400 Years Blog #37 – The Courage to Teach

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As students return to school, let’s acknowledge the importance of education in the liberation struggle of Black Americans.  Enslaved Black people braved harsh punishments when they gathered to learn. Frederick Douglas taught “Sabbath-school” deep in the woods to avoid being caught.  The first African Free School opened in 1787 to teach free Black Americans and the children of enslaved Americans.  The first public school for Black Americans opened in Boston in 1815. As tensions over slavery rose, however, racism closed down educational opportunities. When the Canterbury School in Connecticut admitted Black students, locals stormed the school and shut it down.

After the Civil War, the Freedman’s Bureau facilitated widespread education for formerly enslaved people.  While the government and Northern Aid Societies offered resources, many schools were really created by Black families who scraped funds together to hire teachers, build schools, and welcome children and adults alike. While less than 15% of Black Southerners were literate before the war, an explosion of learning occurred afterwards because the newly freed citizens saw learning as, in the words of Historian Clarence Walker, a “revolutionary act” which embodied the highest ideals of American democracy.

This powerful combination of civic and academic power led to violent backlash. White supremacists, some garbed in white hoods, burned down Black classrooms and attacked teachers. In my home state of Maryland, in 1866 alone, a dozen schools were destroyed.  As University of Georgia professor Ronald Butchart put it, “The terrorism was directed at both the black franchise as well as black education, for on one level the black vote and black education merge. Each was an affront to white supremacy and racial paternalism.”

Despite this terrorism, Black Americans dared to demand education and soon our nation was blessed with towering Black educators such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.

But thousands of lesser-known Black teachers were on the front line too, such as Fanny Jackson Coppin, the first Black woman to be named principal in 1869.  Born a slave, Coppin graduated from Oberlin College and taught at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia.  Charles Houston, Dean of Howard University Law School, argued cases at the U.S. Supreme Court that created legal foundations for the Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that many claimed birthed the modern civil rights movement.  For many, education was liberation.

  • Lesson #181: The quest for education was undertaken by enslaved African Americans who often hid their growing intellect behind false personae of ignorant, compliant slaves.  The less those who claimed to own them knew about their capabilities, the less closely those enslaved would be watched.
  • Lesson #182: The Freedman’s Bureau, while bringing formal education to millions of recently liberated Black Americans, died in infancy due, in part, to corruption, but more so due to the rising virulent racism of so many Americans and the apathy of many more.
  • Lesson #183: The ghoulish horror of white resistance, captured in the Thomas Nast editorial cartoon (see below), points out that the Klan and other supremacist groups cooperated to keep Black children from learning.  Note the schoolbook and blood on the ground under the dead child. Given the disruption of the Civil War and the backlash by white supremacists, the degree of courage and determination demonstrated by Black families after the war who wanted to have their children educated is remarkable.
  • Lesson #184: An entire year of 400 Year blog posts could be dedicated on the educational philosophy and institutions created by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, both to be featured in an upcoming blog.
  • Lesson #185: Coppin State University was founded in 1900 in Baltimore, named in honor of Fanny Jackson Coppin.  This historically Black College has a student body that currently consists of almost 80% students of color.
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