Education-during-reconstruction (1)

When I was about 10, my brother fell and broke his arm during a trust building exercise at summer camp. At this time, it should be noted he has trust issues to this day. 

Adding insult to both physical and psychological injury, the physician attending to him in the emergency room had to go through the quick and painful process of resetting his bones, which had become misaligned during the accident. She went onto say that the only way to fix a broken bone that heals incorrectly is to break it again, so it was better she took care of it now.

You could say America’s bones were set wrong the moment the first ships carrying slaves from Africa landed in the country, and the Civil War was the process of breaking those bones to set them right. Called “The Second Founding of America”, the period of Reconstruction that followed the war began with relative optimism, and the idea that the South could be rebuilt to right earlier wrongs.

One of the foundations of the Reconstruction was the idea that education was key to giving newly emancipated African Americans a place in society, a subject I discussed in this week’s edition of You Don’t Have to Yell with Hilary Green, Professor of History at the University of Alabama, and author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (recording below)

During the Reconstruction, education once reserved for wealthy, white males was open to Southerners of all races. This system not only benefited former slaves and their children - who saw education as key to their status as free people - but for poor whites as well. In the decades that followed, literacy on the whole rose dramatically, with African Americans seeing the greatest gains -  rising from 5% during the Civil War to 70% by 1900.

With this, came the emergence of a Black middle class, with many surpassing their white peers in income.

This period, however, was short lived. While the post Civil War period saw an influx of funding both at the state level, as well as through philanthropies in the North and in Europe, a series of financial crises between 1880 and 1900 resulted in a lack of funding for Southern schools, and the emergence of the racial disparities in educational funding still seen today.

The bright spot in all this is that, if adequately funded public schools can improve the lot of those born into slavery, there’s no reason the modern day cycle of poverty can’t be broken by the same strategy. Reexamining a public education system funded primarily on property taxes to one where funding is distributed more equitably would be a good place to start.

In the case of public education, we may not need to break the bone again, but that also might be because it never fully healed.