Public Education of African Americans

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Public Education of African Americans


Post-Reconstruction Efforts. During the 1870s and 1880s the majority of African Americans were still living in the South. By 1877, when the last remaining federal troops were withdrawn to end the Reconstruction period officially, the rudiments of the public education system in the South had been established with traditions that kept it segregated for nearly a century. The principle of universal education, which had been written into Reconstruction-era state constitutions, survived when southern whites returned to power, but everywhere in the South the laws were changed to provide that the races be educated separately. The separation of races had been fostered by the philanthropic organizations that had assumed primary responsibility for educational efforts. The Peabody Fund, for example, which began helping both blacks and whites as early as 1867, had benefactors whose position was that separate schools for the races were desirable. Most blacks were much more concerned with equal opportunity than with mixed schools, so Reconstruction governments had made no efforts tointegrate the emerging public schools. When southerners returned to power, they faced dire poverty made worse by burdensome taxes on agricultural land that was barely producing, and they had vivid memories of graft and misappropriation of funds in government. Most leaders, who evidenced serious resentment and prejudice toward both northerners and African Americans, felt that education for black citizens was are responsibility of the federal government and of private philanthropy rather than a local burden.


Peter H. Clark, an educator and political activist in Cincinnati, devoted his Hfe to expanding opportunities for African Americans to study the higher branches, as the secondary school curriculum was called, Every pupil who attended any secondary school during the 1870s and 1880s was regarded as exceptional someone whose claim to respect rested upon individual achievement, not birthright, Clark, whose grandfather was reportedly the explorer William Clark (he had sired several children with his black mistress), established Gaines High School for the aristocracy of talent among his citys black population. In the late 1870s Clark claimed to have boosted the schools academic quality to match its white competitors, By 1879 about 4 percent of blacks enrolled in the Cincinnati system were studying at Gaines, a percentage similar to the number of whites in secondary schools, However, this experiment with a black-controlled high school was not representative of other northern systems, The tiny percentage of African American youth in the North who attended secondary schools had to rely on their own efforts or upon the kindness of strangers, such as white philanthropists, missionaries, or sympathetic school board members,

Source: William J. Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) pp, 233235.

Taxes and Educational Equity. When southern Democrats returned to power, they cut back property taxes dramatically, even though the school-age population was increasing rapidly. From 1875 to 1895 school enrollment in the South increased by more than two million pupils, or more than 150 percent. As black political power disappeared, it was inevitable that funds were diverted from blacks to whites. The schools were supported by state school funds, which were distributed on a per capita basis. This per capita distribution meant that considerably more money was allotted to black schools in black counties (the counties across the South with traditionally large numbers of black agricultural workers, exemplified by the Delta area in Mississippi). In white counties schools for whites received the greater apportionment of money. Such a situation was intolerable for the old planter classes who found themselves in the minority of the population of the black counties. These powerful property owners soon began passing laws that had the effect of diverting per capita spending to white schools. One way this shifting of moneys was accomplished was by state examinations for teachers, with salaries based upon the kind of teaching certificates granted. A wide range of salaries was possible even for the same certificate. Examining Officers could give African American teachers lower Salaries than were paid to whites with the same :Certificate. However, in counties where the black population was small, there was little money to divert. The result in these counties was a general antagonism to Negro education of any sort. The differential in expenditures became more marked as the century drew to l close, especially after the Supreme Courts Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling sanctioned separate schools for he races.


Harry S. Ashmore, The Negro and the Schools (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), pp. 1329;

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Education of Black People (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), pp. 513;

Edgar W. Knight, Public Education in the South (Boston: Ginn, 1922), pp. 420435;

Truman Pierce, White and Negro Schools in the South: An Analysis of Biracial Education (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1955), pp. 1743.

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Public Education of African Americans

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