Celebration, liberation and education
First graduating class of the Pine Grove Rosenwald School, one of thousands built from 1913 through 1932 for black rural communities in the southern United States. https://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/2020/10/14/rosenwald-schools-nrhp/
If we live in an environment in which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice.
—Beverly Tatum, Can We Talk About Race?
I’m Jasmine Willams, Race and Equity Specialist and Montessori Coach at the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. I’m kicking off a series of pieces on unknown or even suppressed aspects of the history of education.
Yet my direct aim is not to educate you, but to celebrate the forgotten or misrepresented historical contributions people of color have made to our work as educators—mainstream and Montessori—in the US. These counter-narratives may be new to you as some are new to me, either in full or partial context.
We all witnessed the newest wave of racial reckoning the US had in 2020. Many hoped that a new president, vice president and year would put an end to the chaos and the madness. Sadly, this will not change racial and ethnic disparities overnight.
The tension and divide we feel and see is due to our nation’s distorted history. Hopefully, one of the ways to liberate all of us is through our history and education. Much of history has been intentionally erased or altered to make society believe that people of color are deficient and that white is right. This is an aspect of white supremacy culture. You don’t need to belong to a domestic terrorist group to be a part of white supremacy culture. We are all a part of it and we all contribute to it whether we like it or not, myself included. But, we can work diligently at freeing ourselves from this socialized ideology, which is the purpose of these installments.
In honor of Black History Month, I kick off our new update honoring my ancestors who paved the way to something we all have access to: universal education.
What is it? Access to education no matter your social, economic, or political identifiers.
By universal education, I mean access to taxpayer-funded, state-controlled education for children from all families who want it, regardless of race, religion, social class, or ability. This is the model promoted, if not always achieved, in public education in the U.S. today.
How did it start?
Conventional history of education will tell you about Horace Mann and the “Common School” movement in the Northeast, which envisioned (and enacted) free, publicly-funded, non-sectarian, professionalized schools for all from the 1830s through the end of the century.
But how universal were these schools, really? Black and other non-white students in the north were often marginalized or excluded from these schools, and in the south the Common School was slow to catch on and enslaved Black people were excluded from education by force of law and violence.
The rest of the story
The first great mass movement for public education at the expense of the state, in the South, came from Negroes.
Despite these challenges, enslaved Blacks realized the value of education and sought it out at great risk to themselves even before the Civil War. James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 tells the story in great detail, but here’s a seriously condensed version.
After the Civil War ended and as formerly enslaved people were freed, they elevated education.
Upon emancipation, schools began to form up all over the South as young and old, male and female African Americans fed their hunger for education. Southern Blacks were not looking for or expecting handouts. While grateful for the support of benefactors in the North, southern African Americans wanted education that represented them from teachers to the curriculum. Rightly so because, according to Anderson, “most Northern missionaries went south with the preconceived idea that…blacks were little more than uncivilized victims who needed to be taught the values and rules of civil society.” It was this type of savior mentality ex-slaves were trying to avoid. Some statistics recorded by the Freedmen’s Bureau on Black schools in the South:
- In 1866, there were an estimated 500 “native schools”—the name given to schools started, resourced and attended by African Americans.
- In 1866, in Georgia, African Americans sustained full or part of the operation of more than two-thirds of their schools. 96 of the 123 day and evening schools were fully financed in this way. African Americans owned 57 of the school buildings.
- By 1869, throughout the South, 1, 512 schools employed 6,146 teachers serving 107,109 students.
At the time, poor whites in the South were not pursuing education with the same fervor as freedmen and women, and the dominant white planter class did not support universal education even for whites, let alone for former slaves. The system of “free schools” developed by African Americans in the 1860s and 1870s became the foundation of constitutionally mandated universal public education written into southern state constitutions written during the Reconstruction. From Anderson’s book:
Thus ex-slaves…were the first among native southerners to wage a campaign for universal public education… By 1870, every southern state had specific provisions in its constitution to assure a public school system financed by a state fund. … Ex-slaves used their resources first in a grass-roots movement to build, fund, and staff schools as a practical right; then they joined with Republicans to incorporate the idea into Southern state constitutional law. With these actions they revolutionized the South’s position regarding the role of universal public education in society.
The self-determination ex-slaves had to pursue education was a fulfillment of their freedom. They weren’t seeking to emulate their oppressors yet Education was their form of resistance. Resistance is as much a part of history as the tribulations people face. The resistance is the plot twist that makes our ongoing story of America interesting. The resistors and resistance remind us of hope and even encourage us to fight.
There is much more to this story. I have given you some highlights, but I encourage you to read other scholars who have written about this. One great article, How former slaves established schools and educated their population after the Civil War by Craig Chamberlain, can be found here.
Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. (1988). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Tatum, B. D., & Columbus Metropolitan Club (Ohio). (2008). Can we talk about race?: Conversations in an era of school resegregation. Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Metropolitan Club.