Social Studies Opinion

The Instructive Story of This Jim Crow Era Black History Contest

An overlooked initiative has lessons on teaching Black history to white students
By Christine Woyshner — January 30, 2024 4 min read
012024 op BHM Woyster 1
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The teaching of Black history in segregated schools has a long history. After emancipation, freed people in the American South flocked to newly established schools to learn to read and write but also to learn about their history and culture.

With the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, those schools of the Jim Crow era were staffed and led by Black teachers dedicated to teaching eager young minds. Students learned about their own past, a past that was not written in the hand-me-down history textbooks they received from white schools. Historians of education have argued that this Black history and culture curriculum, predictably, had to be carried out under the radar, as what Harvard University education professor Jarvis R. Givens calls “fugitive pedagogy,” as it was not approved by white boards of education.

This classroom instruction predates Carter G. Woodson’s founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. By the time of Woodson’s inaugural Negro History Week in 1926, the precursor to Black History Month, the association had already started to draw attention to the importance of teaching all students about African American history.

Less is known, however, about efforts to teach Black history in all-white schools in the post-Reconstruction South. As one might expect, it was a rarity.

A closer look provides insight into the opportunities and challenges that white educators in these segregated schools faced teaching Black history to white students. A little-known initiative, which existed between 1928 and 1943 in the former slave-holding states, brought Black history to separate white schools: the “America’s Tenth Man” contest.

In 1928, Robert Eleazer, a white liberal Methodist from Tennessee, wrote “America’s Tenth Man: A Brief Survey of the Negro’s Part in American History.” He sent the pamphlet to white high schools, with the announcement that a $50 prize (the equivalent of approximately $1,000 today) would be awarded to the best student essay on Black history.

This program was conceived of and administered by the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an Atlanta-based organization where Eleazer was the education director. Led by white allies and Black elites, the commission helped African Americans fight lynching, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in education and the workplace, and it worked to educate whites in the South about racial inequality.

Within two years, Eleazer heard from 500 teachers that they were using the pamphlet in their classrooms. The next year, teachers ordered 50,000 copies. By 1943, he had sent 230,000 copies to white Southern high schools.

When I studied the papers of the commission, which are available on microfilm and housed at the Atlanta University Center archives, I learned that the results of the contest’s goal of teaching racial understanding were mixed.

Social studies teachers conducted research on Black history and prepared lessons and project ideas. Students read Black poetry, sang spirituals, examined contemporary African American newspapers, and even surveyed the Black families in their neighborhoods. Teachers in other subject-matter areas joined in, teaching Black history and culture in sociology, economics, literature, the sciences, and art classes to their white students.

Some students, such as a class of seniors in sociology in Hazelhurst, Ga., learned about structural inequalities and racism through their study of the arrest of a Black adolescent who had been charged with petty theft. In her report to Eleazer, the teacher of that class concluded, “By [studying] this local incident we were led to the results of the Civil War and its aftermath, in which we found a re-enslaved Negro.”

In other instances, however, the lessons on Black history and culture reified stereotypes. One only wonders what the “Mammy’s Dance” looked like when performed by a white female student in rural Kirksville, Mo., in 1931. There were additional egregious examples, including serving “Black foods” in the cafeteria and writing poetry in Black slang. One student concluded an essay that Black people were “shiftless and lazy” because of their roots in “tropical environments.”

What can we learn from this history of the “Tenth Man” contests?

If white teachers in the Jim Crow South found the interest and courage to teach Black history and culture across the curriculum, it is certainly possible for today’s teachers. However, they need to be trained in the field and its principles to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes of Black people.

We need to begin with Woodson’s premise that all students need to learn Black history. I believe that learning Black history should be a requirement in every state. Materials should be made available to all teachers who wish to teach Black history and culture. White teachers should be encouraged and supported to attend professional development workshops and conferences, both local and national, to learn about materials and best practices for teaching African American history.

As this history proves, there was (and currently is) no dearth of sources with which to teach African American history and culture.

Professional development resources for teachers

Explore the Collection

Read more from historians and educators celebrating the history and progression of Black history education. In this special Opinion collection, explore the history of the discipline and find resources for teachers today.

Equity & Diversity Opinion You Should Be Teaching Black Historical Contention
How to responsibly teach this critical component of Black history instruction —and why you should.
Brittany L. Jones
4 min read
A student raises their hand to ask a question before a group of assorted historical figures.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion The Instructive Story of This Jim Crow Era Black History Contest
What an overlooked initiative in the segregated South tells us today about teaching Black history to white students.
Christine Woyshner
4 min read
012024 op BHM Woyster 1
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion What the Country's First Mandatory Black History Course Can Teach Us Today
Decades before AP African American Studies came along, Black women were the driving force behind an unprecedented education reform.
Ashley D. Dennis
5 min read
012024 op BHM Dennis 2
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion I Train Teachers to Teach Black History. Here’s What I’ve Learned
Here’s how I’ve tried to reclaim Black history from the margins—and how you can do the same.
Abigail Henry
4 min read
A group of teachers gather around a textbook excited about the content.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion The Black History That Moves Us: A Resource List for Educators
Here are some books, documentaries, websites, and social media accounts to help you teach Black history in all its complexity.
Daphanie Bibbs, Abigail Henry, Dawnavyn M. James & Gregory Simmons
5 min read
012024 op BHM Resources
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion Who’s Improving Black History Education for Everyone? Three Stand-Outs
Recent highlights in Black history education, from the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education’s LaGarrett J. King.
LaGarrett J. King
2 min read
Overhead view of people interacting with colorful books on a table.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2024 edition of Education Week as What a Jim Crow Era Black History Contest Can Teach Us Today


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Can South Carolina Schools Teach AP African American Studies? It's Complicated
South Carolina state education officials did not add AP African American Studies nor AP Precalculus to the 2024-25 roster of courses.
4 min read
Flyers, designed by Ahenewa El-Amin, decorate the halls of Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., as the teacher works to recruit students to take the AP African American Studies class.
Flyers decorate the halls of Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky. Schools in South Carolina seeking to offer the new AP African American Studies course this fall must seek direct authorization from the College Board.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Social Studies Opinion Make History Exciting Again for Students
National History Day seeks to engage young people in deep examination of the past.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Social Studies What the Research Says Oral History Offers a Model for How Schools Can Introduce Students to Complex Topics
Community history projects like a curriculum in Memphis, Tenn. can help students grapple with issues like school segregation, experts say.
4 min read
A group photo picturing 12 of the Memphis 13.
A group photo of 12 of the Memphis 13 students.
Courtesy of the Memphis 13 Foundation
Social Studies How These Teachers Build Curriculum 'Beyond Black History'
A pilot to infuse Black history and culture in social studies is gaining ground in New York.
4 min read
Photograph of Dawn Brooks-DeCosta at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in the Bronx.
Dawn Brooks Decosta, pictured on Oct. 2, 2020, is the deputy superintendent of the Harlem Community School District 5 in New York. Its 23 schools piloted units of a curriculum developed in collaboration between local educators and the Black Education Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College.
Kirsten Luce for Education Week