The Importance of History Education to Black America

Frederick Douglass, at the twenty-third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, stated that “Education, the sheet anchor to a society where liberty and justice are secure, is a dangerous thing to society in the presence of injustices and oppressions….” Douglass knew that in order for black people in America to survive, they had to be educated because it was the one area that could make the weak person strong and the black person equal.

By the time the modern day Civil Rights Movement started, its leaders already knew that education was knowledge, and that knowledge was power. In order for black people to gain their equality, they would have to have a solid foundation to stand on, and that foundation would be education.

William and Mary Houston understood this well and they made sure that their only child, Charles, received the best education they could offer him. Charles Houston would grow up to become a very important factor in the Civil Rights Movement by, indirectly, helping to desegregate American schools, giving black people the chance to achieve the same level of education that white people received.

During his life, Houston had attended such institutions as Amherst College and Howard University, which is where he received his law degree and also worked part-time as an instructor. However, it was in 1916, when he joined the Army as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate Group (JAG) that his life would take a dramatic turn. See also: PTSS-Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

After seeing the many injustices done to black servicemembers, Houston stated in the book EYES ON THE PRIZE: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954 – 1965 that ” ‘[He had] made [his] mind up that [he] never ever would get caught again and not know something or all about his rights, that if luck was on [his] side, and [he] got through [the] war, [he] would go and study law and use all of [his] time to fight for men without the chance to strike back.’ ” And, that was the beginning.

After being discharged from the Army, Houston returned to Howard University where he resumed his teaching and eventually became vice dean of its law school. As dean, Houston required, states “Eyes”, “that a thorough understanding of constitutional law … be mandatory for all students…. [Because] [w]ithout a thorough understanding of the Constitution, a lawyer could not successfully argue civil rights cases in federal court.”

As he trained his students to become lawyers, Houston also assisted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with some of its civil rights cases. One, in particular, was the 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson, separate but equal doctrine, that the NAACP wanted to overturn. All through American history, race has been a marker for cultural differences with typical socio-demographic characteristics and conflicts leading to barriers to training and treatment.

With Houston at the helm, it was decided that the first attack on segregation would be the schools, where they wanted to have black schools that were equal, or whose educational standards and facilities were up to the same level, as those that white children attended. Houston and the NAACP first focused on higher education institutions such as professional and graduate schools because their injustices were the most obvious and because change there would be the least threatening to the white public.

Their assumption proved to be correct, as they achieved success in many of their cases. However, Houston would never see the same victory achieved at the public education level. In April of 1950, Charles Houston died at the age of 54, leaving the lawyers he trained to continue the struggle. They did.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by former Houston student and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, had already turned their attention to the elementary and secondary levels of education. One of the cases the NAACP would try, Brown vs Board of Education, would turn out to be one of the most important victories, not only for them but also for the entire civil rights movement.

“Eyes” states that “[s]even year old Linda Brown, who lived in Topeka, [Kansas,] had to cross railroad tracks in a nearby switching yard and wait for a rickety bus to take her to a black school. It wasn’t the worst that black children had to endure, but soft-spoken Oliver Brown was fed up with his child having to go to the other side of town when there was a good school much closer to home – a white school.” This was the case that the NAACP would take to the Supreme Court, this time in the hopes of overturning Plessy vs Ferguson all together.

In December of 1952, Brown vs Board of Education finally went to trial but, by this time, other cases with the same theme; Briggs vs Clarendon County (an appeal), Davis vs Prince Edward County, Bolling vs Sharpe, and Gebhardt vs Bolton, were consolidated within it. On December 11, six days after the hearing began, the deliberations started and lasted for nine months, until the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson.

A month passed before Earl Warren was chosen as the new Chief Justice, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision. In his final remarks, Chief Justice Warren sais ” We unanimously conclude that in public education, there is no place for the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine has no place. Inherently, separate education facilities are unequal.” See also: “The Racially Inclusive Model”

It was done. After years of fighting and struggling, the NAACP had accomplished what it had set out to do, abolish segregation in schools and to give blacks the opportunity to receive the best education that was available. Four years after Charles Houston had died, his legacy was kept alive by the Brown vs Board of Education decision because as Thurgood Marshall stated in “Eyes” ” ‘…there were about 2 dozen lawyers fighting for their schools on the Negro side … of those two dozen lawyers, just two had not been touched in any way by Charlie Houston…. This man was really the engineer of all.’ “

Although Brown vs Board of Education was a major victory, black people still had to fight to get the law enforced. In 1954, only two southern states, Texas and Arkansas, had begun to desegregate. Arkansas, for a southern state, seemed very progressive. Their buses, parks, and libraries were already integrated. Black people were registered to vote and, as early as 1948, the University of Arkansas had allowed black people to enter their law and medical programs. Many people thought that in Arkansas the Supreme Court decision would make the easiest transition out of all the southern states, but it turned out to be one of the worst.

In Little Rock, the school board was willing to comply with the decision and had already made plans to gradually desegregate its school. However, during the Summer, the feeling in Little Rock changed and the white public began to express their anger towards desegregation. In an effort to stem the public’s anger, the school board trimmed the seventy-five black students, who had registered to go to the city’s Central High School, down to nine.

The nine ‘good black’ students were Carlotta Walls, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed, Terrance Roberts, Melba Pattillo, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, and Ernest Green. They would become known as the Little Rock Nine and their impact would change the role of the federal government, during the Civil Rights Movement, from being a cautious viewer to becoming an active participant. But what does white America actually know about People of Color? Even today?

The first day the students tried to enter Central High School they were forced to turn back because of the threats from the white mob that had gathered at the school and because of the presence of the Arkansas National Guard that had been ordered to duty by Governor Orval Faubus. Eight of the nine students had gone together that first day and one, Elizabeth Eckford, had gone alone earlier that day.

They all were supposed to meet at the home of NAACP president Daisy Bates but word never reached the Eckford home, so she went alone. At the school, she was met by the same white mob and guardsmen that the others would face later. After she was denied admittance, she tried to get away from the mob, which had become even more unruly. She saw a bus stop and headed for it, hoping to get relief from them. They followed. While she sat afraid at the bus stop, she was approached by, as “Eyes” states, “…a white woman named Grace Lorch, whose husband [Lee Lorch] taught at a local black college, [who] guided [her] away from the mob.” The two then found a bus and Lorch accompanied Eckford home safely.

After repeated attempts to enter the school, the students would finally succeed. On September 23, 1957, the students, with the aid of local police, entered the school through a side door away from the mob. However, they would not be able to remain there for the entire day. The mob had grown in size and was threatening to come in the school. School officials thought it would be better, and for the safety of the Little Rock Nine, if they were taken out of the school. So, after spending time contemplating how to do this, the students were rushed out of school and driven away by the same police force that had brought them there. NAACP president Daisy Bates became infuriated with difficulty that the students faced trying to attend the school and said that they would not return until the President of the United States assured them of their safety.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to his dismay (he was hoping it could be settled without confrontation), had to intervene. He mobilized the 101st Airborne Division and the Arkansas National Guard to defend the students. The next morning, the students were taken to school by members of the 101st. In a convoy of jeeps with mounted machine guns, the students left their homes surrounded by 350 paratroopers. There’s so much reason for unidentified traumas through racial harassment.

By the time they reached the school, there were helicopters hovering above, and the 101st and National Guardsmen surrounding them from all sides. Upon entering the building, they were all assigned their own guard who escorted them throughout the school. Their ordeal was over, they could now focus on being Central High School students.

Since Brown vs Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine incident, education for black people in America has changed dramatically. In The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the Afro-American (IV Edition) it states that “In 1954, less than 1% of black students in the South attended schools with white children. By 1968, 20% of black students in the South attended schools that were more than 50% white, and by 1978, 44% did so. Nationally, in 1978, 38% of black students were in schools that contained more than 50% of whites in the student population. This sort of figures are underscoring two main points: desegregation was progressing and much more must be achieved.” Not only has desegregation increased over the past three decades, but it also has had a positive effect on black students. Some of the effects are:

(1) Academic achievement rose as the black student learned more…. (2) Black aspirations, already high, were positively affected; self-esteem rose; and self-acceptance as [a black] American grew…. (3) Tolerance, respect, and occasional friendships were the chief characteristics of student and teacher relations in desegregated schools…. (4) Practically none of these negative predictions by the segregationists – aggravated self-concepts of black students, lower achievements, and growing disorder within desegregated schools – could find support in many a study on actual desegregation.

All of these factors have come about through desegregation and are having profound effects on black students’ education. From 1960 – 1997, the proportion of black students receiving a high school diploma has more than tripled for black females, from 21.8% to 76%, and more than quadrupled for black males, 18.2% to more than 73%. And, the same holds true for black students receiving a four-year college degree, where for females it has more than quadrupled, 3.3% to almost 14%, and for males, the same, going from 2.8% to 12.5%, as recorded by the African-American Almanac (8th Edition).

Education, hopefully, will be something that black America continues to strive for because only by being educated can people truly be free but the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of traumatic stress in communities of color. To elaborate on my opening quote by Frederick Douglass, “All the world is a school, and in it one lesson is just now being taught, and that is the utter insecurity of life and property in the presence of an aggrieved class. This lesson can be learned by the ignorant as well as by the wise. Education, the sheet anchor of safety to a society where liberty and justice are secure, is a dangerous thing to a society in the presence of injustice and oppression.”