“It is the trained, living human soul, cultivated and strengthened by long study and thought, that breathes the real breath of life into boys and girls and makes them human, whether they be black or white, Greek, Russian or American.” W. E. B. Du Bois
African Americans embraced education as a central component of racial uplift during the first half of the nineteenth century and eagerly sought to secure education for black children in the public or private school sectors. The concept of uplift, and the necessity of education to achieve that goal, was a widely accepted belief.
During the antebellum era many Southern states prohibited the education of free blacks and made it a crime to educate slaves. This discriminatory practice created an atmosphere that historically prevented equitable access to education for southern Black people.
Because Black children were excluded from public schools in the period following the Civil War, many of these children received education from private schools. Most of these schools were parochial, while secular groups established others. In at least ten southern states in 1890, black children were enrolled in private schools in greater numbers than those enrolled in public schools. At one point, there were over 500 private schools for Blacks in Southern states.
After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, it appeared that the dreams of African Americans for full equality would be realized. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1866, held promise of due process and equal rights under the law and mandated state-supported public school for all citizens, however, throughout the South, a dual system of education emerged of inadequately funded Black public schools and community or religious-sponsored African American private schools providing quality education.
This dual, racially segregated system became more firmly entrenched after the Civil War act of 1875 was set aside by the United States Supreme Court in 1883. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, a period of widespread racism and even terror ensued, which impacted the work of private schools. These schools were primarily in the southern states where Jim Crow laws had prevailed after the Civil War. The public schools were inadequate, but funded, and the private schools were struggling financially and plagued with problems and violent opposition.
The rationale for establishing and maintaining segregated schools had been enacted by the United States Supreme Court’s decision on the Plessy vs. Ferguson Case of 1896, which legitimized the idea of “separate but equal”. In the Plessy decision, the Supreme Court legitimized racial inequality and segregation, a decision that held for over fifty years. The Plessy decision guaranteed racial segregation in public schools and school activities.
By the mid twentieth century, a Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education Case, created elation and anticipation by Black educators and was fueled by the belief and hope that equal and better opportunities for both Black students and Black educators had finally arrived.
Brown vs. Board of Education;
“We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does…We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment” (Chief Justice Earl Warren, 05/17/1954).
The Brown vs. Board of Education decision is considered one of the single most important court decision in American educational history. The court overturned the Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” clause, which denied African Americans students of their constitutional right to education guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The courts declared that the need for African American children to see themselves in a positive, reaffirming way was just as important as curriculum, facilities, and other resources. After hearing arguments on implementation, the court declared in 1955 that schools must be desegregated with "all deliberate speed."
The era of post Brown vs. Board of Education brought significant structural changes in the schools that African American students attended. The structural changes were paralleled by a significant reduction in the number of African American teachers and administrators working with African American students and this reduction continues to impact the education of African American students today. Creating a system of education absent of adequate representation is an "unintended consequence" the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and fifty years later, continues to plague our urban, public school systems.