Christopher Span is a professor of educational policy studies who specializes in the study of African-American educational history, especially in the South prior to 1900. He is working on a book about the efforts of former slaves in Mississippi to establish schools and become educated following emancipation. Span was interviewed by the News Bureau's education editor, Craig Chamberlain.
It's easy to believe that former slaves, most of whom had been prevented from even learning to read, might have little sense of the value of education. Was that the case?
No, just the opposite. During enslavement many witnessed firsthand the value of literacy and knowledge, how it assisted others in their everyday existence, and how it could assist them. This value for being educated was firmly rooted in the African-American experience, and freedpeople everywhere in the South appeared to hold it for nearly identical reasons. My research suggests it may have been entrenched in the culture as early as the mid-18th century, when nearly 90 percent of all enslaved African-Americans lived in the Chesapeake Bay region, and that it was passed on from one generation to the next.
It's also easy to believe that they lacked the means or ability to set up schools on their own, without outside help. How did schools get established?
Most schools established for freedpeople arose from the efforts of teachers from the North. These schools were not the first, however. Freedpeople had already established a network of grassroots schools for themselves and their children. Those who had acquired some degree of literacy in secrecy during enslavement served as teachers, and those denied an education became their pupils. None were too young or old to learn. They built, furnished, and maintained these schools, and most paid tuition. In Mississippi, these self-supporting schools flourished throughout the state and repeatedly flabbergasted northerners when they discovered them.
You make the point that public education barely existed in the South prior to the Civil War, for whites or blacks, and even many white slaveholders were illiterate. What role did African-Americans play in trying to change that?
Freedpeople's universal demand for education invariably served as the catalyst for bringing public schooling to the South. The demand was so great that every southern state would revamp its constitution to include provisions for public schools. The African-American delegates involved in this were the leading advocates. Their relentless efforts secured public schooling for not only African-American children, but for all children - regardless of race, gender, class, or previous condition of servitude.
What educational gains did African-Americans make as a result during that post-Civil War generation?
African-Americans in that era attended school in greater numbers than ever before. From 1870-1885, their attendance rates were equal to, if not greater than, whites. And by 1900, the illiteracy rate among African-Americans under the age of 40 was virtually non-existent.
By 1885, blacks in the South were quickly losing the power and many of the freedoms they had gained during Reconstruction. Why did African-American schools survive?
Their schools survived because of their attitude of self-determination and the value they placed on education. By extension, landowning white southerners recognized the value African-Americans, their primary labor force, placed on education. They knew that if schools were systematically abolished or denied, African-Americans would migrate to other places. But whereas African-Americans emerged from slavery with a belief that schools would educate them for citizenship, the schools afforded to them after 1885 primarily educated them for domestic and agricultural servitude.
How does the history from that time period reflect on today?
I think it usurps some popular perceptions that there is a legacy of anti-intellectualism or a devaluing for learning in the African-American community. The historical evidence on the subject is abundant and systematically disproves that. Freedpeople in that period, with few resources and in a hostile environment, created a system of grassroots schools for themselves and their children; they solicited northern support to aid them in their quest to become educated; and they sought to use schools to advance themselves and achieve citizenship. My research illustrates African-Americans' belief in the transformative power of education. That belief, despite the problems, still exists.