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Equity & Diversity Reported Essay

Do America’s Public Schools Owe Black People Reparations?

By Daarel Burnette II — September 23, 2020 9 min read
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Black Americans won’t reach true economic justice until our nation’s K-12 leaders fully confront and make amends for the public education system’s racist history. This process of reconciliation and reparations is essential for understanding contemporary K-12 racial disparities, rebuilding trust, and restructuring an institution that still causes the subordination and undereducation of Black students.

In the years after the Civil War, formerly enslaved Black Americans saw the ability to read and write as a necessary steppingstone to wealth and respect. Their vast and forceful political demands for taxpayer-funded schools directly led to the establishment of the South’s public K-12 system, what historians have called “the crown of Reconstruction.”

But in the century following, politicians all across the nation set up a constellation of policies and classroom practices that denied Black children access to an adequate education—part of the Jim Crow era’s drive to exploit the labor of Black workers, block them from the ballot box, and maintain white political power.

Mobs of white citizens often burned down Black communities’ schools while government officials stood by and watched. Local officials systematically charged Black property owners exorbitant taxes for schools their children were not allowed to attend. And, in the years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, states en masse fired Black teachers without cause as part of an effort to prevent white teachers at integrated schools from losing their jobs.

Since 1968, the number of Black students graduating from high school has climbed more than 40 percent, and the Black middle class, as a result, has more than doubled in size. But academic outcomes for Black students in recent years have stagnated and, in some states, worsened.

To better understand what a reconciliation and reparations program should and should not look like, I traveled to Prince Edward County, Va., in February, where the gap between good intentions and actual change is stark.

Almost 20 years ago, this southern Virginia farming community of 23,000 people began to make amends for the way it blocked its Black children from enrolling in its entire school district between 1959 and 1964—a devastating act from which Black residents had yet to economically recover.

Books were written, tearful apologies were made, a statue was erected, and a museum was built. In a historic move, $2 million was set aside by the state to help the victims of those acts “receive an education that was stolen from them.” That fund stands today as one of only four state-backed reparations programs in the nation aimed at Black Americans.

Virginia has a long history of outlawing the education of Black children. At one point, in an attempt to suppress slave rebellions, it legally subjected Black people caught assembling to learn to read and write to 20 lashes with a whip. Their teachers were fined $100 and jailed.

Throughout, Black Prince Edward residents, who make up more than a third of the county, pushed back, in clandestine schools, at school board meetings, at the state legislature, and through the courts.

In 1951, the Black students led the fight.

The all-Black Morton High School in Farmville—built several years after the all-white high school—had become an overcrowded fire hazard. The school board, in response, placed on its campus tar-paper, coal-heated shacks to manage the overflow of students.

Sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns staged a 400-student strike, and then filed a lawsuit, which later became one of the five cases that led to the Brown v. Board decision.

In 1959, county and state lawmakers, enraged that the federal government had forced them to allow Black students to attend the all-white schools, defunded the entire public school system, instead directing Black and white taxpayers’ money through vouchers for white students to attend a private academy.

I wouldn't call it reparations since nothing was really repaired."

The public schools stayed shuttered for five years while the case wound its way through the courts. More than 2,300 Black children during that time went without a formal education, and the illiteracy rate jumped from 3 percent to 23 percent.

One of the first public apologies came in 1990 from the town’s family-owned newspaper, The Farmville Herald, acknowledging its role in ramping up local hostility against the Black students and organizing white voters around the idea that integrated schools would result in Black men impregnating white women to create a “mongrel nation.”

It took another 13 years before the state legislature passed a resolution expressing “profound regret” for the way it withheld more than $359,000 meant for Black students to attend school. Today, that’s the equivalent of $11 million. In 2008, the county’s board of supervisors formally expressed “sorrow” for closing their schools and placed a “light of reconciliation” inside the local courthouse bell tower.

The legislature then put aside the $2 million in the scholarship fund—an arbitrary amount, of which a philanthropist paid half—to help the victims of the state’s actions pursue a high school diploma or college degree in the state of Virginia.

But by then, most of those eligible were close to retirement and had left the state.

Of the thousands of people eligible for the scholarship, only 88 people have benefited since its creation.

Today, half the fund remains, the program has just five participants, and the state is faced with the question of what to do with the $1 million that’s left. Black residents want the state to give the money to the victims’ descendants, but some conservative and mostly white legislators feel the descendants were not directly injured by the state’s actions and therefore don’t qualify for reparations, a sentiment with which the state’s attorney general disagrees.

With the county today awash in apologies and with half the reparations money now spent, have the Black residents forgiven the government? Was the wealth gap between Black and white residents closed? Have Black students’ academic outcomes improved?

The four scholarship recipients I spoke to said they appreciate the apologies and the scholarships but say that all came too late.

Rita Odom Moseley, at the age of 12, was sent hundreds of miles away to live with a family friend to attend school when Prince Edward’s schools were shut down. It was years before she saw her parents again. She used the scholarship money to successfully pursue both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the age of 60. That resulted in her getting a slight pay bump a few years before she retired as a high school secretary, but, she said, she and her children are still poor.

“I wouldn’t call it reparations since nothing was really repaired,” said Moseley, now 73.

Catherine Hines was 6 years old when the school district shut down. She was too young to be sent to live with distant relatives and lived too far out of town to travel daily to the makeshift schools Black churches in Farmville set up in their basements. So, for three years, she worked on her father’s farm, picking worms off tobacco leaves, feeding the cows and chickens and, “whatever else we could do at our age.”

A few years ago, after years of working as a nurse in a psychiatric ward, she took courses at the local community college to get another nursing license, but never finished. She retired earlier this year.

“I spent my whole life fighting for myself, struggling through, taking classes, paying for them as I went and working, and now they say they have this scholarship for us,” she said. “People will never know how (the schools shutting down) affected me personally. I always had to catch up. I had to teach myself how to read, how to write. Even though I became a nurse, it wasn’t easy for me. We were the lost generation.”

While government officials in Virginia have apologized and provided what has proved to be a meager and ineffective form of reparations, they did very little to fix the existing racial disparities within the school district, now more than 55 percent Black.

The Prince Edward County government refuses to raise its property taxes, so the district relies heavily on the state, which doesn’t spend enough overall on public schools, according to the state’s own conclusion. The school district underperforms in a number of areas, such as its English and math scores. The private academy, built for white students during the years when the district was closed, is still in existence, though without the largess of the county’s taxpayers. And its enrollment is still almost entirely white.

The county’s overall illiteracy rate today sits at 16 percent, four points higher than the statewide average.

Verna Williams, the dean of the University of Cincinnati’s law school, concluded in a 2006 study that Prince Edward’s reconciliation and reparations efforts amount to “a cramped vision of both the state harm and possible remedies.”

“Here you have Virginia, of all states—let’s be real, the heart of the Confederacy—saying, ‘This is wrong, and we want to address it. It’s noteworthy,” she said during a recent interview. “But it fell short. I’m not surprised they didn’t want to call it reparations.”

A more holistic, politically bold, and sweeping reparations effort, she said, could include job training and scholarships for the victims’ descendants. And it would have to involve providing much more funding for its Black students to receive an adequate education.

“The state has to say, ‘We’re going to aim our resources toward you because we see you as part of our future,’” she said.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the devastating government actions that targeted Black Americans in Prince Edward County were replicated in school districts across the country. And amid K-12 leaders’ inability to acknowledge that history, Black families today are still suffering from many of those policies.

The K-12 system’s governance model leaves Black families disproportionately disenfranchised and voiceless. States’ stagnant district and school zoning boundaries keep Black-student poverty concentrated. America’s teaching force remains overwhelmingly white. And the property-tax-based school funding model’s marriage to historically racist housing policies results in Black homeowners being overtaxed and majority-Black schools underfunded.

Most unsettling, more than 4 in 10 teachers said in a 2019 nationally representative Education Week survey that genetics are at least a slight factor explaining why white students have better educational outcomes than Black students. That’s the sort of pseudoscience politicians used in the 20th century to justify denying Black communities access to quality teachers and schools.

The reconciliation work in Prince Edward County shows that, to help victims cope with their trauma, it’s important that K-12 leaders make a sober, public assessment of their institutions’ historic role in devaluing Black children’s minds.

But the state’s lackluster reparations effort also shows that unless states and districts properly make amends with victims and effectively repair the harm done, trust between Black families and school leaders will remain fractured, and disparities between Black and white students will persist.

In 1869, during the height of Reconstruction, Virginia lawmakers ratified a state constitution that promised to provide a “free,” “high quality” education to “all children of school age.”

Virginia, like so many other states, must now work to make sure politicians can’t so easily violate their own constitutional promises and instead assure Black children, in their lifetime, an opportunity to build wealth and respect.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Do America’s Public Schools Owe Black People Reparations?


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