The Negro’s Struggle for Education in Early 20th Century America

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

28 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Progressive Debate on Negro Education
2.1. Thomas Jesse Jones
2.2. W.E.B. Du Bois
2.3. Booker T. Washington

3. Harlem Renaissance Schooling
3.1. Cumming vs. Richmond County Board of Education
3.2. New York
3.3. The South
3.4. Results

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

"It seems to me," said Booker T.,

"It shows a mighty lot of cheek

To study chemistry and Greek

When Mister Charlie needs a hand

To hoe the cotton on his land,

And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,

Why stick your nose inside a book?"

"I don't agree," said W.E.B.

"If I should have the drive to seek

Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,

I'll do it. Charles and Miss can look

Another place for hand or cook,

Some men rejoice in skill of hand,

And some in cultivating land,

But there are others who maintain

The right to cultivate the brain."[1]

Early 20th century America was a place where the African American had little or no say in society. Only 35 years after liberation the Negro was still struggling against race prejudices that amongst other things kept him from enjoying the same education as whites did. This discrimination had its roots in an obsolete worldview Americans had taken over from the late 19th century and according to which the Negro evolution had never passed the stage of savagery.

To counteract this inflammatory discrimination Negro leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington rose and gave proposals about the right program for Negro education. Although they differed considerably in their views, they aimed for the same goal; the advancement of the Negro race. Apparently, white leaders such as Thomas Jesse Jones, justifying their stance with scientific proof, constantly opposed them.

In juxtaposing the different views this work is trying to shed light on the Negro’s struggle for education in early 20th century America. For this purpose a revision of contemporary literature, surveys, statistics and legal documents was of chief importance. The first part thus gives a preliminary account of the progressive debate that took place in the first years of the 20th century. Since whites based their discriminative attitude on evolutionary theory, a short summary of Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society[2] is given, and it is shown to which extend it influenced contemporary thinking.

The next part compares Thomas Jesse Jones’ recommendations on Negro education, derived from an extensive study he conducted,[3] with W.E.B. Du Bois’ and Booker T. Washington’s views on that matter.

The second part of this work starts out to give legal documentation on segregation in Americas’ schools that lead to extensive changes of the countries demography. At this point, the North with New York as the most progressive state is characterized as well as the more conservative South, where Cumming vs. Richmond Board of Education had a more negative impact on Negro education.

The final part constitutes an overview of the actual achievements that Negroes made in their struggle for education. In that, not only elementary school education is being looked at but also high school and higher education.

2. Progressive Debate on Negro Education

The early 20th was characterized by a “massive transformation of American life from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society and the largest influx of immigrants in the republic’s history.”[4] Progressive reformers, seeing the educational system confronted with a new student clientele, argued about how to change secondary education in order to cope with these demographic changes. In the midst of this progressive debate the 19th century curriculum increasingly came under scrutiny since most immigrants, as well as African Americans, were thought to have a limited learning capacity compared to native Anglo-Saxons.[5]

Basis of this assumption was a “system of cultural categories that [progressive educators] had inherited from their nineteenth century mentors.”[6] It was assumed that “mankind … worked their way up from savagery [through barbarism] to civilization.”[7] On the basis of these three evolutionary stages African Americans were placed “at various levels of savagery and barbarism,”[8] while the Anglo-Saxon occupied the highest rank. Although it was believed to be an evolutionary process (savages and barbarians could climb up the evolutionary ladder to civilization), African Americans would have to accept their present state without any notable prospect of progress.

Part of this evolutionary judgment was the assumption that the two lower stages had certain limits as to how far a learner could advance and only students in the last stage of civilization were not believed to have any impediments. As a consequence thereof, reformers argued that African American students should receive an education according to their mental capacities; an education considerably lower than that of white students.[9]

This was to be realized in the new comprehensive high school. In contrast to “1900, [where] African American youth were [still] educated in segregated schools,”[10] now all students were to go to the same school. On the basis of IQ tests they would be placed into different academic tracks according to their level of intelligence.[11]

Originally designed by Binet for testing French school children, IQ tests in early 20th century America were a tool of disfranchising African American students. Since the “scales had to be individually administered, scored and interpreted by trained psychologists,”[12] it empowered educators to continue with segregation and allocate students according to their predefined standards. It is no surprise then that “African Americans … were most often placed in manual training,”[13] which was the lowest of the three available curricula and an impediment for a further college education. Thus, although all students went to the same school, equality existed only on paper and the new school system was just another way to keep up the existing order. It was a system that made “victims without crimes [where] millions of Negro children learned in school[s] which were consciously or unwittingly racist.”[14] But racism did not stop here. Even if a Negro student attended high school and college, “[m]ost whites in contact with Negroes, always the teachers of their brethren in black, both by precept and practice, have treated [high professions] as aristocratic spheres to which Negroes should not aspire.”[15]

2.1. Thomas Jesse Jones

Many scholars participated in the debate and various studies were conducted. One of the most discussed was a study published in 1917 by Thomas Jesse Jones. In Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States[16] 747 schools, accommodating almost 100.000 students, were inspected. Primary aim of this study was to find out what kind of education the Negro needed and how schools managed to meet those needs. In order to achieve this, “educational objects of the school … the training of teachers, the vocational choice of the pupils, the condition of the school plant, the attitude of the white and colored people of the community toward the school, and the work of former students” were analyzed.[17]

Given his biased opinion on “the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race,”[18] the subsequent recommendations were all but surprising and only mirrored the (white) Zeitgeist of that time. Negroes’ secondary education thus should concentrate on preparing them for domestic employment or agricultural work, rather than a college career. Their instruction should take place in normal schools and be given by white teachers. Since attendance in such schools was not always possible, other Negro schools should be supervised and guided as to guarantee their adjustment to the local community. Due to their economic and psychological inferiority, they were to be educated in different courses of study with different methods of teaching, for they had different needs.[19]

Although different in quality, Jones’ study strengthened Booker T. Washington’s view, that the Negro did not have the need or rather should not strive for higher education like languages, mathematics, geography and such, but concentrate more on his “actual needs.”[20] This industrial education then would lead to economic independence, which, in turn, would build the basis for further advancement of the Negro race.[21] In what they strongly differed was that Jones dismissed higher Negro education completely, while Washington just did not see the immediate need for it. He did encourage the Negro to “secure all the mental strength, all the mental culture … that his circumstances allow[ed]” but only to caution him nonetheless, that the importance lay in “the every-day practical things of life [in] something which they will be permitted to do in the community they in which they reside.”[22]

Shortly after Jones published his study, he was appointed educational director of the Phelps Stokes Fund and despite being considered by many African Americans as the “evil in the life of the Negro, … he became immediately successful as the most advanced agent of Negro control.”[23] This was due to the fact, that, like Washington before him, he tried to find an education that would not antagonize whites with the difference that following Jones’ recommendations, whites would be totally in charge of Negro education; one of the reasons why he “was … catapulted into fame among the capitalists and government officials supporting the education of Negroes.”[24] This brought various opponents to the scene amongst which W.E.B. Du Bois was the most prominent.


[1] Dudley Randall, "Booker T. and W.E.B.," (1999),

[2] Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, or, Researchers in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (New York: University of Arizona Press, 1877; repr., with an introduction and annotations by Eleanor Burke Leacock).

[3] Thomas Jesse Jones, Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States, 2 vols., (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1917).

[4] Donald Johnson, "W.E.B. DuBois, Thomas Jesse Jones and the Struggle for Social Education, 1900-1930,"The Journal of Negro History 85, no. 3 (2000), 71.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 71-72.

[7] Morgan, "Ancient Society," 3.

[8] Johnson, "Struggle for Social Education". 73.

[9] Ibid., 73-74.

[10] Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 2008), 133.

[11] Johnson, "Struggle for Social Education". 75.

[12] Marguerite Clarke et al., "Retrospective on Educational Testing and Assessment in the 20th century,"Journal of Curriculum Studies 32, no. 2 (2000). 162.

[13] Johnson, "Struggle for Social Education". 76.

[14] David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 217.

[15] Carter Godwin Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933; repr., San Diego: The Book Tree, 2006), 75.

[16] Jones, Negro Education: A Study, 1.

[17] Ibid., 2: 2.

[18] Thomas Jesse Jones, The Sociology of a New York City Block, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1904), 28.

[19] Jones, Negro Education: A Study, 1, 25.

[20] Ibid., XIII.

[21] Booker T. Washington, "Industrial Education for the Negro,"The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day (New York: James Pott and Company, 1903), 28-29.

[22] Ibid., 17.

[23] Carter Godwin Woodson, "Thomas Jesse Jones,"The Journal of Negro History 35, no. 1 (1950), 107.

[24] Ibid.

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The Negro’s Struggle for Education in Early 20th Century America
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
The U.S. in the 1920s: Culture, Society, and Politics
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negro’s, struggle, education, early, century, america
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Nico Hübner (Author), 2013, The Negro’s Struggle for Education in Early 20th Century America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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