in separate schools. Only 12 states had laws that banned such segregation.
In 1954, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which DuBois and other black intellectuals had founded in 1909 to fight for equal rights for blacks, won a dramatic victory. In the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
, KANSAS, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled that separate schools, simply by their separateness, cannot be equal, and that segregation is unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the decision came too late to produce the educational results DuBois had envisioned when he began his debate with Booker T. Washington a half-century earlier. By 1954, nearly three generations of African Americans had grown up in segregated, academically inferior schools set amidst the poverty and crime of America’s black slums. The trade schools that Washington had envisioned had prepared many students for jobs that automation had rendered obsolete, and the academic schools envisioned by DuBois had failed to prepare students well enough to gain admission to college.
Although the legacy of segregation continues to affect the education of African Americans, 30 years of affirmative action
beginning in the late 1960s diminished those effects substantially and brought African Americans closer to statistical parity with whites. By 2002, about 89% of all African-American students were graduating from high school—below the 92.7% rate for white students, but significantly higher than the 59.6% black graduation rate two decades earlier.
The narrowing of disparities between white and African-American graduation rates, however, was not matched by comparable improvements in educational proficiency—despite dramatic gains in income and educational levels of black families and occupational status of black parents. Although the so-called achievement gap between white and black academic proficiency narrowed by a dramatic 20% from 1972 to 1992, it suddenly ceased narrowing. By 2005, black scores in reading, writing and math proficiency were almost unchanged from 1992.
Although black scores on SCHOLASTIC ASSESSMENT TESTS for admission to college improved slightly (less than 1% on the verbal and 1.8% on math), the 430 average black score on the verbal test and 427 on the math remained 18.6% and 17.7%, respectively, below the scores of white students.
In higher education, African-American gains have been mixed. Although African Americans made up 17.2% of the public school population, they constituted only 11.6% of total college enrollments in 2004—only about two percentage points higher than two decades earlier. The percentage of African-American high school students enrolling in college, however, improved substantially during the last quarter of the 20th century, from about 42% to 62% in 1998, before dropping to 54.6% in 2001. (White enrollment rates climbed from about 50% to a peak of 68.5% in 1998, before slipping to 64.2% in 2001). About 41.9% of African-American high school graduates obtained bachelor’s degrees, compared with 54.5% of whites. African Americans make up about 12% of the college undergraduate population and earned 12.3% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2004, 4.1% of the master’s degrees, 0.5% of doctoral degrees, and 0.8% of professional degrees. They made up more than 5.2% of faculties in institutions of higher learning and just under 7.6% of teachers in American elementary and secondary schools.
Court-ordered desegregation has nevertheless improved African-American education considerably. More African Americans are getting a better education than ever before in their history, as evinced in the steady improvement in Scholastic Assessment Test scores of African- American high school students. De facto segregation of schools, however, remains a problem that continues to deprive many African Americans of equal educational opportunities— largely because of inadequate funding and the refusal of many gifted teachers to risk commuting in and out of neighborhoods in which many black schools are located. About twothirds of all black students still attend public primary and secondary schools in which 50% to 100% of the student body is nonwhite.
Most states continue to fund public schools with property taxes levied according to market values of real estate—a system that automatically produces more funds for schools in wealthy areas than for those in poor ones. In some states, spending on each student in the wealthiest districts averages twice as much as per-student spending in the poorest districts.
Although some state courts have ruled such distribution of school funds unconstitutional, legislatures in many states continue to pass laws to legalize inequitable funding. At least one state, Michigan, abolished all property taxes to force state government to develop new, more equitable methods of funding schools.
(See also black colleges