Introduction: Cultural Capital and African American Education

Article excerpt

This Special Issue of The Journal of African American History examines the role of African Americans in providing financial and other material resources for the support of public and private schools established in black communities in the United States from the antebellum era to the 1960s. Over the last three decades there have been regular reports in books, magazines, and newspaper articles describing the precarious financial conditions for urban public school systems with a majority of African American and other nonwhite student populations. Urban public school systems are dependent upon state legislators and local politicians for their funding, and as these school systems became majority black, there has been a greater unwillingness to make sure that the educational expenditures are equalized for students in urban and suburban, rich and poor school districts. The failure of state and local judges and other officials to mandate the equalization of funding for urban and suburban public school districts has m eant that public school administrators in financially strapped urban school systems, many of whom are African Americans, have eliminated many academic programs, such as art, music, science, and math programs, and most extracurricular activities; have been unable to introduce the latest forms of educational technology into the classrooms, and have been forced to hire large numbers of uncertified and underqualified teachers. This has resulted in extremely high levels of academic failure, as measured by newly mandated "standardized tests," and consistently high dropout rates, particularly among African Americans and other children of color in financially depressed urban public school systems. (1)

The failure of state and local officials to provide equal or even adequate funding for all-black or predominantly black public schools is not a new development in the history of African American education in the United States. In the period from the end of the Civil War to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 outlawing legal segregation in public education, white legislators in most of the southern states (and many northern states) also refused to utilize public expenditures to insure the equalization of funding for black and white public schooling. In fact, scholar and educator W. E. B. Du Bois, in the famous Atlanta University Studies devoted to The Negro Common School (1901) and The Common School and the Negro American (1911), pointed out that African Americans in most southern states were paying more in public taxation than they were receiving in state and local funding for separate black public schools. As a result of this situation, in the period from 1890 to 1910, southern b lack taxpayers were in effect providing the funds for the public schooling of white children. Southern white school officials consistently refused to supply adequate funding for black public education until they felt threatened by the possibility of court-mandated public school desegregation in the late 1940s and 1950s. (2)

As a result of the discriminatory funding practices of white state officials, African American children throughout the country attended inadequately funded public schools from the Reconstruction era to the 1960s. Many times the resources needed for basic instruction, including blackboards, pencils, books, chairs, desks, even land and buildings, had to be supplied by members of the local black communities. In many instances, southern white public school officials were only willing to provide funds for the salary of the black elementary school teachers, who were paid much less than similarly qualified white teachers. Everything else needed for the instruction of black children had to be supplied by African Americans in the local black communities. In 1988 historian James D. Anderson in The Education of Blacks in the South, 1861-1935 pointed out that since the end of the Reconstruction era, black southerners had adapted to a structure of oppressive education by practicing double taxation. …