PUBLIC EDUCATION MATTERS
How Black People Led The Fight To Create Public Schools We All Enjoy
On closing the literacy gap after the civil war and expanding opportunities for all
If Ted Cruz waving an anti-racism childrens' book at Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing taught us anything, the debate about race in education is here to stay. But, while some parents protest their students learning about racism in America, they may need a reminder of who fought for a federally subsidized public school system in the first place — Black Americans. Ironically, White students have become key beneficiaries of the system Black Americans fought to create.
But why did Black Americans have to wage this battle? Simple. Upon America's founding, schools were primarily whites-only private institutions. As a result, 20% of White adults were illiterate before the Civil War. Still, states' antiliteracy laws that prohibited Black people from reading and writing made the problem much more pronounced in the Black community, with 80% of the Black population being illiterate. "You could have a finger cut off if you were caught trying to learn to read if you were a slave." While less than half of adult Americans read literature in the modern era, reading while Black was once a revolutionary act.
During the Reconstruction Era, Black Americans slowly but surely broke the cycle of illiteracy, advocating for, and successfully creating some of America's first public schools available for students of any class or race. Due to Black Americans' efforts, education would no longer be just for the wealthy, privileged, or elite. America's history of education would be significantly different without Black Americans' push to create public schools. The persistent pushback against students learning about Black history shows how far America's public schools have fallen from the tree that sparked their creation.
Many Northern freedmen's aid organizations "began establishing schools in mid-1865." However, during the not-so-civil war, the Union Army provided educational opportunities for Black Americans, considered runaways by Southern plantation owners. However, after the war, Black Americans pooled resources to hire teachers, often using…