I once saw a photo in an old Life magazine (circa 1955) of black elementary students in South Africa under apartheid. Having no supplies, they were using their fingernails and some old pins to cut out pictures for a learning activity. A few students were using their fingers to write their lessons in the dirt.
I thought about that photo on a recent visit to my mother’s hometown, North Buxton, Ontario—one of the few remaining settlements established in Canada by former slaves who had reached the end of the Underground Railroad. In its prime, the settlement school offered courses from Latin and Greek to vocational training. After the Civil War, some of its graduates returned to the U.S. to help educate the newly freed slaves. The reputation of that settlement school was so impressive that it attracted blacks and whites from great distances.
Americans of African descent were the only group of people in the history of this country who were forbidden by law to read or write. It was punishable to be caught teaching black people (enslaved or free) to read or even to give them a Bible. Yet the more education was denied black people, the more they pursued it for themselves and their children.
About five miles from where I now live is another town created by former slaves: Mound Bayou, Mississippi. With the help of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin Green led a group of former slaves to develop a thriving community in the heart of cotton country. At its peak, Mound Bayou’s 8,000 black citizens had a newspaper, bank, telephone system, railroad station, several businesses and industries, churches, and multiple schools. Like its Canadian counterpart, the quality of Mound Bayou’s schools was legendary, producing generations of leaders and productive citizens. At one point, over 95% of the town’s graduates went on to either college or the military.
A 1988 study of literacy here in the Mississippi Delta region focused on teachers and students at two traditionally black high schools, one of which was in Mound Bayou. The author was curious about the remarkable success rate of these students on the new state-mandated Functional Literacy Exam as compared to other students—specifically black and white students—around the state. By all statistical measures, the students in these two districts were “at-risk,” but they consistently performed well on standardized tests and had high graduation and college attendance rates.
Yet today, we talk about the achievement gap and our students being at-risk or unmotivated.
In Mound Bayou’s case, it continued to be an all-black high school staffed mostly by black teachers from the surrounding community. These were unusual circumstances in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
During voluntary and court-ordered desegregation in the 1960s, more than 38,000 of the 82,000 black teachers and 90% of the black principals across the South lost their jobs. White-controlled school districts that had desegregated unwillingly refused to hire black educators, despite the fact that many of them were better trained than their white counterparts. The percentage of black teachers in America has been on a steady decline ever since.
Although the segregated black schools suffered from a lack of materials, space, and equipment, they luxuriated in the control of their curriculum and teaching methods (relatively, that is, to many of today’s inner-city and rural black schools). Within the nest of the community, young African-Americans learned not only language arts, including impeccable standard usage, but also the literature, stories, histories, ethics, songs, hopes, and expectations of our people, as well as those of the nation at large.
This is not to romanticize the degrading realities of segregation or to suggest that all the teachers and methods of the past were excellent. But learning itself had a mission and reason—and that reason was much larger than passing a state test or even getting a job and making a lot of money.
What I remember most about my own childhood and all my years in school was the unrelenting encouragement from all the black adults around me to “make something of myself,” so I could contribute to the overall community. Too few of our children hear that message today. Some never hear it, and some hear it infrequently.
I grew up in a house with my parents, my father’s parents, and three siblings. On my first day of kindergarten, my mother walked me the eight blocks to school, holding my hand and telling me what I was going to do when I finished college. It occurred to me much later, that I never heard the adults in my life use the word “if” when they talked about my learning or my future. It was always “when,” “because,” and “after.” They, along with the adults in our church and community, imbued positive energy into my life and my thoughts. I grew up hearing: “You’re going to do something with your life.” “You’re going to make us all proud.” “You’re going to help uplift others.”
How did we, the African-American community in particular and American society in general, leave our children so far behind? I believe that curriculum and pedagogy should be developed collaboratively and locally as much as possible. While there is a common body of knowledge that all literate citizens should share, that does not lessen the importance of localized development of and consensus on curriculum. We should reclaim our children and their future by reviving our commitment to the value of their education for the larger good of the community, as well as for their individual success.