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The rise & fall of black education in America

By Derek Franklin

Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today. (Malcolm X) 

Education is meant to lift individuals, regardless of race, creed, color or social status, to their highest achievable level. When administered and consumed properly, it breeds unique and self-sufficient people. People able to solve life’s simple and complex problems through reason and thought. 

What do we mean by the term education? Education means studying to obtain a deeper knowledge and understanding of a variety of subjects to be applied to daily life.  

To be clear, “education” isn’t limited to obtaining a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctoral degree. Rather, it speaks to the development of one’s skill level in the classroom or through knowledge obtained through practical experiences in the classroom of life. It’s why, for example, several of today’s most successful people didn’t attend college.  

Steven Spielberg, one of the most popular directors and producers in film history, was initially rejected by the University of Southern California’s Film School because of insufficient grades (so much for white privilege). He eventually obtained a degree in film and electronic arts, but that was in 2002, decades after several of his films had already achieved blockbuster status.  

Director, screenwriter, producer, and Academy Award winner Quentin Tarantino never attended film school. He learned how to make films by watching them at a video parlor where he used to work.  

A good education is the currency one earns that can be spent to change one’s life and the lives of others. It’s the power of one generation to exceed the limits of the earlier one. 


No group of individuals understood this better than blacks living in the antebellum South.  

In the novel Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, noted historian Eugene Genovese wrote, “The roots of black enthusiasm for education lay deep in the slave past. As early as the 1750s, Samuel Davies found the slaves eager pupils when he sought to teach them to read as part of his campaign to win converts.”  

in the Journal of Negro History 59, Donnie D. Bellamy noted similarly. Bellamy wrote that a white missionary opened a Sunday school for slaves in 1817 in St. Louis, Missouri. Soon thereafter, almost 100 slaves had enrolled.  

In 1864, the Mississippi Valley had numerous schools for blacks. Two clandestine schools taught by “colored” teachers opened at twelve o’clock at night and closed at two o’clock in the morning. Hundreds of slaves learned to read and write by attending school after laboring all day for their masters.  

Despite documented proof of blacks’ enthusiasm for education, not many slaves succeeded in becoming educated. After all, the illiteracy rate among blacks in 1860 was about 95%.  

That all changed after the Civil War ended.  


Former slaves pursued education with a passion unmatched in the annals of human history. As a result, the illiteracy rate dropped to 33.6% by 1910 and 14.6% by 1930.  

To be sure, being literate is not the same as being educated (e.g., with a high school diploma or a college degree or a blue-collar skill). What’s noteworthy, however, is that in the face of real overt racism and white supremacy, blacks cut their illiteracy rates by over 80% in 70 years.  

Blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t content with Jim Crow’s victimization either. They did the hard work of securing a chance for a better future through education. As Bob Woodson, founder of the Woodson Center in Washington D.C. said, “blacks were at their best when whites were at their worst.” 

A black preacher in 1865 said, “The ignorant whites had every chance to learn, but didn’t. We had every chance to remain ignorant, and many of us learned in spite of them.” 

One Georgia missionary teacher said, “In seven years teaching at the North, I have not seen a parallel to their appetite for learning and their active progress.” 

An Arkansas teacher remarked that, “I never saw people learn so fast. It generally took me three months to teach white children what these will learn in ten or fifteen days.”   

In Ryan S. Johnson’s article, he noted that in the 70 years between 1870 and 1940, the ratio of black-to-white earnings doubled going from 0.25 to 0.50.   

Card and Krueger, in their article, noted that between 1960 and 1980 the wage gap dropped between white and black men 20%. Additionally, that 20% drop was due to the improvement of black schools between 1915 and 1966. 

Yes, one should factor in industrialization and black migration north as reasons for black economic improvement. However, underfunded black schools, the underpaid black teachers who staffed them, and the black student’s zeal to learn must also get credit.  

Forced to operate in inferior facilities with outdated textbooks and a lack of adequate supplies, black schools during the era of Jim Crow left much to be desired.  

One elderly teacher from Atlanta put it this way: “The school was in such bad shape you could study botany through the floorboards, astronomy through the roof and the weather through the walls.”  An agent of the Freedman’s Bureau wrote black students attended classes “in churches and cabins with walls admirably adapted for ventilation and for admission of copious shower baths of rain.”   

Black teachers were paid, in many instances, less than half their white counterparts. Many towns didn’t have a black high school – or any school at all. This left some blacks with no options for school or having to travel several miles to a neighboring town.  

However, several scholars outlined school environments that motivated black students to learn and excel. This, in spite of their woefully inadequate school facilities and resources.  

Whatever black schools lacked they made up for with their teachers. Teachers cared immensely about their students’ academic success, and they pushed their students to do their best.   

One teacher spoke glowingly about the education he received in black schools: “Black schools may have lacked resources, but they provided a caring environment designed to uplift people. ‘We weren’t allowed to feel inferior.’”  


School funding during the Jim Crow era was also abysmal.  

In Harry S. Ashmore’s book, The Negro and the Schools, he recorded that per-pupil spending in black schools was approximately 43% of white spending in 1940. Prior to 1940, it was worse because many cities in the south had no schools period.  

In decades since, black schools figured out how to do more with less. Today, public schools, especially mostly black inner-city ones, do less with more. 

Pre-K through 12th grade per pupil spending for the U.S. was $12,612 in 2018. The New York City School District ($26,588) and Boston City Schools ($24,177) topped the per pupil spending list for the 2018 school year.  

Despite arguments to the contrary, high amounts of per pupil spending haven’t translated to better educational outcomes.  

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, in 2019 only 17% of 4th graders and 14% of 8th graders in NYC read at the Proficient level. 

In Math, it’s even worse, with 15% of 4th graders and 10% of 8th graders testing Proficient.  

Intact families, with a largely Christian foundation that placed a high value on education, helped segregated black schools. More so, it helped those schools’ black students outperform today’s students, white, black, or otherwise. Keep in mind, blacks were less than a generation removed from emancipation.  


The euphoria blacks experienced when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown v Board of Education evaporated when desegregation took shape.  

Many blacks dreamed of integration – of blacks and whites receiving the same high-quality education as they learned side-by-side. However, those dreams soon turned into nightmares once the reality and implications of integration played out.  

Looking back, many blacks had the wrong dream in integration. The correct dream should’ve been desegregation and, as Malcolm X said, “recognition as free humans.” 

Desegregation would have meant black teachers and administrators controlling black schools. People whose sole aim would have been to provide a high-quality education to their students.  

It must be said that integration worked for many black students. Many parents’ prayers were answered, and their dreams became a reality because their children received a better education than was to be had in black schools.  

However, for far too many, the loss of black schools meant the loss of the nurturing environment. It also severed the ties that bound so many black communities together. This doomed students to educational underachievement and, in some cases, outright failure. 

Some argue that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement pushed integration as a bait and switch strategy. 

This strategy had at its foundation, the fact that those who sacrificed most didn’t benefit from the change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “What good does it do to have the right to eat at a restaurant of your choosing or the right to live in a neighborhood of your choice if you don’t have the means to exercise that right?”   

Just having the freedom and opportunity was insufficient to take advantage of rights gained through the struggle. Preparation and educational programs were needed to uplift blacks to take full advantage of their newly acquired freedoms.  

But many of the leaders of the movement weren’t concerned with the education and training blacks needed.  

Rather, they were concerned about themselves. Those who had sacrificed so much – the housewife, the hairdresser, the domestic, and the factory worker – were used as bait. When the money arrived, the switch was executed, casting aside the poor while black leaders enjoyed the spoils.  


In the end, the bulk of the benefits gained from civil rights victories went to the college educated. Shortly after, poverty programs connected to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society started just as civil rights leaders and their associates went into elected office.  

They became city councilmen, mayors, and police chiefs. They were the administrators and benefactors of the money. To keep their newly acquired power and the perks that came along with it, they worked to maintain the status quo.  

An instructive example is the Atlanta Compromise – not the Atlanta speech delivered by Booker T. Washington at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta on September 18, 1895. This was an early 1970s plan embracing token busing. The compromise included leaving most of Atlanta’s white children in predominantly white schools and most of its black students in predominantly black schools.  

In return, the city would give half the administrator jobs whites still controlled to blacks. Presumably, the new black administrators would work on strengthening black schools rather than token busing and integration. Meanwhile, whites could enjoy the current educational situation.  

The compromise received the support of over 2,000 parents. Representatives Andrew Young and Billy McKinney liked the plan because they thought it would grant more power for blacks in city government and wouldn’t disturb black neighborhoods. 

Lonnie King, at the time, a 36‐year‐old black businessman and politician who was instrumental in drawing up the school plan said, “What we’ve come up with is a compromise, but it’s the only solution that could be negotiated that will guarantee quality education for blacks.” 

However, the plan encountered opposition from civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. The local NAACP even suspended King who had been president of the chapter. Most notably though, the most vocal opposition came from the New York headquarters of the NAACP.  

These groups arguably favored keeping blacks in victimhood to solidify their power and maintain control of the “flow of funds.” 

Despite opposition to the contrary, eventually the Compromise was adopted, and limited integration took place.  


Too many blacks today have allowed their minds to be co-opted by the white liberal’s paternalistic ideology of black inferiority and black victimhood. Rather than take agency over their own lives – as their late 19th century and early 20th century forbears did – they wait on a social savior that will never come. 

Another government program, reparations, protests, and multi-millions of donated dollars to organizations like Black Lives Matter won’t help. That’s a repackaging of the bait and switch tactic of the Civil Rights Movement.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I fear I may have integrated my people into a burning house.”   

Today’s public school system is on fire in that it routinely fails its students.  

The logical thing to ask is what do we do? What is needed?  

What is needed is an embrace of the educational commitment and hard work of the black students and teachers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, stable, father-headed families are needed too. This will raise those left behind educationally, financially and economically to self-sufficiency. 

It’s like Malcom said, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” 

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Derek Franklin


Derek Franklin is a native of Chicago, is an ordained minister and also works as a finance professional in the banking industry. He’s a small “l” libertarian who was introduced to the political philosophy through the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Ron Paul.

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