Historical challenges of race and education

This image, from the AFRO-AMERICAN , was published on June 6, 1951 and shows the crowd inside the federal courthouse, but outside the courtroom, where Judge J. Waites Waring and two others were hearing the Briggs v. Elliott school case. (Provided)

The recent resignation of the embattled former superintendent, Dr. Nancy McGinley, exposed some of this fine city’s not-so genteel visceral and racist comments on Facebook, Twitter, and the comment sections of on-line news stories. Charges of “race-baiting” harkened back to the bygone era of de jure segregation. The race-based comments suggested that the history of segregation is over. Yet a brief look at the Lowcountry’s history of race and education suggest the situation at hand is much more deep-seated than infuriated locals would have you believe.

Rebellion and unrest among enslaved communities prompted South Carolina to pass laws that forbade the education of Africans and African Americans. On September 9, 1739, a band of slaves outside Charleston, South Carolina, robbed a store that served local plantations, killed the owner, armed themselves and began marching toward Spanish Florida. Those of the Stono Rebellion did not make it to their Florida destination and Lowcountry planters crushed the rebellion that same afternoon. But the banners, drums and colors displayed sent a powerful message that literacy was a dangerous tool.

Local planters speculated that slaves read the news that announced the Spanish declaration of freedom to slaves owned by the British. They also surmised that slaves read a law that mandated whites to bear arms in church (a precursor to Nikki Haley’s legalization of guns in bars?). The notion inspired planters in South Carolina to establish a powerful precedent and they passed a law forbidding the education of enslaved communities.

Anti-literacy laws and other edicts that explicitly forbade the education of Africans and African Americans, both enslaved and free, comprised the foundation of the “Slave Codes” that sought to regulate, control and suppress the activities of enslaved and free black communities across the South.

Robert Smalls, the enslaved boatman who heroically delivered the Confederate warship, the CSS Planter, to Union lines, continued the next phase of struggle in the 1860s. Smalls and his contemporaries, including Hiram Revel and John Lynch of Mississippi, constituted the first black caucus ever elected to Congress. They reconstructed the South by ensuring that South Carolina and her sister Confederate states reentered the Union by promising, for the first time in Southern history, a public system of education. Yet as the Klan swept through the Upstate, education was barely permissible and they ensured it would be segregated and underfunded.

Under the oppressive weight of Jim Crow, Septima Clark led black educators in the push to provide a quality education in spite of legal barriers to a quality education. When the city of Charleston refused to hire black teachers, the local branch of the NAACP organized to overturn the law, which it did in 1919. While the Lowcountry was guided by the principle of “separate but equal” as established by the Supreme Court, the education white administrators provided was impeccably separate but far from equal. Reverend Joseph DeLaine led his congregation to demand a bus in Clarendon County in 1949. When local officials refused, they contacted Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. The subsequent court cases, Briggs v. Elliot (1952) was one of the five court cases that constituted the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision.

Local discourse dismisses this history. Critics overlook the fact that race has played a crucial role in educational policy for centuries. The comment sections on local news stories surrounding the resignation of Dr. McGinley imply that we have moved on since Brown and that we live in a “post-racial” epoch. They want us to believe that race should not be a factor in the decision-making policies of the district. We do not need diversity consultants, they argue. Superintendents that prioritize race should be dismissed, they insist.

Yet the long history of education in the Lowcountry suggests otherwise. Race and diversity are permanent fixtures in our educational landscape. The sooner we understand that this is a resource and not a blight on our record, the sooner we can set a national example for reformers to follow. By recognizing a long history of racialized policy we can ethically lead the nation’s commitment to provide a quality education to all students.

The nascent student-led organization, Students Advocating for Multicultural Education (SAME), is putting race at the front of policy discussions once again. They ask that the school board recognize this long history of a race-based struggle for a quality education and allow for greater diversity in our schools. Policymakers, parents and concerned community members should listed to the young William Pugh, Alexandra Hepburn, and their student peers who are courageously demanding that our officials recognize this history. To legally and ethically increase the diversity of our nearly all-white schools while devoting more resources to those that remain largely black is indeed taking an important historic step to achieve a quality education.

Jon N. Hale, Ph.D. is assistant professor of educational history at the College of Charleston.