Jim Crow's Children
The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court sounded the death knell for school segregation with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. So goes the conventional wisdom. Weaving together vivid portraits of lawyers and such judges as Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren, sketches of numerous black children throughout history whose parents joined lawsuits against Jim Crow schools, and gripping courtroom drama scenes, Irons shows how the erosion of the Brown decision—especially by the Court’s rulings over the past three decades—has led to the “resegregation” of public education in America.
"Cut Yer Thumb er Finger Off"
"None of us niggers never knowed nothin' 'bout readin' and writin'. Dere warn't no school for niggers den, and I ain't never been to school a day in my life. Niggers was more skeered of newspapers dan dey is of snakes now, and us never knowed what a Bible was dem days."
These are the words of Georgia Baker about her life as a slave, growing up on a Georgia plantation before the Civil War. Both the land and her body were owned by Alexander H. Stephens, a planter who became vice-president of the Confederate States of America. Like most black people who were born into slavery, Georgia was illiterate, because it was both illegal and dangerous for a slave to learn how to read and write in the days before Emancipation.
Arnold Gragston told of his master in Macon County, Kentucky. "Mr. Tabb was a pretty good man," Arnold said. "He used to beat us, sure; but not nearly so much as others did." When the master suspected that his slaves were learning to read and write, he would call them to the "big house" and grill them. "If we told him we had been learnin' to read," Arnold recounted, "he would near beat the daylights out of us." Sarah Benjamin, who was born on a Louisiana plantation, recalled the fate of fellow slaves whose masters discovered that their "property" had secretly learned to read and write: "If yer learned to write dey would cut yer thumb er finger off."
But some slaves took the risk of beatings or amputations. Mandy Jones described the way that slaves in Mississippi would educate themselves. "Dey would dig pits, and kiver the spot wid bushes an' vines," he said. "Way out in de woods, dey was woods den, an' de slaves would slip out of de Quarters at night, an' go to dese pits, an' some niggah dat had some learnin' would have a school." But not all learning took place in "pit schools" in the woods. The children of slave owners sometimes became the teachers of slave children. "De way de cullud folks would learn to read was from de white chillun," Mandy Jones recalled. "De white chilluns thought a heap of de cullud chilluns, an' when dey come out o' school wid deir books in deir han's dey take de cullud chilluns, and slip off somewhere an' learns de cullud chilluns deir lessons, what deir teacher has jes' learned dem."
Too much learning, however, could give a slave the tools to escape from bondage.
William Johnson told the story of a "smart slave" on his Virginia plantation, a coachman named Joe Sutherland. "Joe always hung around the courthouse with master," William said. "He went on business trips with him, and through this way, Joe learned to read and write unbeknownst to master. In fact, Joe got so good that he learned how to write passes for the slaves. Master's son, Carter Johnson, was clerk of the county court, and by going around the court every day Joe forged the county seal on these passes and several slaves used them to escape to free states." But Joe was betrayed by another slave, William said, "and Joe was put in shackles until he was sold to a man in Mississippi." Helping another slave to escape was a capital offense in the South, and Joe Sutherland was lucky to survive.
Freedom finally came for the slaves, first announced by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Only a handful of slaves could read that document, but those who could spread the news to others. Mary Bell talked about her father, Spotswood Rice, who supervised his owner's tobacco plantation in Missouri. "His owner's son taught him to read," Mary recalled, "and dat made his owner so mad, because my father read the emancipation for freedom to de other slaves, and it made dem so happy, dey could not work well, and dey got so no one could manage dem, when dey found out dey were to be freed in such a short time."
These stories of former slaves, recorded in the 1930s by interviewers from the Federal Writers' Project, tell in poignant words of the struggle for education of people the Supreme Court described in its Dred Scott decision of 1857 as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race." Perhaps the main reason that blacks were "inferior" to whites, both in the days of slavery and after their emancipation, was that educated blacks were likely to aspire to more than plantation life, an enforced regimen of plowing, planting, weeding, chopping, and picking crops. "They didn't want us to learn nothin'," Annie Perry recalled of her childhood as a slave. "The only thing we had to learn was how to work."
The full impact of depriving blacks of education can only be measured against the historical record of slavery and segregation. From the very first importation of blacks into the British colonies, initially as indentured servants but soon as slaves, education of this servile class was both feared and forbidden. The Virginia legislature enacted a law in 1680 that prohibited gatherings of blacks for any reason, punishable by "Twenty Lashes on the Bare Back well laid on," a law designed to keep slaves from holding clandestine schools as well as meeting to plot rebellion against their masters. In 1695, Maryland imposed a fine of one thousand pounds of tobacco on teachers who instructed blacks. As time passed, other states followed suit. South Carolina made it a crime in 1740 for anyone "who shall hereafter teach, or cause any Slave or Slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any Slave as a Scribe in any manner of writing, whatsoever."
The legal bans on teaching slaves to read and write did not completely prevent all blacks from becoming literate, at least at a basic level. Some masters found it advantageous to have a few slaves who could read instructions and keep records of production. On many plantations, trusted and favored slaves acted as overseers of "field slaves" and needed to keep records of who worked, became ill, or was injured. One former slave recalled that his master had a "special slave" who could "read and write and figger." Other masters believed in converting their slaves to Christianity, and felt that teaching them to read the Bible would not only save their souls but make them more amenable to their state. Christian missionaries sent teachers among the slaves, particularly in cities like Charleston, South Carolina, with support from their owners. And as Mandy Jones recalled of his early life in slavery, white children on plantations often taught the black children of "house slaves" to read and write as they did their lessons.
The successful revolution against British rule, and the adoption of the Constitution by the newly independent states, did nothing to alter the system of slavery. The "Great Compromise" that kept the slave states from bolting the Constitutional Convention included three provisions in the final charter that explicitly recognized the lawfulness of slavery: the clause that counted slaves as "three fifths" of a person in apportioning House seats; the "fugitive slave" clause that required northern states to return escaped slaves to their
Frederick Douglass, born on a Maryland plantation in 1817, was separated from his slave mother as an infant and sent by his owner at the age of eight to live in Baltimore as a house servant with the family of Hugh Auld, whose wife defied state law by teaching her young servant to read. When Auld learned of this schooling, he snatched books and newspapers from the boy's hands and ordered his wife to end the lessons. But Frederick snuck from his master's house whenever he could and enlisted white children in the neighborhood to continue his education. After one attempt to escape from slavery was foiled, Douglass finally put on a sailor's uniform and fled from Maryland to New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-one. After his escape from slavery, Douglass spread his knowledge to other blacks, teaching them in Sunday schools, despite the hostility of whites who broke up his classes with rocks and clubs. But he wielded his pen as a powerful weapon against slavery, becoming the most articulate and influential black abolitionist, speaking widely and publishing his own crusading newspaper, the North Star, from 1847 to 1860. "He who has endured the pangs of slavery," Douglass wrote in the first issue of his paper, "is the man to advocate liberty," which he did with words that other literate slaves read in secret, from smuggled newspapers and pamphlets.
What many slave owners feared even more than their "property" following the North Star to freedom was the greater danger of slave revolt and insurrection, which might take the lives of their wives and children. The connection between literacy and slave uprisings was not an imaginary one. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, who organized slave revolts that failed but that terrified many whites, were both literate; after Turner's bloody rebellion was crushed in 1831, black children were expelled from the white Sunday schools in Washington, D.C., where many had been taught to read the Bible. One prominent defender of slavery asked in 1855: "Is there any great moral reason why we should incur the tremendous risk of having our wives and children slaughtered in consequence of our slaves being taught to read incendiary publications?" Before the Civil War began, the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee were the only slave states that did not prohibit the teaching of slaves.
Opposition to educating blacks was not limited to the South. In 1831, Prudence Crandall, a white Quaker, admitted Sarah Harris, the daughter of a respected black farmer, to her school in Canterbury, Connecticut. Led by a local politician, Andrew Judson, who later served as a federal judge, townspeople objected loudly and passed a resolution that educating black girls would damage "the persons, property, and reputations of our citizens." Judson voiced the sentiments of many northern whites: "The colored people can never rise from their menial condition in our country; they ought not to be permitted to rise here. They are an inferior race of beings, and never can or ought to be recognized as the equals of the whites."
Fueled by Judson's rhetoric, Canterbury's white residents refused to trade with Miss Crandall, threw filth into her well, hurled rocks and rotten eggs at her home, and set fire to her schoolhouse. None of these attacks eroded her determination to keep her school open, and she admitted more black girls. The Connecticut legislature then passed an act making it illegal to teach blacks and whites in the same school, and a defiant Prudence Crandall was arrested, convicted, and jailed, although the state supreme court later quashed her indictment and she returned to her school. Finally, a mob attacked the schoolhouse with iron bars and virtually wrecked the building. Miss Crandall decided not to risk her students' lives and reluctantly closed her school in 1834.
The next year, after the Noyes Academy in New Hampshire opened its doors to black students, "a mob of several hundred men and nearly a hundred yoke of oxen dragged the seminary to a swamp, left it there in ruins, and drove the teacher from town." Also in 1835, white mobs attacked the black schools in Washington, D.C., destroyed several buildings, threatened the white teachers, and ransacked the homes of black students. One of the white teachers, Miss Miner, asked a mob member, "What good will it do to destroy my school-room? I shall only get another and go right on." She continued teaching black children until the eve of the Civil War in 1860, when another mob burned her school to the ground.
The Civil War ended the legal institution of slavery, at the cost of six hundred thousand lives, most of them young men who fought neither to abolish nor defend slavery but simply to survive the carnage of the bloodiest war in American history. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, three years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, conferred state and national citizenship on the former slaves and promised a federal guarantee of "the equal protection of the laws." Firmly in the control of "Radical Republicans" whose Reconstruction policy imposed a military government on the former Confederacy, Congress granted the franchise to the former slaves, who flocked to the ballot boxes and elected delegates to conventions that rewrote the constitutions of the southern states. Several of these constitutions provided for systems of free public education, and black children began attending school in large numbers. In Mississippi, for example, the legislature-controlled by black members and their white Republican allies-established a school system in 1870 that enrolled 127,000 black children the following year, 39 percent of the school-age black population. Even under Reconstruction and black rule, Mississippi's public schools were segregated, because white parents refused to pay taxes for integrated schools. Close to a century passed before the first black child in Mississippi attended school with whites.
The South Carolina constitution, written by black legislators, required that all schools be racially mixed, and black and white children attended classes together in many communities. The state also established an integrated teachers college, which trained many black teachers. Other southern states, however, experienced serious problems with public education, largely because many white voters refused to pay taxes to support black education. Even in states that funded black schools, the lack of qualified black teachers made it difficult to maintain academic standards.
Many of the schools for black children that did exist in the South during the Reconstruction period had been established by the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency created by Congress to provide aid and services to former slaves, to help them purchase land, farming equipment, and supplies, and to give them enough schooling to read, write, and keep books. Bureau agents set up classes for adults and also provided schools for children, largely staffed by white teachers from the North, most of whom were young women who had never been to the South and were treated with scorn and outright hostility by many whites. One female teacher in northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, abandoned her job after being shunned by every white person in the community. "If you are mean enough to teach niggers," one told her, "you may eat and sleep with them." Male teachers were a small minority, but they became targets for threats. One teacher in Alabama received this anonymous and barely literate warning: "You have set up a nigger school in the settlement which we will not allow you to teach if you was a full blooded negro we would have nothing to say but a white skin negro is more than we can stand you can dismiss the school imediately or prepar yourself to travail we will give you a chance to save yourself and you had better move instanter." Some white teachers faced greater dangers than threats. Captain James McCleery, the Freedmen's Bureau superintendent of education in Texas and northwestern Louisiana, barely escaped a band of night riders in Louisiana by hiding in a swamp all night. One of his teachers in Henderson County, Texas, was grabbed by a white mob, stripped naked, covered with tar and cotton, and given two minutes to run before he faced a volley of rifle fire.
Teachers who ignored the hostility and threats often lost their schools to violence. Black schools were burned and pillaged throughout the South. Seven schools were burned in Georgia in 1866; three schools were burned that year in Texas. A school at Orangeburg, South Carolina, was fired into; the black school in Hardinsburg, Kentucky, was blown up on Christmas Eve in 1867. Despite the efforts to drive them from the South, the vast majority of the Freedmen's Bureau teachers stuck with their schools and their black students. By 1870, more than nine thousand teachers were instructing some two hundred thousand black children, about 12 percent of the school-age population. Northern missionary groups also sent teachers into southern states, and black churches set up schools for their children. All together, these public and private groups offered schooling to perhaps one of every five black children in the South, which meant that four out of five black children received no education at all during the Reconstruction period and remained illiterate, as their parents had during slavery.
The small minority of black children who did attend school during Reconstruction had an obvious zest for learning. One white teacher in Mississippi reported that when her students turned in their slates or copybooks, "my face was eagerly watched, to find therein approval or disapproval (they were quick to read the human countenance) and if a word of praise fell from my lips, a look of triumph would light up their sable faces as to make even them look beautiful." The condescending tone of this remark, however unintended, reflected the superior attitude and status of the white teacher. But even the most sensitive and understanding teachers encountered problems that stemmed from the reality of black life and culture in the rural South. The learning of black children was clearly hindered by the fact that virtually all came from families with illiterate parents, who could not help their children with lessons. Cut off from the written word, southern blacks had retained the oral traditions of their African roots, which they adapted to their churches and communities, where everyone joins in calling out verses and children's rhymes. Most teachers in Reconstruction schools reported that students in the early grades were quick to learn the alphabet, numbers, spelling of simple words, and the rote memorization of short poems and Bible passages, a reflection of this oral culture. Even in crowded classrooms, children enjoyed chanting in unison as they went through letters, numbers, and verses. One teacher in Virginia wrote that "instruction is necessarily mostly oral, as much time would be lost if we trained pupils singly. The little things gave us almost undivided attention, and are much stimulated by recitations in concert."
Past the primary level, however, teachers expressed frustration at the inability of black children to master arithmetic and composition. Part of the problem lay in textbooks designed for northern white students. A black child on a Mississippi farm was unlikely to associate a picture of Xerxes with the letter X or to know that a "newsboy" was an n word. One scholar of black education has noted this problem of Reconstruction schools: "In the world of the rural black schoolchild, very little of what was taught and of its presentation had much relationship to daily existence. The drudgery of manual labor, the lively conversations in the black people's cabins, and the generally non-literate nature of southern living for both races had almost nothing to do with what instructors talked about, once the concrete naming of things had passed."
The most difficult subject for black children was mathematics, which teachers in the nineteenth century approached from an abstract perspective. Children were not allowed to count on their fingers, or given problems that dealt with real objects like apples, chickens, or cotton bales. One critic of "mental" arithmetic wrote that teachers, most of them poorly trained in the subject, were often "completely nonplussed in any attempt to explain what they have done, or analyze the principles upon which it is performed." As a result, the "neglect of mathematics, the single most unmet need of black education, resulted in mass innumeracy, as tragic as illiteracy, a deficiency that has received more attention."
There were additional barriers to effective learning that came from outside the schoolhouse. The need for black children to plant, hoe, and harvest crops cut weeks and even months from already short school years; many children lived miles from school and could not walk on dirt roads when it rained; children got sick or injured and had no medical care; and because hostile whites sometimes ran teachers out of town or burned schools, even when children arrived at school, it was not always staffed or even standing. What is remarkable about the Reconstruction period is not that so few black children got so little good education, but that teachers and students alike persevered in the face of such enormous odds. It is also a testament to their faith in the liberating power of education that black parents-most of them illiterate themselves-worked hard to build schools, raise money for books and teachers, and give their children the desire to learn. One former slave, Charles Whiteside, was told by his master that he would remain in slavery " 'cause you got no education, and education is what makes a man free." This remark spurred Whiteside's determination that each of his thirteen children would attend school, no matter how long and hard he would have to work. It was worth all the labor "to make them free," he said.
Preface: "Where Are the Buttonwood Kids?"
Suggested Readings and Chapter Sources
“An engaging, panoramic history of school desegregation, including the exhilarating breakthroughs and the heartbreaking setbacks.” (The Washington Post)
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