Black History Month 2022: Literacy and Education

Kellie RomanyDiversity Initiatives

Black Americans do not have equal access to education, especially as it relates to literacy. This can be traced as far back as 1565, when the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to present-day St. Augustine, Fla. Slave owners saw literacy as a threat. Literacy gave enslaved people access to the writings of abolitionists and was therefore a threat to the institution of slavery – and to slave owners’ financial stake. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, there are countless instances of Black Americans being denied access to education in the United States beyond that point. This Black History Month, learn some important milestones in American history as it pertains to racialized access to education.

The Negro Act & Anti-literacy laws between 1740 and 1834

Between the years of 1740 and 1834, many states – including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Virginia – passed anti-literacy laws. While these laws had slight differences, they all had the same outcome: ensuring Black Americans could not read or write. In South Carolina, the Negro Act of 1740 prohibited teaching enslaved people to read and write. Violation of this law was punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison. Many states looked to South Carolina’s Negro Act as precedent to create their own anti-literacy laws.

Jim Crow and Black Codes

After the Civil War ended in 1865, states passed Black Codes. These Black Codes restricted the rights and freedoms of Black Americans and limited their economic opportunities. Jim Crow laws, a series of state and local statutes that deprived Black Americans of their fundamental rights by enforcing a system of strict racial segregation, soon followed. These laws – named after a minstrel show character – denied African Americans many of the rights and privileges associated with citizenship. These restrictions limited their right to vote, own property, and get an education, among other benefits.

The Freedmen's spelling book opened to title page. Black Literacy History.
The Freedman’s Spelling Book
Freedmen’s Bureau

Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in 1865. It is popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau, with the help of northern charities and black communities, aided societies in meeting formerly enslaved Black Americans’ demand for education. It helped with a myriad of tasks, including renting buildings for schoolrooms, providing books, and arranging transportation for teachers. Many Black communities unassisted by the Freedmen’s Bureau established networks of grassroots schools for themselves and their children.

While the Freedmen’s Bureau was not always successful, it helped in the founding of notable institutions such as Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; and Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. These institutions, known as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), continue to provide educational opportunities to Black Americans to this day.

Booker T. Washington on Segregation

As educational opportunities slowly became accessible for Black Americans, segregation continued to play a huge role in the quality of education received by certain Black students depending on where they lived. In 1914, Booker T. Washington wrote: “Taking the Southern States as a whole, about $10.23 per capita is spent in educating the average white boy or girl, and the sum of $2.82 per capita in educating the average black child.” Public libraries were also segregated. Of this, Booker T. Washington said: “Is it fair, as is true of most of the large cities of the South, to take the negro’s money in the form of taxes to support a public library, and then to make no provision for the negro using any library?”

Brown v. Board of Education 1954
The first day of school at Ft. Myer Elementary School after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Black Literacy History.
The first day of school at Ft. Myer Elementary School after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case was a class action lawsuit filed by Black families in Topeka, Kansas. The case ended in a landmark decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing segregation in public education were unconstitutional. This case overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine that was being practiced in public schools. It also became a model for future litigation cases, and paved the way for integration and the Civil Rights Movement. Shortly thereafter, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. This outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It also prohibited racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, employment discrimination, and unequal application of voter registration requirements.

The State of Education Today Is Still Far from Equitable

It is important to recognize these historical dates. It has been decades since Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but systemic racism – which manifests in practices like housing discrimination – keeps schools segregated and perpetuates unequal distribution of funds. While no longer legally barred from attending white schools, Black students are now limited by class status and neighborhood location. In 2017, statistics showed that 80% of Black children attend segregated schools nationally.

You can see clear examples of the effect systemized racism has had on public school systems right here in Chicago – the nation’s third largest school district. In 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed 53 schools, displacing thousands of students. The breakdown of the displaced students – 94% low income and 88% Black – highlights the discrepancies in Chicago’s public school system.

In addition to the inequities produced by housing discrimination, many argue that charter schools and voucher programs divert funds from public schools; thus contributing to the segregation of public schools in America.

Why Recognizing These Historical Moments Is Important to WITS

WITS recognizes that structural racism, housing discrimination, and resource disparities prevent students from reaching their full potential – and we remain committed to being an actively antiracist organization. In Illinois, 35% of fourth grade students read at grade-level; of this, only 20% of low-income fourth grade students meet proficiency. To ensure students hit crucial literacy benchmarks, support must focus on disinvested communities, starting early and remaining consistent throughout a student’s academic career. WITS exclusively serves CPS, where 76% of students are from low-income households, and 90% of the student body are minorities. Free and accessible enrichment programs such as WITS’ give CPS students the boost they need to stay connected to their education, their schoolwork, and one another.