What Modern Educators Should Know About the 19th Century African American Education

The 19th century was a period of growth in many areas for the U.S. from civil rights to industrial production to governmental procedure to education. In particular, the post-Civil War period in America was a major landmark in education for African Americans, because the education of African Americans was no longer forbidden by law in some states. After the abolition of slavery, European American missionaries arrived in the South, eager to educate former slaves with religious instruction by establishing schools.

In the North, the first private school for African American children was established in Boston in 1798. In 1815, the Smith School in Boston became the first African American public school in the nation. However, the early African American public schools in Massachusetts forbade the teaching of grammar. The Integrated Negro School Abolition Society was formed in 1849 with the mission of attaining equal educational rights. In 1855, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law abolishing school segregation in the state.

In 1823, Reverend John F. Grier opened the first African American church, which included Sunday school. Reading was an important part of the Sunday school curriculum. Education of former slaves was also prevalent as part of the regular church service. Records of early African American education indicate that some of the first schools were organized in churches. The minutes of a meeting held on November 7, 1836, at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Reading, Pennsylvania, for example, indicated plans for a schoolroom to be included in the building plan of the church itself.

In 1834, Pennsylvania enacted its Free School Act, and the first public school for White children opened in 1835 in Reading. But Reading didn’t open a public school for African American children until 1854, and the infrastructure and facilities were far inferior to those in public schools for White children.

Some communities didn’t support schools for African Americans. One example is the Canterbury School opened by Prudence Crandall in Connecticut in 1833. Canterbury community members stormed the school shortly after it opened and forced Crandall to shut it down.

The Freedman’s Bureau, which administered relief and education for freed slaves, was established in 1865. John W. Alvord, who was appointed the National Superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau, was instrumental in decentralizing the administration of schools for former slaves. He appointed one superintendent for each state, who in turn reported on the progress to the bureau.

In the South, de jure segregation was mandated. The reasoning was that, while there was segregation, African Americans were still being offered equal status and opportunities. De jure segregation was required by law, with the effect that African Americans could be taken to court for violating this segregation. These were known as the “Jim Crow” laws. Although the “separate but equal” status was argued, in reality this was often not the case; facilities and opportunities for African Americans were usually markedly inferior to those of European descent. This type of segregation was in contrast to the de facto segregation that existed in the North. De facto refers to the fact that this was segregation that existed in reality although not enforced or required by law.

Teaching about America’s troubling history can be difficult. Check out our other articles about the history of U.S. education and tips for navigating education in the modern age for ideas on how to get the ideas across and use the students’ innate energy and interest.

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