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Jim Crow's Schools

By Peter Irons

In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed a "separate railroad cars" law, stating that "no person or persons shall be permitted to occupy seats in coaches, other than the ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to." The law required railroads to provide "equal but separate" facilities to those different races, but it did not define "race" and left to conductors the job of assigning passengers to the proper cars.

A legal challenge to the "separate cars" law began on June 7, 1892, when Homer Plessy entered the New Orleans station of the East Louisiana Railway and bought a first-class ticket to Covington, La., a town about 50 miles away. According to the Supreme Court's later statement of facts, Plessy "entered a passenger train and took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated." The conductor then ordered him "to vacate said coach" and move to one "for persons not of the white race." When Plessy refused to move, "he was, with the aid of a police officer, forcibly ejected from said coach and hurried off to and imprisoned in the parish jail of New Orleans." His stay in jail was brief, and Plessy was released after arraignment in the local court.

Homer Plessy had arranged his arrest to challenge the "separate cars" law, which was especially galling to "Creoles" like him, descendants of the French settlers of Louisiana who often fathered children across the color line. Plessy was an "octoroon," the word then used to describe people with seven white great-grandparents and one who was black. Plessy and his fellow Creoles wanted to expose the absurdity of a law that made a railroad conductor "the autocrat of Caste, armed with the power of the State" to decide which travelers were white and which were not, using only his eyes to measure racial purity. The prosecutor at Plessy's trial in state court, before Judge John Ferguson, claimed that "the foul odors of blacks in close quarters" made the law a "reasonable" exercise of the state's "police powers" to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public. Plessy's lawyers argued that the law imposed a "badge of servitude" on him and others with any black ancestry, and deprived him of the "privileges and immunities" of citizenship.

After the Louisiana courts upheld Plessy's conviction for violating the law, the Supreme Court heard arguments on his appeal in April 1896 and decided the case the next month, on May 18. Justice Henry B. Brown wrote for all but one of his colleagues in upholding the Jim Crow law. His opinion displayed the attitude of educated whites who conceded the "political" equality of blacks, but shrank from having any contact with them in such "close quarters" as railroad cars and restaurants. Brown brushed aside the "equal protection" promise of the Fourteenth Amendment with the cavalier statement that "it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as opposed to political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either." The only question in the case, Brown wrote, was whether the Louisiana law was a "reasonable regulation" of railroads that were licensed by the state. "In determining the question of reasonableness," he said, state lawmakers were "at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order." The "people" who Justice Brown had in mind, of course, were only the white people of Louisiana who did not want to share railroad cars with blacks, even those as light-skinned as Homer Plessy.

Brown had great difficulty in finding legal precedent for his claim that the "established usages, customs, and traditions of the people" supported the racial segregation of railroad cars in Louisiana. In fact, blacks had not been forced to ride in segregated coaches before the law was enacted in 1890, and the railroad companies did not support the law, which cost them money to maintain separate cars. And a federal court had recently held that Louisiana railroads could not segregate passengers who held tickets for travel across state lines. Instead, Brown looked across the tracks for cases upholding laws that required the separation of whites and blacks "in places where they are liable to be brought into contact" with each other. He found the precedent he needed in the judicial opinions that turned back challenges to Jim Crow schools, citing the cases decided between 1849 and 1890 by courts in eight different states. These cases all dealt, Brown wrote, "with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which have been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of states where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced." It was the widespread and long-standing practice of school segregation that gave the Supreme Court a foundation in precedent for the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

There were good reasons for the Court to base its endorsement of "separate but equal" public facilities and institutions on the long practice of school segregation, in both North and South. Beginning with the 1849 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Roberts v. City of Boston, these rulings gave the United States Supreme Court a line of precedent going back almost 50 years. In addition, the state cases involved the institution at the core of the Jim Crow system, the public schools in which white and black children first experienced the reality of segregation. And the opinions in these cases all shared three assumptions: first, that judges should defer to the judgments of elected lawmakers and school officials that segregation was in the "best interest" of all children, black and white alike; second, that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of the "equal protection of the laws" to every person did not apply to education, which was solely a state and local affair; and third, that the "prejudices" of white voters and parents were "not created by law, and cannot be changed by law." The Plessy majority easily transferred these assumptions from schools to railroad cars; thus, the long-standing existence of Jim Crow schools in both the South and North became the justification for segregation in virtually every facet of daily life.

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At the turn of the century, the basic curriculum of black primary schools reflected the jobs open to black workers. In 1900, when 90 percent of all blacks lived in the former Confederacy, six of every 10 employed blacks labored on farms, mostly as sharecroppers perpetually in debt to the white landowners to whom they gave a share of their crop as rent. Almost three in 10 blacks, mostly women, worked in domestic service as cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, and nursemaids for white children. More than half of all southern white families employed a black "girl" to cook and clean. Most of the remaining 10 percent of black workers were laborers in shops and factories; only two percent held professional jobs, serving the black community as teachers, doctors, and ministers.

Jim Crow schools—which taught their students only those skills needed for agricultural work and domestic service—fit the needs of the white economy and society. Booker T. Washington reflected the reality of the situation facing southern blacks when he said in 1915 that "white men will vote funds for Negro education just in proportion to their belief in the value of that education." The only value to a white landowner in educating black children lay in their ability to pick cotton or wash laundry. Any education beyond the rudiments of literacy and figuring would not only be wasted on them, but it might encourage them to seek higher education, which would make them unfit for working on white-owned farms and in white homes.

By the 1930s, some three decades after the Plessy decision, more black children attended school in the Jim Crow states, stayed longer in school, and earned higher scores on achievement tests. Yet they still lagged far behind white children, whose schools were bigger and better and whose teachers had more training. Measured solely in numbers, however, blacks had made substantial educational gains. For example, the federal Census Bureau reported a literacy rate for black adults in 1890 of slightly more than 40 percent. This meant that six out of 10 blacks could not read and write at all, at a time when nearly seven out of 10 white adults were literate. Forty years later, in 1930, the reported literacy rate for blacks had doubled, to just over 80 percent, while more than nine in 10 white adults were literate. In some of the Jim Crow states, the black literacy rate shot up dramatically between 1890 and 1930, from 30 to 74 percent in Georgia, and from 28 to 77 percent in Louisiana. But these seemingly impressive figures masked a serious problem. Asking people if they are literate is not the same as testing their reading and writing skills, and possessing the rudiments of literacy will not prepare anyone for more than manual or domestic work. Among the 80 percent of black adults whom the Bureau reported as literate in 1930, only a few stayed in school beyond the primary grades and virtually all had attended inferior Jim Crow schools.

The obstacles facing black children who thirsted for education in the 1930s—the great-grandparents of today's black students—were enormous. More than three million school-age black children lived in the 17 states that continued to operate separate schools, along with 81 percent of all the nation's black population. In the Jim Crow states that stretched from Delaware to Texas, local school boards spent almost three times as much on each white student as they did on blacks. The funding disparities in the Deep South states, where blacks outnumbered whites in hundreds of rural countries, were far greater. Alabama spent $37 on each white child in 1930 and just $7 on those who were black; in Georgia the figures were $32 and $7, in Mississippi they were $31 and $6, and those in South Carolina were $53 and $5, a disparity of more than 10-to-one.

The largest chunk of the school budget in every district goes to pay teachers; and the salaries of black teachers during the 1930s were far below those of whites. The monthly salary of black teachers in the South in 1930 was about 60 percent of the white average, $73 for blacks and $118 for whites, with the yearly school term in white schools about two months longer, which added to the salary gap. Poorly paid teachers are not necessarily poorly trained or unable to educate their students, but the meager wages of black teachers in the 1930s did not lure the most promising college graduates into rural Jim Crow schools. Horace Mann Bond, a noted black educator, administered the Stanford Achievement Test to a large group of black teachers in Alabama schools in 1931. He discovered that their average score was below that of the national level of ninth-grade students. Almost half of the black teachers had not mastered the material that eighth-graders were expected to know. And many of these teachers were assigned to teach students in grades above their own level of knowledge.

During the late 1930s, the American Council on Education sent a team of investigators into the Deep South to conduct a survey of the schools in which black children were educated. These schools were, of course, segregated by law and long-standing custom. The report of the investigators who visited the black grade school in Dine Hollow, Ala., reflected the study's findings across the "Black Belt" that stretched from southern Virginia through eastern Texas:

A typical rural Negro school is at Dine Hollow. It is in a dilapidated building, once whitewashed, standing in a rocky field unfit for cultivation. Dust-covered weeds spread a carpet all around, except for an uneven, bare area on one side that looks like a ball field. Behind the school is a small building with a broken, sagging door. As we approach, a nervous, middle-aged woman comes to the door of the school. She greets us in a discouraged voice marked by a speech impediment. Escorted inside, we observe that the broken benches are crowded to three times their normal capacity. Only a few battered books are in sight, and we look in vain for maps or charts. We learn that four grades are assembled here. The weary teacher agrees to permit us to remain while she proceeds with the instruction. She goes to the blackboard and writes an assignment for the first two grades to do while she conducts spelling and word drills for the third and fourth grades. This is the assignment:

Write your name ten times.
Draw an dog, an cat, an rat, an boot.

The American Council on Education let black parents and students in Jim Crow schools speak for themselves in its report, Growing Up in the Black Belt. What they said was both sad and sobering. Almost without exception, parents wanted their children to learn and succeed. "I believe children ought to get all the education they kin," said a farmer's wife in Coahoma County, Miss. "I'd like to see 'em all finish the 12th grade at least. My daughter is the only one that goes now. The rest have to chop and pick right now, but they be going 'long soon." Almost all black children in the South missed school to do farmwork. A tenant farmer in Shelby County, Tenn., spoke of his vegetable farming: "The children need all the education they can get, but we need them to help on the farm. If you don't make your crop, the white man will put somebody else here to do the work. The children go to school when there ain't no work for them in the fields, but where there is work, they has to stay home and do it." White landowners had little interest in educating the children of their black tenants. "It just isn't safe for me to go on a plantation to bring students to school," said a white truant officer in Shelby County. "The landowners show absolutely no concern and they tell me to let the ‘niggers' work." The demands of farmwork took a heavy toll on black children in the Deep South states that had the highest rates of sharecropping. In Mississippi, where almost 90 percent of black farmers were tenants in 1930, the average black child spent just 74 days in school, while the average in Virginia, with a tenancy rate of 38 percent, was 128 days in school. Most black children in the Deep South attended school just 15 or 20 weeks each year in the 1930s.

Very few of the black children who finished grade school in the 1930s had the chance to attend high school. In 1932, only 14 percent of those between 15 and 19 years old were enrolled in public secondary schools in southern states. From Virginia to Texas, only in North Carolina did as many as 20 percent of blacks attend high school; the rates in Mississippi and Georgia were 5 and 8 percent. A report on secondary education for blacks in 1933 showed that between them, the states of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina had a total of 16 black high schools accredited for four-year study. This report also noted that "89 percent of all Negro secondary schools are essentially elementary schools with one or more years of secondary work included at the top—often at the expense of the lower school." Even the four-year high schools had few resources; they averaged just five full-time and two part-time teachers, and most often one of the teachers doubled as principal. Hardly any of these black high schools offered science courses or had laboratories, and very few had courses in foreign languages, music, or art. Their curriculum was limited and their teachers had little training in academic subjects.

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The educational status of blacks in the Jim Crow states remained abysmally low in 1950, falling below the level of whites in 1930. Black adults in Mississippi had completed an average of 5.1 years in school, while those in Georgia and South Carolina had even lower figures of 4.9 and 4.8 years. For the nation as a whole, just one of every eight black adults had completed high school, while four of 10 whites had earned their diploma. While only nine percent of white adults had attended school for less than five years, 31 percent of blacks fell into this category. At the other end of the educational spectrum, almost 16 percent of white adults in 1950 had attended college and six percent had graduated; the figures for blacks were five and two percent. These numbers should be viewed with awareness of the glaring disparities in quality of the black and white schools in the Jim Crow states; a black student who completed eight years of schooling in one of these states had attended schools that were in session two months less each year, had been instructed by teachers whose own education averaged just 10 years, had used out-of-date, hand-me-down textbooks from white schools, and had received little help at home from parents who were most likely illiterate or barely able to read and write. A white student who completed the eighth grade was almost certainly far ahead of the black child at the same grade level.

The black community had no illusions about Jim Crow schools in 1950. In a special mid-century issue, the Journal of Negro Education asked leading black educators to assess the educational system. Without exception, these experts laid the blame for inferior black schools on racial segregation. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, wrote that the Jim Crow system "with its inevitable consequences of inequality has warped the minds and spirits of thousands of Negro youths. They either grow to manhood accepting the system, in which case they aspire to limited, racial standards; or they grow up with bitterness in their minds. It is the rare Negro child who comes through perfectly normal and poised under the segregated system." Mays concluded that "the greatest thing that anyone can do to improve the morale of Negro children and youth is to continue to fight to destroy legalized segregation."


Peters Irons is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, director of the Earl Warren Bill of Rights Project, and a practicing civil rights and civil liberties attorney. This article is excerpted with permission from Jim Crow's Children, by Peter Irons © 2002 Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.