Short Introduction to Racial Inequalities in American Education

Essay, 2018

41 Pages, Grade: 5.0





Chapter One
Education of Black until the Revolution
1.1. The Education of Negroes in Colonial Beginnings
1.2. Temporary Change in the Education Privileges for Negroes
1.3. The Return to ‘Normalcy’
1.4. The Situation of African Americans’ Education after the Civil War

Chapter Two
Racial inequality in American Public education until 1954
The Importance of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann for Education
2.1.1. The Common School Movement
2.2. ‘Education as the Hope for Betterment’ and an Actual Situation
2.3. W.E.B. DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington - the Educational Debate
2.4. Further Changes in Education of African Americans between XIX-th and XX-th Century
2.5. Brown vs. Board of Education

Chapter Three
The Aftermath of Brown v. Board - Educational Equality amidst the Social Upheavals between 1954 and 1970’s
3.1. The Little Rock Nine
3.2. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its Impact on Education
3.2.1. The Equality of Educational Opportunity Research
3.3. The Elementary and Secondary School Act
3.4. The Most Crucial U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Education Desegregation
3.4.1. Goss v. Board of Education
3.4.2. Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County
3.4.3. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County
3.5. Busing and Resulting White Flight


Education affects every part of human beings’ lives. For the majority of people education level is the factor which decides about the level of income, place in the class system, and even health care. Without the education on an average level from the very beginning, the person immediately is exposed to a severe disadvantage in comparison with those who receive it.

During the process of gathering the materials for this thesis, the author of this thesis has found the most important obstacles in the history of American equal education.

Sadly, the problems of education inequality are deeply rooted throughout American history. In the South segregation was justified in the Supreme Court in the Plessy vs Ferguson Case from 1896 which mandated that schools should to be segregated into black and white.

Basically, in the North there were no segregation laws, but school administrators consciously arranged the districts with the purpose of segregation. Segregation caused inferior education for Blacks because the districts in which they were taught obtained definitely less money. This meant that the schools could not afford quality teachers or sufficient facilities.

The American nation had to wait until 1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and finally reversed the position it held since 1896. By 1980 the federal courts largely succeeded in eliminating the system of legalized segregation in southern schools. The federal government also investigated many northern cities and ordered that the school districts need to be re-arranged so that they can include minorities. Interestingly, the government also, in some cases, ruled the busing of minorities to other districts in an attempt to make education equal between districts.

In order to present what factors led to such a situation in American schools, the author decided to divide the paper in three parts – each discussing different period of inequalities found in educational history.

Chapter One

Education of Black until the Revolution

Gary Alten, the author of American Ways, claims that “the American educational system is based on the idea that as many people as possible should have access to as much education as possible.”1

The very first schools for Blacks were intended to teach them morality and appropriate behaviour, attributes which white masters thought they were not employed with. Without doubt, such schools served only a small percent of the nation’s African American population, while the most of them were slaves in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. This meant that opportunities for education were extremely limited, although it would be wrong to assume that a significant degree of learning did not occur in slave communities. During slavery, Black children were taught valuable lessons about the importance of their families and surrounding communities, and they also learned about their status within Southern society, but they generally were not allowed to become literate. This created a great desire for knowledge within the slave community, and helped to make education an important priority for African Americans.

While some issues in American education waxed and waned, like interest in methods of instruction, and other issues flared and dissipated, like the fear of subversion, the problem of racial inequality in education grew in significance with each passing year. With the success of the legal attack on school segregation in 1954, the process of dismantling the segregated structures and of transforming racial attitudes was set in motion, a process that moved slowly, fitfully, sometimes violently, and continued for decades. For a long time the clear and unambiguous goal of the civil rights movement was to make America a color-blind society, to remove the race line from American law and life, to establish once and for all that each person is equal as a citizen and an individual, regardless of race, religion, or national origin. Yet after formal segregation and legalized discrimination were abolished, massive problems remained, a legacy of years of racial inequality. In time, the pursuit of color-blindness came to be characterized not as a noble goal, but as racism in a new form.2

Despite the fact that American education provided innovative educational opportunities, some groups of Americans benefited from the system more than the others. Especially since the 1950s, public policy toward education has sought to provide greater equality of educational opportunity for all Americans. Those responsible for making the political decisions tried to eliminate various forms of discrimination in schools even more than they have addressed issues of educational quality or standards.

What is more, universal compulsory education began with the Puritans of New England over three hundred years ago. The colonists of Massachusetts Bay passed laws in 1642 and 1647 establishing schools in which children were taught to read and were given instruction about the religion. Although the central colonies, like Pennsylvania, left education to the churches, both Virginia and the southern colonies left it to private establishments. By 1871 every State had a system of free schools and the attendance in most of them was compulsory. There was one exception and that single aspect which was never discussed were the children born black and their need to be educated as well.

1.1. The Education of Negroes in Colonial Beginnings

Those of the ancestors of modern Black Americans, who were brought from the African wilds to provide the labour force for the white class of pioneers society in the new world, were slaves who needed to be trained to meet the needs of their environment. What is interesting, it was necessary first of all to convince intelligent masters that slaves who were trained, even in the most narrow way and who understood the language of their owners would be more valuable than wild men with whom no one could not communicate.

The questions, however, as to exactly what kind of training these Negroes should have, and how far it should go, were to the white race then as much a matter of perplexity as they are now. Yet, believing that slaves could not be enlightened without developing in them a longing for liberty, not a few masters maintained that the more brutish the bondmen the more pliant they become for purposes of exploitation. It was this class of slaveholders that finally won the majority of southerners to their way of thinking and determined that Negroes should not be educated.3

Without doubt the above mentioned in the quotation immigrant group, when it came to literacy, started from the scratch at the moment of their arrival to America. As recent analyses of literacy and slavery indicated, the thousands of Africans entering colonial America, primarily destined to the South, were not capable of writing and had never encountered such thing as literacy before entering the colonies. Interestingly, Reese and Rury state that: “these populations were the subject, however, of literacy campaigns that, to the degree they stressed formal instruction for church-related purposes, appear comparable to the literacy campaigns of contemporary Europe. Indeed, the reliance on schooling by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.) in their campaigns to educate Native as well as African Americans reveals the high value placed on that institution by English colonizers.”4 Similar was the case with the faith in schooling among the Southern revivalists, who started to fight against the illiteracy amongst the poor whites and slaves during the period of the Great Awakening.

Nevertheless, as Rury explains, the Europeans who settled in North America were actually well aware of the social and cultural diversity created in the New World. In the South, elaborate legal barriers were erected to separate Whites and Blacks during the 17th century, among them widely different provisions for education. It took time for the institution of slavery to develop completely, but by the early 1700s there could be little doubt that Africans occupied a distinctly inferior social position, even compared to the most destitute European indentured servants.5

According to Woodson, the history of the education of the Black Americans before the Civil War, falls into two periods.6

a) The first can be marked from the time of the introduction of slavery until the climax of the insurrectionary movement about 18357, when the majority of the people in this country answered in the affirmative the question whether or not it was prudent to educate their slaves.
b) Then followed the second period, when the industrial revolution changed slavery from a patriarchal to an economic institution, and when intelligent African Americans, encouraged by abolitionists, made so many attempts to organize servile insurrections that the pendulum began to swing the other way. By this time most southern white people reached the conclusion that it was impossible to cultivate the minds of African Americans without arousing overmuch self-assertion.

Those who early took part in advocating the education of Negroes were of three classes:

- first, masters who desired to increase the economic efficiency of their labour supply;
- second, sympathetic persons who wished to help the oppressed;
- third, zealous missionaries who, believing that the message of divine love came equally to all, taught slaves the English language that they might learn the principles of the Christian religion.

Because of the kindness of the first class, slaves had the possibility and best chance for their intellectual improvement. Each slaveholder obviously dealt with this situation in a way that suited him and he did not take the public opinion into consideration. After some period of time, when ordinances were passed which were to prohibit the education of slaves, some masters continued to teach their Negroes even though the hostile legislation. The second group of ‘sympathetic’ people were not able to achieve a lot due to the fact that they were usually reformers, who – because of their convictions – not only did not own slaves, but lived considerably far from the plantations on which the slaves were located.

The fact was that Blacks and their children were denied any access to education, despite efforts of school reformers such as Anthony Benezet (1713 - 1784). The only formal instruction they received was a limited biblical lectures in simplified form which had the only purpose – to make the slaves realize and remember that people of different than white skin colour were inferior beings, descended from Ham and condemned by God to serve the white man in perpetuity. A few good-hearted slaveholders – among them George Washington to be the worth mentioning – taught some of their slaves useful skills such as carpentry or bricklaying.

1.2. Temporary Change in the Education Privileges for Negroes

The Spanish and French missionaries, the first to face this problem, set an example which influenced the education of the Negroes throughout America. Some of these early ‘apostles of Catholicism’ showed definitely more interest in the Indians than in the Negroes, and were capable of justifying the enslavement of the Africans rather than that of the Native Americans. Nevertheless, as Woodson puts it: “But being anxious to see the Negroes enlightened and brought into the Church, they courageously directed their attention to the teaching of their slaves.”8 It is important to remark that:

The first settlers of the American colonies to offer Negroes the same educational and religious privileges they provided for persons of their own race, were the Quakers. Believing in the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, they taught the colored people to read their own “instruction in the book of the law that they might be wise unto salvation.9

At the time, in the South, most poor young people originated both from the white or black community, free or enslaved, were allowed to learn only the skills needed to survive and be able to work. There were of course few cooperative and charity schools which educated poor white children, and a missionary group – the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts10, which made pilgrimages into the South in order to bring literacy – and with it Christianity – to the make it possible to the enslaved. Beginning in 1704, the society also operated a nighttime school for those Africans and American Indians in New York City who remained enslaved.

Obviously, slaveholders proved to be the greatest obstacle facing the society’s missionaries. Most masters saw no need to educate their slaves or bring them into the Christian faith. It was commonly argued that slaves had no souls, or that turning them into Christians made them harder to control.

In 1704, the society’s leaders decided to open a catechizing school for slaves in New York City, where they estimated that 1,500 Africans and Native Americans were enslaved. Hired to conduct this school was Elias Neau, a French Protestant who had been imprisoned in France for his beliefs. As Reef describes: “Neau began by going from house to house, teaching slaves where they lived. He prepared lessons that were easily memorized, so that even illiterate slaves could learn Bible stories and Christian doctrine, and eventually he persuaded masters to permit their slaves to attend classes in the second story of his lodgings, which he converted into a schoolroom. Teaching had to be done at night, though, when most of the students were tired.”11

Unfortunately, in 1712, the public blamed Neau and his school when a number of slaves set fire to a house in New York City as part of a planned uprising. Although only two of the several conspirators had attended the school, support for Neau and his work declined.

“Then came the days when the struggle for the rights of man was arousing the civilized world”, as Woodowson states, and then he continuous:

After 1760 the nascent social doctrine found response among the American colonists. They looked with opened eyes at the Negroes. A new day then dawned for the dark−skinned race. Men like Patrick Henry and James Otis, who demanded liberty for themselves, could not but concede that slaves were entitled at least to freedom of body. The frequent acts of manumission and emancipation which followed upon this change in attitude toward persons of color, turned loose upon society a large number of men whose chief needs were education and training in the duties of citizenship. To enlighten these freedmen schools, missions, and churches were established by benevolent and religious workers. These colaborers included at this time the Baptists and Methodists who, thanks to the spirit of toleration incident to the Revolution, were allowed access to Negroes bond and free.12

With the emergence of these new possibilities for being educated, Negroes presented to be quick learners and they rapidly developed mentally. Intelligent black-skinned men proved to be useful and trustworthy servants. They also became much better workers, often with artistic potential and many of them showed administrative abilities which would allow them to be placed as the managers of business establishments and large plantations.

Moreover, better education served many ambitious black people as a stepping-stone to higher achievements. For instance, Negroes learned to enjoy and write their own poetry and contributed in the areas of mathematics, science, and philosophy. Furthermore, after the theories of their mental inferiority, connected with the difference between white and black races (in conformity with the suggestion of Cotton Mather –Puritan clergyman, author, scholar and a force behind the founding of Yale University13 ), were abolished, employed to teach white children.

1.3. The Return to ‘Normalcy’

Sadly, the majority of the people of the South by this time came to the conclusion that, as intellectual improvement is not suitable for men in servitude and makes it nearly impossible to keep them in the conditions as it used to be, it should be prohibited. In other words, the more one encouraged and nourished the intellect of slaves, the more unserviceable one made them. In that way that slaveholder gave them a broader view of what they might desire as far as privileges and – as it was understood – they should not gain them because it can turn what you intended as a blessing into a curse. If they were to remain the capable slaves they should be kept in the lowest areas of mental ignorance and nearer one brings them to the condition of beasts and brutes the better chance they have to retain their numbness.

Accordingly, the laws were presented which soon were passed which made it possible to introduce the measures necessary to prevent the education of Negroes which not only forbade association with their fellows for mutual help and closed up most schools for the black students in the South, but had in several States made it a crime for a Negro to teach his own children. In addition:

The contrast of conditions at the close of this period with those of former days is striking. Most slaves who were once counted as valuable, on account of their ability to read and write the English language, were thereafter considered unfit for service in the South and branded as objects of suspicion. Moreover, when within a generation or so the Negroes began to retrograde because they had been deprived of every elevating influence, the white people of the South resorted to their old habit of answering their critics with the bold assertion that the effort to enlighten the blacks would prove futile on account of their mental inferiority. The apathy which these bondmen, inured to hardships, consequently developed was referred to as adequate evidence that they were content with their lot, and that any effort to teach them to know their real condition would be productive of mischief both to the slaves and their masters.14

With such bad turn in their rights to be educated, African Americans began preparing their own legal battle for the desegregation of schools and educational equality. The first example was set on December 4, 1849 when the Roberts v. The City of Boston case was presented to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The name named Benjamin Roberts sued the city of Boston because his five-year old daughter Sarah was banned from the local primary school because she was Black. The court ruled in April of 1850 in favour of the school committee and Boston’s schools remained segregated.15

In addition, soon, two very different systems of education developed in the United States which geographical division referred closely to the actual battle lines that would appear during the period of Civil War. As Harlan explains:

Introduction of the North-eastern public school into the South was an important war aim of the North in the Civil War and found its place in the post-war Reconstruction program. The public school was to have a dual purpose - to stand in loco parentis for the freed Negro and to act as an entering wedge of the New Order, a means of bringing the conquered white people into ideological harmony with the victors.16

However, the time came that the country of the white people became torn apart by the war. The South and the North’s shaping educational system was interrupted by the Civil War.

1.4. The Situation of African Americans’ Education after the Civil War

[D]uring the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, established by Congress to provide practical aid to 4,000,000 newly freed black Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom. Headed by Major General Oliver O. Howard, the Freedmen's Bureau might be termed the first federal welfare agency. Despite handicaps of inadequate funds and poorly trained personnel, the bureau built hospitals for, and gave direct medical assistance to, more than 1,000,000 freedmen. More than 21,000,000 rations were distributed to impoverished blacks as well as whites. Its greatest accomplishments were in education: more than 1,000 black schools were built and over $400,000 spent to establish teacher-training institutions. All major black colleges were either founded by, or received aid from, the bureau.

The Northerners paid attention to the learning needs of the black Southerners when of the necessity for educating the African-American population became evident in 1862, with thousands of people escaping the chains of slavery placed their lives in the hands of the victorious Union forces.

The former slaves lived crowded into camps established by the military. Northern missionary and charitable groups and the army established schools for them in order to teach reading and to impart skills that children and adults required for life after being slaves.

In March 1865, with the war coming to the end, a federal agency took over the responsibility for educating many of the former slaves. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands – better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau – distributed supplies to Southerners who were transferred with all their families by the war. Its schools trained hundreds of thousands of African Americans in reading, writing, mathematics, hygiene, homemaking, and manual trades.17

It is also important to note that the Freedmen’s Bureau also cooperated with private benefactors to establish institutions of higher learning for African Americans, including Atlanta University, founded in 1865, and Howard University, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1867. On March 2, 1867, the U.S. Office of Education came into being, to gather and distribute information on school development and educational progress nationwide.18

After the Civil War, although slaves were freed, whites were still treating African Americans unfairly. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution helped blacks get their equal rights. The Reconstruction Acts also helped African Americans gain equality. These acts made sure the south let Blacks be part of political decisions. After Reconstruction ended, though, other races and groups tried to stop them from using their new rights. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan threatened to keep them from being treated equally.

The Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment was one of three amendments passed after the Civil War. The amendment was put in the U.S. Constitution in 1865 and it stated that slavery was illegal. The Thirteenth Amendment made the Emancipation Proclamation (Abraham Lincoln’s announcement to the seceded states that their slaves were now free) into a law. This gave Congress the right to make laws so that people could not have slaves.19

Although the freed slaves were now able to get the job and be paid for it, the African Americans still did not get a proper and equal access to education, an so they could not get certain kinds of jobs.

The Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment was officially put into the Constitution in 1868.20 It was written to make sure the freed slaves had their rights and this amendment stated that everyone in the United States, including the African Americans, were rightful citizens. In practice, whites still had more rights than African Americans, and people in the South still treated them unfairly. Most of the whites did not want former slaves to have the power to make changes and the educational situation was not changed in the least.

Reconstruction Acts

Because African Americans were still not allowed to vote and run for office, the Reconstruction Act of 1867-1868 was passed in order to make sure that all of them could participate in every political decision required for making the new Southern State Constitutions.21 This act was very important because it meant that the whites were not going to have all the power to make political decisions. Across the South, voting participants tried to educate Blacks about the American government and the benefits of citizenship.


1 G. Alten, American Ways, (Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 2 edition, 2002), p. 54.

2 Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980. (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 114.

3 C.G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 – A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, (1915); Indy Publ. (2005), p. 3.

4 W. J. Reese, J. L. Rury, Rethinking the History of American Education. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 25.

5 John L. Rury, Education and social change : themes in the history of American., (Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2002), pp. 46-47.

6 C.G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 – A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, (1915); Indy Publ. (2005), p. 1.

7 Ibid.

8 C.G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 – A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, (1915); Indy Publ. (2005), p. 3.

9 Ibid., p. 4.

10 C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. (New York: Facts on File, Incorporated, 2008)p. xi.

11 Ibid. p. 8.

12 C.G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 – A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, (1915); Indy Publ. (2005), p. 3.

13 Harlow G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education., (New York: Facts on File, 1996), p. 687.

14 C.G. Woodson, The Education Of The Negro Prior To 1861 – A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, (1915); Indy Publ. (2005), p. 5.

15 Cited from The African American Registry. 2005. Roberts vs. City of Boston begins; Ladson-Billings, G. “Landing on the Wrong Note: The Price we Paid for Brown.” Educational Researcher 33, no. 7 (2004): 4.

16 L. R. Harlan, Separate and Unequal: Public School Campaigns and Racism in the Southern Seaboard States, 1901-1915. (New York: Atheneum, 1968), p. 3.

17 Catherine Reef, Education and Learning in America. (New York: Facts on File, Incorporated, 2008), p. xiv.

18 Ibid., p. xv.

19 Heuman, Gad and Burnard, Trevor (Eds.), The Routledge history of slavery, (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 301.

20 Remini, R. V., A Short History of the United States. (Harper Collins, 2008), p. 159.

21 Harlow G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education., (New York: Facts on File, 1996), p. 928.

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Short Introduction to Racial Inequalities in American Education
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Marta Zapała-Kraj is currently a PhD student at the Faculty of Literary Studies at the Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce. A master's degree in English philology and a translator. I am interested in implementing new technologies to help educate dysfunctional children and youth. For over 15 years I taught English in state and private schools. I also worked as an interpreter. I have been a freelance lecturer for several years. My interests include various areas - from philosophy, through English literature, to digital technologies.
education, America, race, gender, The Little Rock Nine, W.E.B. DuBois, Bussing
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Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2018, Short Introduction to Racial Inequalities in American Education, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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