American Schools and Race


Figure 1.--Here Saint Louis children and their parents in March 1933 are seen behind a police line during their protest against transfer to a school open to black children.

The slave codes passed by Southern states varied from state to state. Most made it illegal to teach a slave to read and write. They were variously enforced. A few kind hearted owners did so anyway. Other owners did so because educated slaves were more valuable. These were, however, isolated incidents. At the time of emancipation the vast majority of the slaves in the South were illiterate. The Freedman's Bureau set up schools to educate the freed slaves. There were blacks in the North, but a very small proportion of the population. The situatuon in the North varied over time. Some communities excluded blacks from public schools, overtime blacks were admitted although the time frame varied from state to state. Even after emancipation, some states northern and western states still excluded black children. In the South there was a very limited public school system before the Civil War. As public school systems were established following the Civil War, sparated systems were set up for black children. Segregation did not only involve separating black children, but they were the primary target. Nor did segration only occur in the South, although this is wear the vast majority of segregated schools existed. These schools were poorly funded abnd the facilities abd equipment were far below the standards of he white schools. There were cost associated with running two school systems. White children were often bussed. Black children normally had to walk. After World war II, several southern states began improving the black schools, realizing that they were vulnerable to legal challenge because they were so obviously inferior.

Slave Codes and Education

Early slave codes did not touch on literacy. Slave revolts in South caused state governments to significantly stiffen the legal system. The slave codes passed by Southern states varied from state to state. Most made it illegal to teach a slave to read and write. They were variously enforced.

Slave Illiteracy

Despite state laws making it illegal to teach slaves to read and write, a few kind hearted owners did so anyway. Other owners did so because educated slaves were more valuable. These were, however, isolated incidents. At the time of emancipation the vast majority of the slaves in the South were illiterate.

Civil War (1861-65)

The Civil War was fought over the cintinuation of the Union. President Lincoln succeeded in turning the War into a moral crusade against slavery. The issue of black civil rights was largely ignored until after the Civil War, but it was the Civil War that made the ensuing civil rights struggle possible. Black children in many Northern states and Western territories did not yet have access to the public schools and other civil rights.

The 14th Amendment (1868)

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation effectively ended slavery in the United States, but it was an emergency war measure. Lincoln fully realized, however, that it was vulnerable to legal challenge after the War. The Taney Court had ruled in the Dread Scoot case (1857) that slaves even if freed could not claim civil citzenship and civil rights. Thus it was likely that the Taney court would over rule the Emancipation Proclamation if as was inevitab;le that former slave masters would demand thir property back after the War. The 13th Amendment made that impossible. But the Republicans went further than this. The 14th Amendment guaranteed their civil rights and ability of the freed slaves to obtain equitable treatment in the courts. The 14th Amendment read in part, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The key phrase was "equal protection of the laws". The Amendment was proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868. The Southern states were required to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to gain reamitance to the Union. This put emancipation and black citizenship beyond the reach of even the Taney court. The 14th Amendments was undermined by the prevalent racism of the day and eventually by Plessy vs. Fergusson (1896). Racists could not do away with the 14th Amendment or the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. With Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, appointments were made to the Federal judiciary installed jurist that were willing to use these amendments to secure black civil rights.

The Freedman's Bureau

Congress established the Freeman's Bureau to assist the emancipated slaves after the Civil War (March 3, 1865). The Bureau sought to protect the interests of former slaves. The Bureau persued a range of programs in an effort to obtain jobs and provide education as well as basic health services. The Bureau in the next 12 months dispersed $17 million to set up 4,000 schools and 100 hospitals and to provide hosing and food. This was a social welfare program unlike any ever attempted by the Federal Government. It also involved activities like education that were areas that had been the preserve of state government. The Radical Republicans attempted to expand the work of the Bureau, but the law Vongress passed was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson (February 1866). The struggle with the president would eventually result in his impeachment. The Freedman's Bureau set up schools to educate the freed slaves. There were blacks in the North, but a very small proportion of the population.

Plessy vs Ferguson (1898)

The Federal Government through Reconstruction attempted to establish the civil rights of the newly freed slaves. The cornerstone of this effort was the 14th Amendment which guaranteed equal protection under the law. Southern state legistatures gradually passed Jim Crow laws which were clearly discriminatory. It was thus inevitable that these state laws would be challenged in the Federal courts. Homer Plessy boarded a car of the East Louisiana Railroad that was designated for whites only (1892). Plessy was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, but under Louisiana state law he was classified as an African-American, and thus required to used the designated colored car. Plessy refused to leave the white car and was arrested. His case eventually reached the U,S. Supreme Court as Plessy vs. Fergusson (1898). The landmark Supreme Court decision strongly countenced segreagation and the overall system of racial aparthaid. The system enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until well after World War II (1939-45). Plessy established the legal doctine of "separate but equal". This was the only legal way of supportinmg segregation because the 14th Amendment had guaranteed "equal protection" under the law" for all Americans. The court vote was definitive-- 7 to 1. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the lone discenting opinion. The Plessy case concerned public transport, but was the basis for other civic services, including public education. The system of segregated public schools had developed in the South after the Civil War. The Plessy decession simply validated the system that had developed. This primarily concerned the South, but there were segregated schools in other parts of the country as well.

Northern Schools

The situatuon in the North varied over time. Some communities excluded blacks from public schools. Black parents had to take local school authorities to cout to gain access to the public schools. Even after emancipation, some states northern and western states still excluded black children. Overtime blacks were admitted although the time frame varied from state to state. We note black children in public schools during the lae 19th century. An example is the Onarga School in Illinois during 1882.

Southern Schools: Segregation

In the South there was a very limited public school system before the Civil War. As public school systems were established following the Civil War, black children were at first excluded. Eventually separate schools were established for the black children. Separate schools were but one aspect of the segregation system established in the Southern states. Segregation did not only involve separating black children, but they were the primary target. Nor did segration only occur in the South, although this is wear the vast majority of segregated schools existed. These schools were poorly funded abnd the facilities abd equipment were far below the standards of he white schools. There were cost associated with running two school systems. White children were often bussed. Black children normally had to walk. After World war II, several southern states began improving the black schools, realizing that they were vulnerable to legal challenge because they were so obviously inferior.

Western Schools

The United States was a largely European Protestant country. This began to change in the 1840s with the arrival of the Irish as a result of the Potato Famine. The Irish tended to stay in the large northern cities. The Mexican American War (1846-48) and resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo (1848) brought large numbers of Catholic Mexican-Americans within the United States. It also brought more Native Americans within the United States. The discovery of gold in California brought people from all over the world to the West, ibcluding Latin Americans and for the first time Asians, nostly Chinese and to a lesser extent Chinese. There was also limited black migration from the South, which primarily affected Texas and Oklahoma. The Treary of Guadalipe Hildalgo guaranteed equal rights to Mexicans who became American citizens. Some Western states, particularly California segregated schools on an ethnic basis. This practice became pronounced in the 1910s with the expansion of the citrus industry in California. It was finally ended afyer World War II by the Mendez vs. Westminister Distric Court decesion. Governor Earl Warren also priceeded with legislative changes to the California school system. Because it was a District Court ruling and not appealed to the Supreme Court, the decesion did not affect the segregated schools in the South.

Home Support (late-19th and early 20th centuries)

Schools are of course critical to bther future of young people. After the Civil War and Emancipation education became widely available to blacks in large numbers for the first time. Blacks had attended schools in the Free States, but only a small percentage of black Americans lived in the northern Free States. The Southern dates established public school systems, but the resources were disproprtionately allocated to black students. This of course affected academic achievement, but it is difficult to assess just how much of the performance gap is due to the poorly financed black schools. We suspect that an even more significant factor is the support the children received at home. As a former teacher, I know that the single most important factor in determining how well a child did at school was the home he or she came from. Committed, educated parents generally made sure that their children took education seriously. Here of course, black children were at a serious disadvantage. It is difficult to assess just how seriously the former slaves took education. There may be academic studies on this. We do know, however, that very few of the former slaves could read. This meant that most did not have the academic skills to be of much assistance to their children. Economics was surely another factor. Parents who are hard pressed to make a living are in a less favorable position to assisst their children than a more affluent family.

Brown vs. Topeka (1954)

The land-mark Supreme Court decission that turned the tide in the Civil Rights struggle was Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka (May 17, 1954). The Court declared segregated education contrary a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution and thus, unconstitutional. Several similar cases were united for consideration by the court. The best known is the Brown case which concerned Linda Brown, a little Black girl in Topeka, Kansas. There were also cases from the South, including one from South Carolina. The state of South Carolina realising that the Seoarate but Equal doctrine could be challenged by the obvioius inequality of Black and White schools, had embarked on a major building ptogram to construct Black schools. Thurgood Marshall decided to persue the principle that separate schools were inherently unequal. Chief Justice Earl Warren carefully guided the Court so that a unanimous verdictv was reached. President Eisenhower who had earlier opposed deseggregation of the military was to later say that his appointment of Warren was the biggest mistake he made as president.

Desegregation

The Supreme Court decission in Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka made school segregation illegal. But the Court had no powers of enforcement. President Eisenhower was not pleased with the decission. (He had opposed desegregation of the Army.) Thus there was no Federal action promoting compliance. Schools in states like Kansas quietly complied. States in the South did not. The NACCP brought legal action which slowly worked their way through the legal system. The first case to produce a desgreagation order emerged in Little Rock, Arkansas. The result is seen here in an excahnge between two Little Rock teenagers. The Little Rock case and threats of mob violence was swiftly resolved by the 82nd Airborne. It would take 20 years to desegregate the rest of the South.

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Created: 6:18 AM 12/4/2005
Last updated: 9:06 PM 1/7/2011