Black Boys in Crisis: The Quest for a Chance to Learn
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
Though African Americans have achieved remarkable gains—exemplified by the election in 2008 of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land—our progress remains stymied by endemic racism, political barriers, and a legal and policing system still heavily biased against African Americans. In this article, we will look at one of the most important strands of the African-American struggle for freedom: the quest for education, which was initially simply a quest to learn to read.
Masters early on recognized the dangers of allowing slaves to read; in fact, in many parts of the South, the punishment for learning to read was the severing of a finger. Similarly, anyone caught teaching a slave to read was fined or whipped. Nevertheless, many slaves did learn to read. Some of these were taught by compassionate whites, especially those who were intent on Christianizing slaves. Others learned on their own.
Perhaps the most famous example of a slave who learned to read was Frederick Douglass, who asked his mistress to teach him. She obliged in a spirit of entertainment, teaching him the alphabet, but as soon as she realized he was actually learning to read sentences, and then books, she panicked and tried to stop him. As he writes in his autobiography: “But this was too late: the first and never-to-be-retraced step had been taken. Teaching me the alphabet had been the ‘inch’ given, I was now waiting only for the opportunity to ‘take the ell.” Douglass, of course, escaped from slavery to become a famous orator and author, a monumental figure in the march toward abolition.
Early Educational Efforts
In the North, escaped slaves and free blacks were given instruction in reading by various sympathetic individuals and groups. Notable among these was a Philadelphia Quaker, Anthony Benezet, who began tutoring black boys in his home in the mid-1700s. It was immediately apparent to him that, given a genuine opportunity to learn, African Americans were intellectually equal to whites (this was not commonly assumed at the time, even among sympathetic Northern whites). Prominent African-American personalities James Forten, Richard Allen, and Absalom Jones all received their education in Benezet’s house. However, Benezet’s most influential role was in converting the luminaries of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Rush. He was able to convince these figures that “black inferiority” arose not from any innate attributes, but from the institution of slavery itself. Benezet’s tutoring sessions became the Raspberry Street Schools, which were a Philadelphia institution for more than a century.
Following Benezet’s and others’ pioneering efforts, schools and institutes devoted to educating blacks cropped up across the North, many of them created by the American Missionary Association. However, it is important to note that, even as black boys were beginning to make inroads in education, black girls were given short shrift: women of all races were still treated as inferior to men in US society.
Following Emancipation, the Freedmen’s Bureau, a governmental agency set up in 1965 to help blacks assimilate, started promoting and fostering education for blacks. Under its aegis, and until the Bureau was disbanded in 1872, over a thousand schools were established across the South. The teachers included some free blacks (about half were black men), and some Northern whites, who were mostly women. At the time, public education was opposed by many Southern whites; the establishment and funding of schools for blacks by the Freedmen’s Bureau tilted the balance for public education, and this led to widespread publically funded schools by the early 1900s. Though there were some integrated schools at this time (notably in New Orleans), the majority of public schools were segregated.
The Jim Crow laws and white violence against black schools and teachers took an inevitable toll on schools for African Americans, which were generally underfunded, understaffed, and in disrepair. However, a substantial number of black men completed their education and attended the fledgling black colleges: Howard, Fisk, the Hampton Institute, and the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers.
The black boy in America started out with a grim beginning. Even pursuing an education was considered a crime. It’s ironic that hundreds of years later, it is illegal for him not to attend school, and in many cases, he squanders this opportunity.