This year’s Black History Month theme “Crisis in Education,” set by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), examines the role that education has played in the history of African Americans from times of slavery, through the Civil War, to present day. History is full of examples of people overcoming arbitrary boundaries imposed on them. Below are just a few of many African-Americans who, despite slavery, institutional racism, and a lack of resources, went on to become some of the most important and influential writers and politicians in American history.
Starting with the pre-Civil War era in the United States, watch “Slavery and Freedom” from American Passages to learn about the powerful slave narratives of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Douglass received his first literacy lessons illegally from the white mistress of a slave owner, and he later taught himself to read and write. In America’s History in the Making, “Antebellum Reform,” learn about Douglass’s varied reform efforts before, during, and after the Civil War. Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman who was taught to read, escaped from a plantation and eventually fled to the North. She wrote about her own experiences of exploitation and escape in order to bring awareness to the mistreatment of enslaved women. Read about her in “Slavery and Freedom.”
After the Civil War, segregation continued to restrict educational opportunities for blacks in America. Author Richard Wright grew up poor in the segregated South and had to drop out of school in order to make ends meet. He learned his “lessons” while working various jobs and credits his awakening as a writer to Baltimore essayist H.L. Mencken’s attacks on the South’s failings.
Activist Fannie Lou Hamer briefly attended school as a child while picking cotton with her family on a plantation. She later became an activist with the Freedom Democrats, challenging President Lyndon B. Johnson’s lack of commitment to civil rights. Watch A Biography of America, “The Sixties.”
Where are we now?
We know that those who get an education rise to the top, as demonstrated more recently in the movie Hidden Figures, which is based on the true story of three African-American female mathematicians who made major contributions to NASA’s efforts to put a man in space. The 3 main characters, who have all honed their talents through education, have to fight institutionalized racism to be allowed to contribute to a national effort.
Still all educational opportunities are not created equal. It’s important to examine the current situation of our public school system as we think about ways to move forward to demand equal opportunity in public education for black and Latino students. Segregation in schools is still a reality, and integration has been shown to be the one best solution for closing the achievement gap between white and minority students in the public school system.
The following podcasts and reports provide eye-opening, informative information and interviews.
- In the “The Problem We All Live With” podcast on This American Life, recorded in August 2017, host Ira Glass speaks with Nikole Hannah Jones, investigative reporter at The New York Times, about her 2003 report on Schools in Durham, North Carolina. During her research, she discovered that school integration was the one thing that actually works to close the achievement gap between black kids and white kids, cutting the gap by half. Yet our communities, and thus schools, remain very much segregated. You can listen to her findings on the This American Life In the podcast, Ira Glass cites 2014 Department of Education data “showing that black and Latino kids in segregated schools have the least qualified teachers, the least experienced teachers. They also get the worst course offerings, the least access to AP and upper level courses, the worst facilities.”
- UCLA research shows similar findings, including that high concentrations of children living in poverty and the lack of resources to meet their educational needs are also factors in poor performing segregated black schools. According to data collected by UCLA and reported by PBS Frontline in “The Return of School Segregation in Eight Charts” in 2014, public school segregation has been on the rise because of “legal attacks on desegregation orders under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush” and courts releasing school districts from court oversight. Changes in school enrollment trends also contribute.
The implications of these reports are not hard to understand. Students attending schools with an abundance of resources, nice facilities, qualified and even highly-qualified teachers, and high expectations for students give the students in these schools an advantage. Shouldn’t the right to these resources be guaranteed by our public school system no matter where in the U.S. you live?
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