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Ethnicity and Education

The Politics of Black Education, 1780-1980

Tony Hill

Since that warm spring day in 1954, when Earl Warren announced the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, black Americans have increasingly looked to the courts to secure our rights to public education. Our faith has not, by and large, been misplaced; court-mandated desegregation plans have significantly improved the educational opportunities of many Afro-Americans. But these gains, made during three decades of judicial support, are now imperiled by legislative initiatives on the state and federal level, and by entrenched bureaucratic policies in local school systems. Indeed, as the courts in several cities prepare to withdraw from their involvement in the schools, blacks are learning once again what they should have known all along: the judicial protection alone, without political activism and power, cannot indefinitely protect their basic rights.


The history of Boston is a case in point. Boston is the city where public education began and the city with the first Jim Crow school system. Boston is the city where public schools were first integrated and where, a hundred years later, the struggle for integration had to be fought all over again. By 1974, no one who saw white mobs stoning buses carrying defenseless black children should have been surprised. Boston has a long history—perhaps the longest in the nation—of bitter conflict over race and education.

It was here in Boston that the issue of the public education of blacks first arose, almost two hundred years ago. In October, 1787, fourteen blacks, describing themselves as taxpaying "freemen" of Boston (Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783), submitted a petition to the legislature protesting that their children were excluded from the Boston public schools because of their race. "We, therefore, must fear for our rising offspring to see them in ignorance in a land of gospel light," the black petitioners wrote, beseeching the Great and General Court to make some provision "for the education of our dear children." Some of the petitioners had been patriots in the revolution, and all considered themselves citizens of the Commonwealth. Deliberately echoing the protests of the Sons of Liberty, they complained to the legislature of taxation without education.

But the Commonwealth's lawmakers ignored their plea. Though aware of the presence of free blacks in Massachusetts, most legislators considered them less as fellow citizens than as unwanted interlopers, the untouchables of American society. The talk of the season was Thomas Jefferson's book, Notes on Virginia, in which Jefferson proposed, as the only sensible solution to America's racial dilemma, that free blacks colonize an area outside the nation. Even in Massachusetts, where blacks enjoyed the right to vote, petition, contract, and sue, they were not welcome in the public schools because they were not wanted as citizens in the society. Thus, despite the civil rights they enjoyed, blacks found that without real political strength they could not protect their interests in the public arena.

Rebuffed by the legislature, Boston's blacks established a school of their own. The first classes were held in the dining room of one of the larger homes on "Nigger Hill," as the black side of Beacon Hill was then known. Prince Hall, one of the fourteen blacks who petitioned the legislature in 1787, was the school's first teacher. Tuition was twelve and a half cents per week, and the school year lasted only three and a half months.

In 1798, the school obtained its first college-educated teacher, a young white Harvard man, hired though the good offices of Harvard's President Kirkland. Over the years, the school, which in 1805 was moved to the basement of the African Meeting House (which stands off Joy Street and was the first back church built in this country), attracted the patronage of several sympathetic whites. The most generous of them, Abiel Smith, left a large bequest to the town fathers for the support of the school. Smith supported the idea of a separate black nation, and he saw the school as a place to prepare young blacks for the rigors of establishing a country of their own modeled on American principles and institutions. Furthermore, in accepting Smiths gift, Boston officials assumed jurisdiction over the school (which they named in his honor), making it the first segregated public school in the country. Other Jim Crow schools were added as blacks moved off the hill to the West End, and so it was in Boston that the "separate but equal" doctrine was born. Boston's system of segregated public education became the model for other Northern cities during the antebellum era and was adopted by design in the South and some parts of the West after the Civil War.

Jefferson's simple solution quickly became the road not taken in American race relations. Free blacks were adamantly opposed to leaving the country until the saves to whom they were bound, as a group of free blacks put in 1817, "by the ties of consanguinity, of suffering, and of wrong" were free to go with them. As long as Southern slaveholders were unwilling to release their hold on their slaves, free blacks in Boston were unwilling to relinquish their claim to full and equal citizenship. Instead, they pressed that claim as vigorously as they could, knowing that every advancement they achieved was a victory as well for their brothers and sisters in bondage.

Thus, in the 1840's, Boston became not only a center of the abolition movement, but also the first city in the country in which school segregation was attacked. Between 1840 and 1850, black and white abolitionists mounted a succession of petition drives to persuade the School Committee to abolish school segregation in Boston. The Committee denied every request, but at least recognized the growing political strength of the anti-slavery movement and made increasingly elaborate arguments to prove that segregation was fair and reasonable.

Finally, in 1849, a black printer named Benjamin Roberts decided to go to the courts to challenge the policy of school segregation. Roberts was outraged that his five-year-old daughter, Sarah, had to walk the length of Beacon Hill, passing five white elementary schools on the way, to take her first-grade classes at Smith School. To argue his daughter's case, Roberts hired Robert Morris, the first black admitted to the bar in Boston. Morris, in turn, enlisted Charles Sumner, the eloquent Free-Soiler, to carry the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Court's ruling, written by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, probably the most influential state jurist in American history, became a legal landmark. It introduced the concept of separate-but-equal to American law and upheld the constitutionality of Jim Crow schools so authoritatively that it was cited as precedent by the United States Supreme Court in its epic Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which made separate-but-equal the law of the land.

But abolitionists in Boston refused to accept Roberts as the final word. With a mixture of moral fervor, dogged legwork, and adroit coalition-building, they pressed the cause of desegregation in the political arena. Their efforts paid off in 1855, five years after the Roberts decision, when the legislature outlawed school segregation on the basis of "race, color, or religion."

In this way, through political rather than judicial efforts, Boston became the first city in the nation to desegregate its public schools. The 326 black students who had been enrolled at the Smith and two other Jim Crow schools were reassigned to formerly all-white public schools appropriate to their grade and residence. On the eve of the opening of the school, two young blacks walked by the Smith School on their way home. As they passed this doomed symbol of caste education, one of them waved at the darkened building. "Good-bye forever, colored school!" he said. "Tomorrow we are like other Boston boys."

The desegregation of the Boston public schools was one of the most important victories abolitionists scored in the struggle for equal citizenship for free blacks in the antebellum North, and it set a pattern for Boston that would prevail for the rest of the century. Indeed, the fifty years following the passage of the school desegregation laws were something of a golden age for blacks in Boston, not only in their access to education but in their participation in politics and government.

Blacks had voted in Boston at least since the 1780s, longer than in any other major American city. Although Boston's black population was very small throughout the nineteenth century (blacks comprised only 1.2 percent of the city's population in 1865 and only 2 percent in 1900 and 1910), it had learned how to be extraordinarily active politically. In 1868, at a time when most blacks in the country were still ineligible for the franchise, two blacks were elected to the Massachusetts legislature. From 1876 to 1895, as Reconstruction governments toppled in the South, there was at least one and as many as three blacks serving on the Boston Common Council, and a black physician, Dr. Samuel Courtney, was elected to the School Committee in the 1890s.

Blacks, of course, were staunch Republicans then, as Republicans lost control of Boston at the turn of the century, blacks were displaced from public office. In a last ditch effort by the GOP to hold on to the city, Boston was redistricted in 1895, and traditionally black districts were subsumed under the new plan. By 1900, there was not a black elected official in the city.

Sixty years would pass before the election of another black to municipal office in Boston, sixty years during which segregation would be reestablished more strongly than ever in the city's public schools. The laws, blacks learned again, mean nothing without political power.

Nouveau Jim Crow was a product of the Irish ascendancy in Boston. First economic, then political rivals, blacks and Irish in Boston soon clashed over public education as well. Their differences emerged as early as the 1840s, when blacks—confined by discrimination to separate schools—petitioned the School Committee to abolish segregation. But Irish leaders demanded that their children be released from the Yankee-dominated public schools and segregated in publicly supported parochial schools. They wanted public schools of their own, where their children could escape from the denigrations and blasphemies to which they were subjected in the Yankee schools.

It took seventy years, but the Irish eventually got their way. By force of numbers, and through astute political activism, they took over city government and established, if not public support of parochial schools, then at lest parochial control of public schools. But the Irish gained control of the city just as Boston entered a long period of economic decline. The quality of education also declined as, from the Curley years on, education took a back seat to patronage in the distribution of resources to the public schools.

The system so well portrayed in Village School Downtown and Death at an Early Age need not be described here. At least at first, blacks suffered under it less because of their race than because they lacked political influence. Indeed, though the period of Nouveau Jim Crow in Boston, a few blacks with political power enjoyed the best the school system had to offer. These persons, most of them descendents of the black Republican old guard, were educated at Harvard or other Ivy colleges. A few were even hired as teachers, librarians, and administrators in the Boston schools.

But the school system was less kind to the mass of blacks, particularly after the city's growing clack population began to concentrate in Roxbury in the 1940s. Predominantly black schools were at the end of the serving line for the city's educational resources. Their facilities were old and ill-repaired; their textbooks were hand-me-downs; and their teachers, most of them white, were often demonstrably unqualified.

By 1960, when blacks launched their protests against segregation in Boston, the black population, bolstered by successive waves of migration from the South and the Islands, had grown to 10 percent of the city's total. Although this was enough to claim a seat or two in the state legislature, blacks still lacked the numbers to gain elective office in city government, and were thus powerless to affect public school policy.

Finally, in 1965, 110 years after it had first outlawed segregated schools, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act to address the problem of separate and unequal public education in Boston. But, because clacks lacked the political power to enforce the law, and because the city and state officials who had the clout lacked the guts, Louise Day Hicks, Thomas Eisenstadt, John Kerrigan, et. al., were allowed to lead the city in a futile, sometimes farcical, and always tragic defiance of both the state law and the United States Constitution.

When, in 1972, Boston blacks turned to the Federal court as their last resort, Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., lent them the protection of his court. Yet, from the moment Garrity issued his desegregation order in 1974, it was clear that unless the court placed the entire Boston school system in a permanent receivership—which no court has ever done in the history of desegregation litigation—its protection could not last very long. And so, although Garrity has implemented a number of important reforms in the school system, his most significant contribution may have been to buy time during which Boston's growing black population could build its political strength and begin to look out for its own interests in public education.

Blacks have, to some extent, made use of this opportunity. They have, through court-mandated affirmative action, developed a significant infrastructure in the school department for he first time. In 1972, at a time when blacks constituted 31.7 percent of the public school enrollment, only 231, or 5.4 percent, of the 4,243 permanent teachers were black. By 1980, as a result of Garrity's order, blacks comprised 17.7 percent of the teachers and administrators in the system.

This was only a modest achievement, since blacks now represent 45.8 percent of the public school enrollment. But in electoral politics, the record has been even less encouraging. The election of John O'Bryant, a black, to the School Committee, first in 1977 and again in 1979, was am historic accomplishment. Yet it stands in naked contrast to the train of defeats suffered by other black politicians in Boston. Since 1974, when busing began, black candidates have been defeated for United States senator, mayor, city council (a post Tom Atkins held in the late 1960s) and (save O'Bryant) school committee. Moreover, as a result of redistricting, there are also two fewer black legislators from Boston than there were in 1974.

Equally discouraging has been the increased isolation and ineffectiveness of the few remaining black elected officials. The resignation of State Senator William Owens, the highest elected black official in the state, first from his seat on the Ways and Means Committee and then from the Democratic party because, as he said, his views were not being taken seriously, indicates the extent of black political powerlessness.

It is fashionable to blame this lack of power on Boston's at-large voting system. To be sure, at-large voting dilutes the political strength of clacks, but the real problem in this city is that blacks are neither registering nor voting in force. According to the 1980 census, blacks comprise more than 22 percent of the city's population (a figure that even census officials admit is an underestimate); yet, in recent elections, blacks have accounted for fewer than 10 percent of the votes cast.

At a time when national civil-rights organizations are clamoring for an extension of the Voting Right Act to ensure the franchise to blacks in the South, the black turn-out in Boston, where blacks have enjoyed and unfettered franchise longer than anywhere else, is frankly embarrassing. At a time when judge Garrity is preparing to terminate the court's active role in the Boston case and when budget cutbacks and large scale lay-offs are threatening to diminish the quality of public instruction, the political apathy and disorganization rampant among blacks are an invitation to disaster.

The problem is not peculiar to Boston. Apathy and political disorganization are commonplace among blacks across the country, especially in the North. But several factors make the problem particularly severe in Boston. One is the ambivalent hospitality the Massachusetts Democratic party has traditionally offered blacks. Another, perhaps more important, is the unfortunate tendency of Boston's blacks to wait for whites to provide for them—either though government grants, private philanthropy, or petty patronage—with the means to organize themselves.

Moreover, the troubles in the school system are adding to the problem by prompting members of Boston's small but growing black middle class to leave the city, taking with them expertise, energy and money that might otherwise help build the independent power base blacks so sorely need to develop. And, of course, the increasingly poor students left behind—more than 40 percent of whom come from families receiving some form of public assistance—will suffer from the current turmoil and grow into a generation of adults who, politically and economically, are unprepared to compete in this highly competitive society.

How then, should Boston's blacks consolidate power and prepare for the departure of Garrity's court? Not much can be done in the short term to remedy the unresponsiveness of the Bay State's Democratic party. Indeed, what hope can one have for a "liberal" institution that has never nominated a woman, a black, or a Jew for state-wide office?

But there is much to be done about the disorganization and apathy among blacks in Boston. First of all, we can prepare for this fall's municipal election in which three black candidates—John O'Bryant and Jean McGuire for the School Committee and Bruce Bolling for the City Council—have a decent chance to win if blacks vote in force. Then, we can prepare now for Congressional and state election in 1982 and the mayoral election in 1983.

Each of these elections, like corresponding contests around the country, is of special importance to the future of urban education, especially for blacks. For as Reaganomics supercede the New Deal and as initiatives like Proposition Two and a Half cut into state government expenditures, the constituency for urban public education will have to struggle mightily to keep its present resources from being expropriated for other uses—an MX missile, a CIA man in El Salvador, or a tax break for a shopping mall in Costa Mesa or Boca Raton.

If blacks in Boston and elsewhere are not willing to do the political groundwork to organize into a political force commensurate with our numbers and needs, we will deserve the political consequences of our failure. But our children, in the crumbling public schools of urban America, won't. They'll never know what hit them or why.


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