Black History Month: Matters of Education

Zaneta J Smith
Feb 25 · 3 min read
Booker T. Washington, Educator, Author, Advisor

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a Bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College AND Crozier Theological Seminary. He also had a doctorate from Boston University.

Coretta Scott King had a Bachelor’s degree from Antioch College and a degree from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music

Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr has a bachelor’s degree from Baldwin-Wallace College and spent time at Divinity School of Vanderbilt University before being expelled for organizing student sit-ins.

From the start, education has been an important priority for African-Americans.

Here’s a quick and very abridged history lesson: The masters of that tragedy called slavery withheld education from slaves for fear of revolts. Slaves caught reading or studying were harshly punished. Enter W.E.B. DuBois (born a free slave), a highly educated man who developed a philosophy that the talented tenth of African-American society who lead the masses. His counterpart, Booker T. Washington (born a slave and later freed) believed that all Black people should utilize education to uplift oneself. Since schools were segregated and unequal, Black colleges/universities emerged, along with missionary schools to educate Black people. Parents and students of various minorities engaged in continued action of fighting the system to end segregation in the pursuit of equality.

The Mendez v. Westminster case in California called for the end of school segregation for American Indian and Asian children in the 1940s. The success of this case paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education and the end of school segregation.

Fast forward to today, there are 2 million Black people living in California. Of the two million, 70% of men graduate from high school on time compared to 80% of women. Regarding higher education, 68% of men enroll in a college/university compared 59% of women (California Completes, 2018). In 2016, only 38% of those Black students who enrolled in college finished, reportedly the lowest percentage among minority groups (EdSource, 2018).

Today, 20% of Californians hold their bachelor’s degrees.

Why does this matter? Like Booker T Washington believed, education is the means to uplifting individuals, families, communities, and government.

My mother is the first in her family to attend college…and not by choice but my grandmother knew what she was doing (Thanks Grandma Dee). I am the first on my father’s side to graduate from a four year college however, I have a cousin who graduated from a technical school (they count in my book). So technically, I am the second to earn a post-secondary degree.

To think, when my mother attended college in the late 1960s she could pay for it out of pocket. Now, unless you are lucky to accrue scholarships (thank you United Negro College Fund) your bill might look like this:

Average cost of one year at a California Community College = $1,600 (for residents)

Average cost of one year at a California State School = $5,500 (for residents)

Average cost of one year at a private California University = $35,000 (for US residents)

Thanks to policy (Assembly Bill 1721) and advocates, we have the College Promise program in California, an expansion of already-existing programs that allow eligible students free tuition to community colleges. In addition, there is California’s Historical Black College & University (HBCU) transfer program that guarantees a smooth transition from a California Community College to a HBCU as long as the necessary academic requirements are met.

A post-secondary education of any kind means a differentiation in income, experiences, and knowledge. The resources at California trade schools, colleges and universities are endless. Taking advantage of those resources can change individuals, families, communities, and government for the better.

Our 2018 Spring poll suggested that public education is an extremely high policy priority for Black voters in California. Historically, by looking at those individuals we honor throughout Black History Month, we see why. College is where they were met with challenges that fueled them. College is where they made long-time partnerships. College is where they found the opportunity to travel and learn non-violent practices. It is because of their education (formal or informal) and articulation that some were chosen to lead the movement. We need new and ever-rising leaders. This is why education matters.

Zaneta J Smith

Written by

Coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement & public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative.