“The alphabet is an abolitionist.” This statement was featured in an American political magazine, the Harper’s Weekly, for an editorial on ‘Education in the Southern States’ in November 1867.1 Enslavers believed that literacy would be used by slaves to forge travel passes, giving them the opportunity to escape to freedom. It was also a common misconception that slaves were incapable of becoming literate, which was used as justification for them to remain slaves.
The abolitionist Frederick Douglass learned his “A, B, C” from his enslaver’s wife before being caught. The master warned his spouse about why slaves should not be taught, saying “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do… if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Frederick Douglass reflected on this moment in his autobiography, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”2 Douglass realized that his education was key to his emancipation.
Black Americans have historically been excluded from quality education. In 1829, Georgia prohibited teaching blacks to read, punished by fine and imprisonment.3 In 1832, Alabama and Virginia prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read or write, punished by fines and floggings. In 1833, Georgia prohibited blacks from working in reading or writing jobs via an employment law, and prohibited teaching blacks, punished by fines and whippings via an anti-literacy law. In 1847, Missouri prohibited assembling or teaching slaves to read or write.4
Even when slavery was abolished in 1865 followed by various Civil Rights Acts — progress was challenged by state implemented legal segregation in all aspects of southern life, including education. Black, Colored, and Negro Schools were funded at significantly lower rates than white schools. The American Council on Education sent investigators to Negro schools in the south during the 1930s. They discovered that these colored schools were in dilapidated buildings, with overcrowded enrollment, limited textbooks, and teacher shortages.
Their report, Growing Up in the Black Belt, discovered most Black children during that time only attended school 15 or 20 weeks total each year and many Black children did not go on to high school. In 1932, only 14% of those between 15 and 19 years old were enrolled in public high schools in southern states. 89% of all Negro high schools were just elementary schools with one or more years of secondary work included at the top. Their curriculum was limited, and their teachers had little training in academic subjects.5
A series of legal battles in education from Sweatt v. Painter (1950) to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and beyond eventually led to public school desegregation. In 1969, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education created the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a congressionally mandated effort to measure student achievement. The 2019 assessment measured the trend in 8th grade NAEP reading achievement-level results by race/ethnicity. It showed that proficient rates were 57% for Asian, 54% for Asian/Pacific Islander, 42% for white, 25% for Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, 22% for Hispanic, 19% for American Indian/Alaska Native, and only 15% for Black students. The disparities remained true when analyzing 4th and 12th grade proficient rates as well — Black students had the lowest rates.6
The Obama administration attempted but failed to address disparities in school suspensions and expulsions for Black students. When analyzing preschool discipline data from the U.S. Department of Education, it shows that Black boys make up 18% of the male preschool enrollment, but 41% of male preschool suspensions, and Black girls make up 19% of female preschool enrollment, but 53% of female suspensions. This trend continues throughout grade school, eventually leading to significant loss of learning time in over-policed schools. In some school districts, the report found, more than one out of every 20 Black middle and high school students were arrested.7 The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs reported that students who are suspended from school “lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, and more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”
In the 1980s, the Regan administration’s war on drugs imposed new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and was mirrored in public schools, requiring zero tolerance policies. The National Education Association (NEA) found that zero tolerance policies were intended to respond to serious offenses (e.g., selling drugs, gang violence) but have been used broadly to include minor offenses (e.g., talking back to school staff, bringing prescription drugs to school without a doctor’s note, and uniform violations). This disproportionately impacts Black students, making the ‘school to prison pipeline’ more of a nexus where schools become prisons.
The U.S. Department of Education has countless reports that show disparities in education for Black students. These reports show that Black students are largely in schools with less qualified teachers and lower salaries, less likely to be enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, less likely to be kindergarten-ready, less likely to be college-ready, and have the lowest levels of income amongst races regardless of educational attainment. Though public schools were desegregated in 1954, Black students are still five times as likely as white students to attend schools that are highly segregated by race, with extreme levels of poverty.8
In the 1970s, between 75% and 85% of Black Americans attending college were enrolled at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This rate has decreased dramatically to about 9% today. Pre-Civil Rights Era, HBCUs were some of the only post-secondary institutions Black Americans could attend, but between new collegiate options, a reduction in federal funding, and philanthropic discrimination — HBCUs today are struggling to remain open.9
The latest blow to education for Black America is the COVID—19 pandemic. McKinsey & Company reported Black students are most likely to continue remote learning but least likely to have computers, internet access, and live contact with teachers at home. The lack of access to resources to learn from home have led to wider achievement gaps and even increases in dropout rates. McKinsey & Company estimates that an additional 2% to 9% of high-school students could drop out because of the coronavirus school closures — 232,000 students in the mildest scenario to 1.1 million in the worst one.10
The Duke University Study, What We Get Wrong About Closing The Racial Wealth Gap, found that “At every level of educational attainment, the median wealth among black families is substantially lower than white families. White households with a bachelor’s degree or postgraduate education (such as with a Ph.D., MD, and JD) are more than three times as wealthy as black households with the same degree attainment.” The report goes on to find that “on average, a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.” Black students are more likely to have student loan debt, and more likely than white students to drop out of a college because of financial instability.
In 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, reported that U.S. history classrooms dedicate 8% to 9% of total class time to Black history. There are no national history standards, and the suggested national curriculum is largely ignored in favor of state-level standards. About a dozen states do not require teaching the Civil Rights Era and nearly half of the states do not teach about racial segregation at all.
The fight for education has been a dangerous one, with countless Black schools being bombed and burned down across the country, including the recent burning of a historic Black schoolhouse in July of 2020, south of Nashville, TN in Maury County. Because Black Americans are the only group in the U.S. that have had to fight legal education discrimination at the local, state, and federal levels as well as white backlash as a result of simply trying to learn — Black Americans require a comprehensive education agenda. We require the following:
- The U.S. Congress must enact a law placing a federal ban on all preschool and primary school suspensions and expulsions.
- The U.S. Department of Education’s $1 billion dollar budget for counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals must reserve half of its funding for specialists in race-based trauma to reflect the national public school student population being nearly half non-white.
- The U.S. President must sign an executive order making suspensions and expulsions a health crisis as it is a direct contradiction to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ education access and quality objectives for children. In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, these agencies shall investigate the public-school system’s role in lost wages for Black American families due to the educational and economic impacts of school suspensions and expulsions. This amount shall result in direct payments reflective of the monthly Child Tax Credit for ADOS families.
- The U.S. Congress must enact a law placing a federal ban on law enforcement in public schools, zero tolerance policies, and amending federal hate crimes to include age when race-based discrimination is present. These efforts shall include other state-level policies that decriminalize student behavior that is largely a response to living in extreme poverty. The intent of this ban shall also be an extra level of protection for Black students.
- The U.S. Department of Education must work with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to double funding for Family Resource Centers in qualified census tracts to increase supportive services that can help mitigate nuisance behavior that has been targeted with zero tolerance policies. The $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant shall prioritize these same census tracts.
- The U.S. Department of Justice must investigate its department, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to identify any correlations of the school-to-prison pipeline for current and past inmates with remedies for justice for their descendants or the impacted inmates themselves. These remedies shall include but not be limited to full-ride scholarships to HBCUs, student loan forgiveness, and recompense to be used for private educational purposes.
- The U.S. Congress must add an exemption to the U.S. Department of Education’s role in the teaching of national history standards. These standards must include a fact-based, comprehensive, and required teaching of Black History in America. This curriculum must include the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the Civil Rights Era, Jim Crow Laws, redlining, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, police violence, the racial wealth gap, and more. It shall also include a thorough teaching of Black American’s contributions to the U.S. such as inventions, arts and culture, achievements in political organizing, and more. The U.S. Department of Education must monitor implementation of national history standards until 100% of American history is inclusive of Black American history and enact federal pension penalties for public school teachers who do not comply.
- The U.S. Department of Education must limit the American Families subsidized tuition spending to HBCUs and ADOS students and expand it to full-ride scholarships instead of the proposed two-year coverage.
- The U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice must investigate all public post-secondary institutions for their role in slavery and segregation. The penalty shall include extracting endowments from schools like Georgetown that were built by slaves, to transfer funds into new endowments for HBCUs that enroll and serve the communities they were originally meant to. This investigation shall also target Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUSs) that potentially participated in the slave trade and segregation.
- The U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy must collaborate with the U.S. Department of Education to create a robust plan to eliminate the digital divide between Black working-age adults and the rest of the population. This includes free access to obtain equipment, skills training, licensing, and guaranteed employment as automation replaces low-skills tasks in the workforce.
- The U.S. Department of Education must create a framework for public schools to adopt the community school model, where schools provide resources in and out of school time, in qualified census tracts. The $443 million budget request must be limited to these census tracts to fully fund quality childcare before and after school in addition to enrichment programs.
- The U.S. Department of Education’s $50 billion infrastructure investment for “job-creating investments in cutting-edge, energy-efficient, resilient, and innovative school buildings with technology and labs” must prioritize renovations for former Black, Colored, Negro Schools and schools with predominately Black American student populations.
- The U.S. Department of Education must collaborate with the Department of Justice to create a student exoneration model that provides recompense in the form of scholarships to any public or private post-secondary institution for students who were wrongfully expelled. Black Americans represent 50% of the 2,820 exonerations since 1989. A thorough investigation would show that students require similar justice.
- The U.S. Department of Education must transfer its multi-million-dollar investment in Minority Science and Engineering Improvement to HBCUs or Predominantly Black Institutions to start or upgrade their Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) degree programs. Black Americans are underemployed and underrepresented in STEAM careers while other minority groups are overemployed and overrepresented.
- Dalton, K. (1991). “The Alphabet Is an Abolitionist” Literacy and African Americans in the Emancipation Era. The Massachusetts Review, 32(4), 545-580. Retrieved July 19, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25090304
- Douglass, F. (2008). In The Complete Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass: (An African American Heritage Book) (pp. 30–30). essay, Wilder Publications.
- Kim Tolley (2016). “Slavery”. In Angulo, A. J. (ed.). Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 13–33. ISBN 978-1-4214-1932-9.
- “Negroes and Mullattoes”. Missouri Secretary of State. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
- Johnson, C. S. (2014). Growing Up in the Black Belt, Negro Youth in the Rural South. American Council of Learned Societies.
- National Achievement-Level Results. The Nation’s Report Card. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2021. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/
- National Report Calls Attention to Frequent Use of Suspension Contributing to Stark Inequities in the Opportunity to Learn. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Retrieved July 23, 2021. https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/.
- Schools are still segregated, and black children are paying a price. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved July 20, 2021. https://www.epi.org/
- Daniel, J. (2016). Crisis at the HBCU. Composition Studies, 44(2), 158-161. Retrieved July 27, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24859535
- Dorn, E., Sarakatsannis, J. & Hancock, B. (2020). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/