The Struggle for Equal Education

An Historical Note

By Robert Lowe

Ever since the momentous Brown decision of 1954 outlawed state enforced school segregation, there has been a tendency to look suspiciously upon any educational plan that is indifferent to the achievement of racial balance. Thus, many sincere people see the current effort to forge a separate, predominantly black district in Milwaukee as a retrograde step — an attempt to turn back the clock on hard won gains, among which the Brown decision was signal. Such a viewpoint identifies equal education with desegregated education and assumes that the history of the struggle for equal opportunity, both before and after Brown, has been a continuous effort toward realizing mixed schools.

The historical record, however, yields a picture less neat. While blacks often have struggled for desegregated schools, many times separate schools were preferred. One way of making sense of this past is to recognize that the tension in black educational history between the pursuit of separate schools on one hand and mixed schools on the other is a surface expression of a deeper, unifying interest: how to guarantee quality education in a dramatically unequal society. Before the Civil War schooling for slaves was forbidden. Those slave owners foolish enough to miss the connection between knowledge and power, were enlightened by the slave revolt led by the literate Nat Turner in 1831. Thereafter, state legislatures rushed to attach criminal penalties to even the most informal, rudimentary instruction of slaves. Prior to the 1860s Northern blacks, though rarely denied schooling altogether, typically faced separate and grossly unequal facilities. Expenditures for black students could be as stingy as 1/40 of those received by whites, so the attainment of equal educational resources often motivated the quest for interracial schools. Yet being admitted to a white school was no crystal stair either. Mistreatment in the mixed schools of cities like Hartford, Providence, and Rochester could spark blacks’ desire for separate institutions. Historian Leon Litwack, for instance, quotes black advocates of separate schools in Rochester. Revolted by negative white attitudes, they felt that in desegregated schools “the literary and moral interests of the coloured scholar can scarcely prosper.

With the end of the Civil War and the empowerment of blacks during Radical Reconstruction, they and white allies established universal, state supported education in the South. Blacks strongly opposed the creation of legally separate schools, because they understood that such schools would be more vulnerable to financial starvation. This does not mean that most sought integrated schools, however. Said one delegate to the constitutional convention of North Carolina, “I do not believe that it is good for our children to eat and drink daily the sentiment that they are naturally inferior to the whites….! shall always do d l that I can to have colored teachers for colored schools. This will necessitate separate schools as a matter of course, wherever it is possible, not by written law, but by mutual consent and the law of interest”

While separate schools could protect black students from the abusive behavior and condescending attitudes of whites, there was also the sentiment that black students would have little interest in attending white schools if their own schools were superior. According to Francis L. Cardozo, educator and soon-to-be Secretary of State from South Carolina, “The coloured pupils in my school would not like to go to a white school. Without flattery, I think I may say I have not been in as good a public school in Charleston as my own.”

Blacks like Cardozo saw equal rather than integrated education as the goal. Others desired mixed schools because they believed that it would be possible in such settings to educate whites out of their prejudices. This proposition remained untested. Interracial schools in the South sprang up in New Orleans only, and they dissolved with the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s. The end of Reconstruction marked also the rapid decline of black political power which would utterly collapse with disenfranchisement and Jim Crow legislation at the turn of the century. The black vote had guaranteed a roughly equal share of funds for separate schools. Now black schools would become flagrantly unequal as whites captured a gravely disproportionate percentage of school funds for their own institutions. As late as the 1930s, 40% of black schools in the South had no desks; expenditures for black students averaged $15 a year against a national average of $80; and public high schools were few. Black scholar Doxey Wiljcerson found that 47% of black children were in the first two grades of school and that only 19% of 14-17 year olds were enrolled in high school.

Certainly, superb black schools existed — important cultural centers with eminently qualified teachers — but these prospered against the odds. According to W.E.B. Du Bois, “The well-equipped Jim Crow school is a rare exception. For the most part, such schools have been run on wretchedly inadequate resources; taught by ignorant teachers; housed in huts and dumps; and given just as little attention and supervision as the authorities dared give them.”

The rigging of separate schools so that they would be flagrantly unequal inspired the series of court cases that culminated with Brown. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this Supreme Court decision in dismantling a system predicated on inequality. At the same time educational equality proved elusive in the post-Brown years. In some cases — as in New York City — a refusal on the part of school authorities to dismantle separate and unequal schools resulted in the demand for black community control. In other instances, the negative treatment of black children in desegregated schools has sparked the same demand.

Du Bois in 1929 had extolled the possibilities of mixed schools. They might “multiply understanding, sympathy and human acquaintanceship.” This soon became a dream deferred for him, as persistent mistreatment of black students in desegregated Northern -schools stimulated Du Bois to advocate struggle to make separate schools truly equal. Similarly, in the years since Brown many others have suspended goals of educating for racial harmony in the face of insensitive teachers, alien cultural milieus, disproportionate placement of black students in low tracks, and suspension and expulsion rates that far exceed those of whites.

While blacks frequently have been motivated by a vision of interracial peace and understanding, the achievement of equal education has been the fundamental consideration. Seen in this light struggles for desegregation and control over separate schools are not inherently contradictory but different tactics bent on the same goal. The “Atlanta Compromise” of 1973, which granted significant black control over education in return for dropping a demand for busing, and the proposal for a North Division District, which will give blacks authority over a majority black school system, do not back away from Brown. They acknowledge that Brown dismantled state imposed separation, but they recognize also that arbitrary exercises in racial balance often have fallen short of Brown’s core goal — the creation of equal educational opportunity.

For Further Reading

Anderson,. James D. ‘‘Ex-Slaves and the Rise of. Universal Education in the New South’,” in Ronald Gpodenow and Arthur O. White, eds.. Education and the Rise of the New South QSoston: C.K. Hall and Co., 1981), pp. 1-25.

Bell, Derrick, A., ed. Shades of Brown (New York: Teachers College Press, 1981).

Bond, Horace Mann. The Education of the Negro in the American Social Order (New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1934). 

Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935).

_____ . “Perchstein and Pecksniff,” Crisis 36 (September 1929): 313-314.

_____ . “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Journal of Negro Education 4 (July 1935): 328-335.

Harlan, Louis R. Separate and Unequal (New York: Atheneum, 1969)

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

Litwack, Leon. North o f Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), Chapter 4.

Newby, Robert G. and David B. Tyack. “Victims Without Crimes: Some Historical Perspective on Black Education,** Journal of Negro Education 40 (Summer 1971): 192-206.

Tyack,-David and Rdbert Lowe. “The Constitutional Moment: Reconstruction and Black Education in the South,” American Journal of Education 94 (February 1986): 236-256.

Robert Lowe works, in the Educational Opportunity Program, Marquette University