African Americans and Educational Limitations
African Americans and Educational Limitations
The South. Reformers called for “free schools for a free people,” but few focused on the South in their efforts to establish public school systems. As winds of educational reform blew through the North, public education withered on the vine in the South, where the literacy rate lagged far behind that of the rest of the country. The vast majority of Southern black people, free or enslaved, remained illiterate, as did a large proportion of the Southern white population. Political leaders in the South tended to focus their educational interests only on providing the Best for the sons of wealthy planters while remaining uninterested in or even hostile to popular education, even for poor whites. As the proslavery theorist George Fitzhugh explained in 1857, “we must unfetter genius, and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few—Slavery, in every form, for the mass!” This especially applied to African Americans, who were prohibited by law and custom from receiving instruction in reading and writing. White Southerners resisted educating slaves because they feared that education would give access to ideas that would threaten the institution of slavery. Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831 only confirmed white fears and intensified efforts to prevent African Americans in the South from receiving any formal education. Some slaveholders gave their slaves a limited education, but only as a means of increasing their economic worth. In most cases this meant training in manual and semiskilled occupations, which would not threaten to challenge or overturn the slave society. The few African Americans who were able to acquire literacy under slavery passed this precious skill on to others, often secretly and at great risk to their own safety.
PRUDENCE CRANDALL CLOSES HER SCHOOL
Restrictions on educational opportunities for African Americans in the North could be as severe as those in the slaveholding South. One example occurred in 1832 in Canterbury, Connecticut, when Prudence Crandall invited a young African American girl to attend her otherwise all-white boarding school. Parents of the other girls protested, and when Crandall refused to remove the new student, they withdrew their daughters. Undaunted by these actions, Crandall, with the help of abolitionist newspaperman William Lloyd Garrison, opted to transform the school into one exclusively “for young colored ladies and Misses.” The townspeople responded with hostility and violence. Students were openly insulted. The building was repeatedly vandalized. Crandall refused to surrender even as town leaders appealed to the state legislature for aid in removing what was referred to as the “nigger school.” On 24 May 1334 the Connecticut legislature passed a law prohibiting schools for “colored persons who were not inhabitants of the state.” Under the new law Crandall was arrested and eventually found guilty. While her conviction was subsequently overturned, Prudence Crandall, in the face of repeated attempts to destroy the building, closed the school on 10 October 1834 and left Canterbury, Connecticut, forever.
Source: Frederick M. Binder, The Age of the Common School, 1830–1865 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974).
The North. Within the context of the newly developing urban educational system in cities such as Boston free African Americans began their struggle for education. At the beginning of the nineteenth century no law excluded black children from Massachusetts schools, but harsh economic conditions among the black population and the hostile reception given to many black students combined to keep their attendance rate low. In response African Americans in Boston lobbied for a separate system of schools for their children. In other Northern cities, including Philadelphia and New York, black leaders also preferred segregated schools because such institutions protected their children from discrimination and violence. In Boston the School Committee eventually accepted the idea of a segregated school system, and in 1812 the committee voted for permanent funds for the school and established direct control over it. By the 1820s, however, some African Americans began to question their earlier request for segregated schools due to
the low quality of the teachers and the inferior conditions of their buildings compared to Boston’s other public schools. Concerns about the quality of segregated schools and attempts to end segregation would continue through the coming decades. On 28 April 1855 Massachusetts desegregated the state’s public schools with a law that stated: “no distinction shall be made on account of the race, color, or religious opinions, of the applicant or scholar.”
Demands. African American leaders, such as the abolitionist David Walker, eventually concluded that only an integrated educational system could offer equal educational opportunities for all students. Walker and other integrationists had come to suspect that white Americans were trying to keep black Americans from receiving any significant education. As proof he and others cited the laws in the South that made it illegal to educate slaves and argued that New England educators had purposely designed an inferior system for blacks to keep them in a state of ignorance. Walker was frustrated not only by the educational limitations placed on African Americans but also by the black community’s lack of awareness about the state of inequality. “Most colored people when they speak of the education of one among us who can write a neat hand, and who perhaps knows nothing but to scribble and puff pretty fair on a small scrap of paper… say he has as good an education as any white man.” In spite of opposition and meager financial resources Walker and pioneering African American educators such as Sarah Mapps Douglass, abolitionist and founder of a school for African American girls in Philadelphia, and Fanny Jackson Coppin, principal of the prestigious coeducational Institute for the Education of Colored Youth, worked hard to improve educational opportunities for black children in the North and South.
Edgar Wallace Knight, Public Education in the South (New York: Ginn, 1922);
Stanley K. Schultz, The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 1789–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).