Tracing the history of Black education

history of Black educationIn honor of Black History Month, we’re tracing the country’s unacceptable history of segregation and racism in education — and examining how it has affected Black students from coast to coast. 

Also in this article, we’ll touch on some of the most impactful historical moments in Black education, and provide a few additional resources for further reading. 

19th century

By the 1830s, most southern states in the U.S. had passed legislation that forbade teaching enslaved people how to read. Those who became literate did so at significant risk.

history of Black education 19th centuryBut by 1865, after the end of the Civil War, more and more Blacks — then referred to as African Americans — were putting pressure on Republicans to update state constitutions to provide free, public education to Black children.

Still, Jim Crow law — a collection of legislation that emerged once the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery — aimed to control just about every aspect of Black Americans’ lives. 

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson. By confirming Louisiana’s right to “separate but equal” railroad cars in this landmark case, the federal government set a precedent that legalized segregation. Soon after, southern states began passing laws mandating segregation in public schools. 

1930 to 1950

Between 1930 and 1950, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to sue over unequal pay for Black educators.

This, plus the realization that more and more Black labor was moving north to urban areas, helped to increase spending in some southern, Black schools. 

1950s to 1960

By 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. In the ruling, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court admitted that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” 

Unfortunately, the idea of desegregation was met with resistance. For example, in Virginia, the state enacted the Stanley Plan — legislation designed to slash state funding for integrated schools. Aimed at avoiding integration, this approach enabled white families to enroll their children in private, segregated schools with the help of tuition grants. This resulted in public school districts being closed. Items that belonged to the now-shuttered public schools were physically relocated to the private, segregated schools. 

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent the state's National Guard to stop nine Black students — known as "the Little Rock Nine" — from enrolling in a formerly white high school. Eventually, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce the desegregation. (It’s important to note, however, that Eisenhower was not a staunch civil rights supporter; he intervened mainly because he wanted to demonstrate that a state could not use military power to defy federal orders.)

1960 to 1970s

Ruby Bridges schoolIn 1960, Ruby Bridges became the first black student at her New Orleans elementary school. She also, however, became the only pupil: The parents of all the other children in the school pulled them out of class in protest.

In 1964, The Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Famously, the legislation prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion and nationality.

By 1966, the Coleman Report revealed the benefits of Black students attending integrated schools, emphasizing the future importance of “busing” to desegregate public schools further. 

By 1971, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education upheld “busing” as the best solution to “racial imbalances” at schools. 

A 1974 Supreme Court ruling, however, set progress back a step when Miliken v. Bradley effectively legalized segregation by refusing to desegregate between school districts. This created inherent segregation between urban school districts that served Black families and the wealthy, suburban school districts that served white families. 

1990 to 2000

In the mid to late ’90s, educational legislation in California was making headlines. First, in 1996, the Oakland School District proposed declaring Ebonics the native language of Black students. This was seen as an attempt to secure more funding for effectively segregated Black schools. 

The same year, the state passed Proposition 209, which rendered affirmative action in public employment, contracting and education illegal.

A year later, the proposition was overturned federally. 

2000s to today

By 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was ratified. This legislation aimed to hold schools accountable for student performance by withholding funds from schools that did not make adequate progress toward NCLB’s goals.

Still widely viewed as controversial, the legislation was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. 

Today, studies show that while students across the country are growing more diverse, public schools are still effectively segregated to some extent. In fact, a 2022 report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated that more than one-third of American students attended a school whose student body was predominantly of the same race. 

Experts agree that historical efforts to keep neighborhoods segregated — including “redlining” — continue to affect the makeup of schools today. This is especially true in areas where most students attend their local public schools. Experts also concede that “district secession,” which occurs when a locality departs from a larger school district, has contributed to ongoing segregation in schools. 

Finally, while the coronavirus pandemic affected all students across the country, certain groups were hit hardest. According to a McKinsey report on learning loss, school shutdowns exacerbated racial disparities. Data shows that students of color fell farther behind in learning during the pandemic, and were likelier to return to in-person learning later. 

Additional resources

Segregation and racism have affected Black students’ access to education for centuries. If you’d like to learn more about these topics, these resources are a great place to start.

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