In what has become an early theme of the DeVos’ DOE and its supporters, last week our new Secretary of Education made a comment that was as shockingly racist as it was mind boggling. It’s been covered extensively and dissected thoughtfully, so I did not want to rehash that here. But, what I did want to do is revisit the “Life Before Brown” chapter of “All Deliberate Speed,” to take a look an era of American life that appears to be forgotten (disregarded?) by our nation’s education leader. Here’s what I found most interesting/compelling:
- The Jim Crow era was named after “a caricature of a black man created by a white minstrel in 1828 to entertain white crowds,” which makes it a fitting name for an era in which black people were forced to act and talk in inauthentic ways that would be pleasing to white people. A form of personal alienation that accompanied barbaric physical violence.
- Supported by decades of Supreme Court decisions that weakened the 14th Amendment, individual states “quickly seized on the two-tiered system of justice to disenfranchise African-Americans” in virtually all aspects of civic and social life, including the following:
- Voting rights – many African-Americans were denied the right to vote by “grandfather clauses” that “required voters to be descended from individuals who were citizens of the states during slavery.”
- Democratic participation – African-Americans were excluded from jury service
- Property rights – states effectively stole land from African-Americans and those “removed from their property were forced to turn to sharecropping and the virtual peonage of service on white plantations.”
- Sun Down laws – “notices in prominent places notified African-Americans that they could not remain in the city after dark.”
- Lynching – “between 1880 and 1930, an estimated 3,220 African-Americans were lynched in the South alone.”
- The above forced African-Americans to create “something of a parallel country within America” for their own physical safety and survival. Of course, this included black colleges and universities which started, in part, because “trusting white decision makers to act in their [African-Americans’] best interests was often risky and seldom resulted favorably.” With resources from African-American society, predominantly black colleges grew from 1 in 1854 to over 100 in 1975.
- In addition to HBCUs, black Americans created social institutions (e.g., the National Association of Colored Women, the NAACP), printing press, banks, and retail businesses. This period of time also saw the publication of Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folks, the Harlem Renaissance and “defiant, cultural expressions,” such as “spirituals, blues and jazz.”
- Ogletree notes that “the success of segregated black communities in spite of Jim Crow fueled white hatred and unleashed unfettered violence and destruction,” often leading to riots which occurred as “officially sanctioned efforts to subjugate African-Americans who were then attempting to carve out lives for themselves in the shadow of Jim Crow.”
- Among the most notable: a 1921 riot in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, a thriving community of nearly 8,000 African-Americans that included what had come to be known as Negro Wall Street. In late May, a white mob descended on Greenwood after claiming that an African-American had assaulted a white woman. Ogletree explains that “over the next day, there was rampant violence and destruction of property in Greenwood. In the early hours of the morning of June 1, local units of the National Guard drove African-American residents from their homes and looted many buildings before burning Greenwood to the ground.”
- As a result of the all-encompassing culture of discrimination, “even in those communities that survived the prolonged violence against them, a newfound sense of determination emerged,” leading to the NAACP’s strategy to overturn legal segregation.
In a very small way, I revisit this history to offer a counterweight against the HBCU comment and the bizarre rendering of African-American history that seems to come daily from the Trump Administration. My point is really no different than what so many called out in response to DeVos: HBCUs had nothing to do with freedom of choice. It was quite the opposite. As Cornel West describes it, black institutions and colleges were “buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness and lovelessness.”
More than just proving DeVos wrong, I revisit this chapter to look back on what privileged white people choose to forget about our shared American history. That, to preserve white supremacy and property, we established a legal system of segregation enforced by brutal violence. A theme of this blog is to point out that strong strains of this white supremacy exist today. And, although it doesn’t attract nearly the same level of controversy, this sort of privileged historical amnesia comes out often in the debate about school choice and school reform when proponents of these policies make the same mistake that DeVos did: assuming free choice is possible – or that it means anything at all – in an unequal and segregated society.
See other posts in this series about the Brown decision, the Boston busing riots, and Charles Hamilton Houston and the end of Jim Crow segregation.