Black Teachers on Teaching

"Rethinking Schools is pleased to present excerpts from the new book, Black Teachers on Teaching, by Michele Foster."

By Michele Foster

The following, by Michele Foster, is adapted from her introduction to Black Teachers on Teaching.

Prior to emancipation, Blacks held in slavery were forbidden to learn to read. Despite this prohibition and severe punishments, Blacks valued literacy and many learned to read. Some were taught by sympathetic whites; others learned alongside their master’s children. But a significant number were taught by free Blacks or by slaves who were literate themselves. Well-regarded and respected, these Black teachers understood both the power and danger associated with literacy.

Leroy Lovelace, a retired high school English teacher, underscores the power of education today: “When a people can think critically, they can change things. They are less likely to be taken advantage of and more likely to be able to avoid the traps that others set for us.”

During the three decades following emancipation and through the first six decades of the 20th century, teaching was one of the few occupations open to college-educated Blacks. “The only thing an educated Negro can do is teach or preach,” people would say. One difference between teaching and preaching, of course, was that teaching was open to women on an equal basis. In fact, one of the primary leadership roles available to Black women was as teachers in their communities.

Census data illustrate these patterns. Between 1890 and 1910, the number of Blacks employed as teachers rose from 15,100 to 66,236. In the census years of 1890, 1900, and 1910, Black teachers

represented about 44, 45, and 45%, respectively, of professional Blacks. In 1910, 76% of Black teachers employed were women.

Throughout history, Black teachers have been hired primarily to teach Black students. Because of the large numbers of Blacks who resided in the South, a policy of “separate but equal” schooling, and Southern laws mandating that Black teachers could teach only in segregated


schools, greater numbers of Black teachers were employed in the seventeen Southern and border states. Of the 63,697 Black teachers in the United States in 1940, 46,381 were employed in the South.

Northern communities did not have laws segregating Black teachers in Black schools. But as more Blacks migrated to the North, the school systems adopted policies that resulted in the de facto segregation not only of Black pupils but also of Black teachers. In cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Chicago, it was customary to assign Black teachers to predominantly Black schools or to restrict them to particular grades (usually elementary). In Philadelphia, it wasn’t until 1935 that the first Black teacher was appointed to a junior high school, and not until 1947 was the first Black teacher assigned to a high school.

When I began teaching in the Boston public schools in the late 1960s, I encountered similar problems. As a first-year teacher I was assigned only to substitute teach in predominantly Black schools, and when I finally did secure my own classroom I was assigned as a “provisional” or temporary teacher in predominantly Black schools. It wasn’t until 1974, the year Boston public schools were desegregated by court order, that I was offered a permanent teaching position.

The primary reason that Black teachers were prohibited from teaching white children was the widespread belief firmly entrenched since the 19th century that, like others of their race, Black teachers were inferior to whites and not suitable to teach white pupils.

In both the North and the South, however, whites retained the prerogative to teach in Black schools. In 26 all-Black schools in Chicago in 1930, for example, only 34% of the faculty was Black.

The Black community has always agreed about the importance of schooling for its children. But it has been deeply divided over whether integrated or segregated schools would achieve the best outcome. This was especially true because integrated schools often meant the loss of jobs for Black teachers.

Black communities across the United States have grappled with this dilemma since the early 19th century. Black leaders often weighed in on both sides of the issue. Some believed that by insisting on Black teachers, the community was acquiescing to segregation. But there was still considerable sentiment within the Black community for retaining Black teachers to teach in Black schools.

Perhaps it was W.E.B. Du Bois who best summarized the situation:

“And I know that race prejudice in the United States today is such that most Negroes cannot receive proper education in white institutions. … If the public schools of Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, and Jacksonville were thrown open to all races today, the education that colored children would get in them would be worse than pitiable. And in the same way, there are many public school systems in the North where Negroes are admitted and tolerated, but they are not educated; they are crucified. To sum up this: theoretically, the Negro needs neither separate nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic either in mixed schools or segregated schools. A mixed school with poor unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teacher of the truth concerning Black folk is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, and poor salaries is equally bad. Other things being equal, the mixed schools is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youth. It gives wider contacts; it inspires greater self-confidence; and suppresses the inferiority complex. But other things seldom are equal, and in that case, Sympathy, Knowledge, and the Truth outweigh all that the mixed school can offer.”

Michele Foster is an educational consultant and a professor of education at the Claremont Graduate School in California.