A. Pre-Civil War


Education of African slaves was largely discouraged in Southern states in the pre-Civil War era. This was largely because education was incompatible with the institution of slavery and would ultimately lead to its demise. In the eyes of slavemasters, if slaves were permitted to learn to readand write the English language, they could begin to think and act on their own and rebellion was inevitable. Additionally, proponents of slavery would be forced to accept the fact that Blacks were not inferior or unable to "absorb educative experiences," but that they deserved the same freedoms that Whites enjoyed. Given that slavery proponents were unwilling to accept these truths, enslaved Blacks in areas such as Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina had to secretly educate themselves through clandestine institutions and private instruction. In 1740, South Carolina was the first of the Southern states to pass laws absolutely prohibiting the education of slaves. In North Carolina, Whites who were caught teaching Blacks were subject to fines and imprisonment, whereas Blacks who were caught were subject to fines, imprisonment and whipping.


In spite of such laws, in 1830, Blacks in Lexington, Kentucky established a colored school for thirty students and employed two white men from Tennessee as instructors. In a few cases, slavemasters taught their slaves or the children of slavemasters. However, for the large majority of enslaved Blacks, there were no formally recognized educational institutions. Therefore, slaves depended on private instruction to educate themselves. Some slaves who worked for business establishments were educated by assisting clerks while others learned from fellow slaves. Many Southern societies maintained secret colored schools in violation of the law. It is reported that a Black woman by the name of Deveaux maintained an underground school in the city of Savannah, Georgia for thirty years. As a result of invisible institutions like that of Deveaux's, and other educational institutions, it is estimated that at least one in fifty slaves in the Southern states could read and write and in Georgia, five thousand of the 400,000 slaves were literate. By 1850, it is estimated that 27,107 school aged children were enrolled in school. Out of that figure, approximately 4,354 Black children attended school in the South. However, following the passage of the fugitive slave laws in 1850, the number of Blacks attending school declined. In 1860, only 3,651 Blacks attended school in the South.


Free Blacks in the North were in a better position to develop their own programs and initiatives to educate themselves than were slaves in the South. Whereas enslaved Blacks struggled with issues of freedom and recognition of personhood, free Blacks in the North, to a certain extent, enjoyed these liberties and were able to empower themselves through the pursuit of education. At a time in history when the education of African Americans was largely ignored by White society, Blacks sought ways to develop their own programs and institutions to educate themselves. "The earliest African American Independent schools were created as a natural response to the revolutionary ideals of the new republic that became the United States." The philosophy of the American Revolution-- "the natural rights of man"-- "helped opponents of slavery espouse the right of the Negro education."


In the eighteenth century, Prince Hall, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, petitioned the City of Boston to establish a separate, tax-supported school for African American youth. He urged the Senate and House of Representatives of Massachusetts to provide a means of education for Blacks because they were taxed as Whites, but received no benefit from the free public schools of Boston. His request was granted; however, Boston would not provide a building to house the students. Therefore, in 1798, Hall established an independent neighborhood school in the home of Primus Hall and operated it until 1803. In 1800, Prince Hall and sixty-six other free Blacks in the community repeated the request for a building. When that request was denied, Hall established a separate school in his own home and employed two Harvard men as instructors. The number of pupils increased so rapidly that the school had to be relocated to the African Society House. While the Harvard instructors only taught at the school until 1806, the school itself continued for at least twenty years until 1820, when Boston finally opened an elementary school for Black youths. In New York, the Manumission Society established the New York African Free School in 1787. In 1791, a woman was employed to instruct the girls in needlework, and industrial training was the focus of the school. The New York African Free School began with forty students and by 1820, more than 500 Black children were enrolled.


In 1786, Richard Allen, a Methodist minister, along with Absalom Jones, other ex-slaves and Quaker philanthropists founded the Free African Society. The slogan for this organization was "To Seek for Ourselves." Although free Blacks in the North enjoyed greater freedoms than enslaved Blacks in the South, many Whites still objected to treating Blacks as equals. This reality led to the establishment of separate Black churches. As a response to White racism, Richard Allen's organization developed into the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1794. This movement was important to education because large numbers of Blacks needed to be educated to carry on the work of these new Black churches. "In 1795, Allen opened a day school for sixty Black children and in 1804, he founded the Society of Free People of Colour for Promoting the Instruction and School Education of Children of African Descent." After Allen's death in 1831, the AME church continued its efforts in education. Wilberforce University was founded in 1854 at Tawawa Springs, near Xenia, Ohio. Wilberforce University was the first college owned and operated by blacks. By the 1859-60 school year, the rolls reported over 207 students. The school educated children of planters in the South as well as those who lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California. The classes included mathematics, French and, for males, theological studies. The doors of Wilberforce were later closed, in 1862, due to the Civil War, but were re-opened and remain open today.


In 1862, Congress passed a bill setting aside 10% of the taxes paid by Blacks to support Black schools in the District of Columbia. At that time, tax-supported, all-Black institutions were insulated from constitutional challenges based on unequal treatment and racial discrimination because segregation in education was legal. Additionally, Fifth Amendment liberties did not embody principles of equal protection from racial discrimination before the Civil War as notions of Black personhood and citizenship were still deeply contested.