Black females are unlike any other group involved in the various social and political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Black females represent two segments of society traditionally oppressed. Despite this extreme oppression, black females have found education as a means of elevating themselves and their race.
The first American college to admit a woman did so in 1833. Just fifty-nine years later, there were 198 women's colleges and 207 coeducation colleges. Women of all races were admitted into both the female and male courses. In 1887, thirty black women had earned their Bachelor of Arts degrees.
At the end of the nineteenth century, black education had reached some impressive statistics. By 1893, 25,530 colored schools existed in the United States with 1,353,352 male and female pupils. At this same time there were 22,956 black teachers. As impressive as those numbers appeared, educator, Lucy Laney, realized the work ahead when she stated "but, oh, large as this number seems, it is small when we think of the many hundreds to whom scarcely a ray of light has yet come!"
Just as the black community progressed, organizations formed to prohibit black equality. The Ku Klux Klan worked hard to prevent the education of blacks. Caroline Smith appeared before a Congressional investigation against the Klan. She testified:
They would not let us have schools. They went to a colored man there, whose son had been teaching school, and they took every book they had and threw them into the fire; and they said they would dare any other nigger to have a book in his house. We allowed last fall that we would have a schoolhouse in every district . . . But the Ku-Klux said they would whip every man who sent a scholar there. There is a school-house there, but not scholars.
The Ku Klux Klan was not the only device for limiting the progress of blacks. Jim Crow laws also threatened the future work of black female educators. Individuals attempting to subjugate blacks enacted laws to restrict voing, segregate schools, deny blacks entrance into theaters and restaurants, and force blacks to sit in the back of buses.
Heart and Hand
The Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws were meant to denigrate blacks. Women such as Mary McLeod Bethune (pictured here with Eleanor Roosevelt), however; found that such blatant racism was a catalyst for change. Bethune was perhaps the most influential black woman in the early twentieth century. Strong influenced by Lucy Laney, Bethune continued the work of educating blacks. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Bethune founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute. She found that black religious leaders were eager to assist her. Beginning with five students in 1904, enrollment increased to over three hundred by 1922.
The methods used by Bethune set a standard for black education. She believed in a "heart and hand" education. The "heart" included moral and religious education. It also involved teaching civic understanding and social skills. The "hand" aspect focused on vocational skills such as sewing and food handling. Bethune and her associates believed in a balanced education that also enabled students to successfully contribute to society.
The evolution of black equality may have seemed slow at times, but it was always progressive. From the time of emancipation, black women have worked to bring greater freedom to their people. In a speech given in 1933, Mary McLeod Bethune praised the work of her black sisters:
The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood. As the years have gone on the Negro woman has touched the most vital fields in the civilization of today. Wherever she had contributed she has left the mark of a strong character. The education institutions she has established and directed have met the needs of her young people; her cultural development has concentrated itself into artistic presentation accepted and acclaimed by meritorious critics . . . she recognizes the importance of uplifting her people through social, civic and religious activities . . . she has made and is making history.
Black women do have a rich history. It is time for their powerful history of hope in the midst of struggle, of power during prejudice and of love in the face of hate to be recognized more widely. Education has been a pivotal strategy toward true equality for blacks. It must continue to be so.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009