A handful of public K-12 schools in Washington, D.C.—including the first public high school in the nation to enroll Black students—received multiple bomb threats in February, during Black History Month. The FBI said it was investigating a connection between those threats and bomb threats against historically Black colleges and universities, which it is also investigating.
But threats of vandalism and the destruction of Black institutions of education are hardly a new or isolated phenomenon. During the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction, Black people in hundreds of communities across the South watched as the schools they built just a short time after slavery ended up burned to the ground. Many of those burnings, and the context around them, are lost to history.
Campbell Scribner, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, has combed through primary sources, including congressional records and newspaper clippings, to compile a database of 631 schools that were burned or otherwise destroyed between 1864 and 1876, and hundreds more throughout much of the 20th century. But in his appraisal of the research, published in December 2020 in the Journal of the Civil War Era, he admits that his findings almost certainly aren’t comprehensive.
“There’s no bottom to it,” Scribner said. “The very act of counting in the past and present was always politicized, which leads to some degree of obscuring the evidence.”
Scribner’s research focused in large part on the more than 2,600 schools for Black children throughout the South funded in part by the Freedmen’s Bureau, established after the Civil War to help Black people transition into a post-slavery America. The schools represent a crucial link in the foundation of the modern American public school system, but they attracted angry opposition from Southern white individuals and white supremacist groups alike.
Scribner’s research will make up one chapter of his upcoming book exploring the complexities of vandalism in and around schools. He spoke last month with Education Week. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What were you aiming to add to the historical record in conducting this research?
Part of my goal was simply to count, given that even people who are interested in this issue had approached it very anecdotally, in smaller geographical or numerical quantities. I just wanted to get a broad overview: How many schools were attacked? What scope of violence were we talking about?
I was talking to an economist friend who said, “You can disaggregate the data and make all these claims!” I was like, “I can’t even pretend that this data is conclusive or complete.” Part of the paper is an accounting, a reckoning with violence against Black schools.
Where did you have to look to find details on these burnings?
Republicans in Congress launched an investigation into the [Ku Klux Klan] in the early 1870s. They solicited testimony from Southerners about school burnings. I just combed through newspaper articles as well. Most of [my] article is about the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was the arm of the War Department trying to advance civil rights and helping to build hundreds of schools in the South. Even they couldn’t really get a handle on the violence. They didn’t have enough men, couldn’t get enough reports. Even when they got them, it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to do with them.
Reconstruction is this moment where it seems like we might actually get a legitimate civil rights campaign. But when that fails, the school burnings continue through at least the 1930s, hundreds of schools a year getting burned or attacked. When Reconstruction fails, the message that sent to the South was, “You can do this with impunity.” These schools were underfunded, underresourced. Broken windows and midnight fires just become one more in a long list.
Why were people burning down these schools?
We can’t be totally sure, but the obvious answer is racism. Schools are not only a means of educating people to get better voters or better jobs. Schools would also be sites for political meetings, for community gatherings. People attacking them were pretty explicit that they’re doing this to keep the Black man down, to restore white supremacy, as a means of asserting what they saw as the white public will.
You would have white plantation owners building schools for African Americans living on their land and then testifying that their rich neighbors would come over in the middle of the night and burn them down.
As far as who was doing it, that actually is interesting. For a long time in the 19th century, the notion was always that racists were marginal—uneducated, poor white people who saw the most to lose from Black economic competition or status anxiety. That might have been true sometimes. But there was always an element of the white upper class in the South either doing this themselves or actively supporting it. You would have white plantation owners building schools for African Americans living on their land and then testifying that their rich neighbors would come over in the middle of the night and burn them down. It’s never been the case that you can chalk this up to a few misfits.
Was it a coordinated regional campaign or a series of unrelated incidents with common threads among them?
More the second. That doesn’t make it less important. During Reconstruction, a lot of Northerners made an explicit argument that this is an organized campaign. Southerners can roll their eyes and say, “Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?” It probably wasn’t all that organized, but it also didn’t have to be because it was pervasive. It played out community by community, but it sure played out a lot. The virulence and the consistency with which it played out over decades tells us what we need to know about how power relations and citizenship were being defined in the postwar South.
Were school buildings burned down just after they were constructed, or did some last for years or decades before they were burned down?
It varies. There are times when the school has just been built and the next night it’s burned down. There are other times they do last a while. The Freedmen’s Bureau is supporting these communities and putting up half the money. It makes the accounting part even harder. [The Freedmen’s Bureau] can’t even count all the buildings in operation.
How are the effects of these burnings, and the students who lost their school buildings in the process, playing out in the generations that followed?
When you lose a school, kids end up not going anywhere, at least during the 1800s. In a lot of places, it didn’t even come to school burning. Local whites could basically intimidate anyone who would rent out a building. Eventually, there’s a deal brokered in most Southern communities where there will be a Black school, it’ll just be underfunded and underresourced.
By the time you get to the 1950s and 1960s, at least with K-12 schools, desegregation is on the menu, the Supreme Court has ruled. You actually have a few cases where civil rights activists are burning down Black schools [to call attention to the persistence of racial segregation in education]. It becomes somewhat counterproductive for groups like the KKK to burn down schools because they would just be encouraging desegregation. In the 1950s and 1960s they started targeting integrated schools.
It’s never like there’s a Golden Age where this stops entirely. Once you get federal authorities who are committed to integration, that at least raises the specter that someone’s going to get caught and held accountable—even those investigations are not conclusive.
How does the absence of this context from the historical record, let alone the public school curriculum today, distort our collective understanding of our nation’s past?
The media’s full of all these stories of whitewashing history. Various states are banning anything controversial that might put America in a bad light. So many historically Black schools have been expunged from the record. The memorials are fewer, the buildings have not been preserved. Because segregation was a bad thing, many people don’t want to dwell on it. For particular families and communities, this is very much part of their own history and memory.
In a lot of Southern communities, people certainly remember these incidents. There’s a high school called Sterling in Greenville, S.C. [The political activist and civil rights leader] Jesse Jackson [attended the school in the 1950s]. It burns down in 1967. Officially, the cause was faulty wiring. Is that possible? Sure, it’s possible, the school was old and not well kept up. There were rumors that this was arson. The fact that some communities might suspect arson or be sure that it is arson, speaks to ongoing feelings of injustice. It should be telling us something about how people perceive their local institutions.
How has your investigation of Black schools informed your understanding of the bomb threats against HBCUs that have been in the headlines recently?
We shouldn’t be surprised. I remember, just after Trump was elected, reading a story on racist graffiti in schools in Virginia and Maryland being up by 18 percent or 20 percent. I remember thinking, yes, that’s terrible—but what about the baseline? It was pretty bad to begin with. I would say something similar here. It’s very much part and parcel with a long history of intimidation and petty cruelty.
What is the value of deepening our knowledge of the legacy of Black schools that perished or were vandalized?
It is up to school boards what they decide to teach. ... But schools were burned. There was rampant racism, rampant violence. We need to think about that honestly and with mutual recognition. My hope is that by teaching kids how to wrestle with these things, it would impart a great humility and questioning.
What would justice look like for the descendants of the victims of school burnings and for the broader swath of people whose lives are materially affected by America’s legacy of racism?
If you’re thinking about Reconstruction, at least half of the cost of these buildings is put up by people who are a year or two removed from slavery. They’re pooling very meager resources from people who have to get a thousand dollars to build the buildings. They have no insurance, the building burns down. That’s a significant hardship. There’s lasting psychological and moral hardships, where people have to deal with the indignity and the inconvenience of having their kid denied an education. Proportionally, it’s a huge burden for Black communities to bear. When you compound it with the [continued] lack of funding, lack of textbooks, I think, it should just really resonate with people that this is part of an ongoing injustice. This is a big emotional weight to carry even though it happened a long time ago.
I have a friend from graduate school who passed away, Doria Johnson. A lot of her research involved her family from South Carolina. Her great-great- grandfather had been lynched at the turn of the 20th century and lost the family farm. Sometimes we talk about reparations as this abstract nebulous issue because no one today was directly affected. But her family was directly affected. They can document exactly what they lost.
It’s not to say that you can look at some kid today and exactly calculate what they’re owed for something that happened in the 1870s. But I also don’t think that this is just dealing with the 1870s. The discussion of reparations needs to be focused on ongoing misappropriations of resources. It needs to be seen in much more of a continuous context. I do think we need to be sure we’re talking about it in the present tense.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Racist Bomb Threats and Post-Civil War School Burnings: A Scholar Connects the Dots