The relationship between Black Americans and the public education system has historically been a fraught one, driven by tension between Black citizens’ desire for educational opportunities and white power-holders’ determination to keep them out through racially-coded public policy. In fact, Black Americans’ first historical experience with public education was that of an anti–school system, consisting of slave codes crafted specifically to maintain permanent second-class status for the country’s Black population. The first public education system for Black people prevented them from learning to read or gathering for educational purposes. To act against this system was to risk violence or death. But nevertheless, the people could not be stopped.
After the Civil War, starting with Reconstruction, Black Americans created education programs en masse. As they increasingly sought to establish and enter public life, freed Blacks encountered a new set of violences associated with educational disenfranchisement: systemically-denied resources, shorter school years, family poverty that necessitated child labor and an active discouragement — from school boards to business owners — of Black children receiving an adequate education at the public’s expense.
For all of the system’s efforts to preserve a white supremacist social order in education policy and practice, Black citizens from the first schools of Reconstruction to the establishment of HBCU’s fought for every classroom, teacher and book — and the struggle continues. This Black History month, OPEN honors the experience, efforts and victories of one of America’s fiercest and pursuits of freedom and justice: access to excellent and equitable public education.