Inequality characterized African-American education from the moment the first slaves arrived in the American colonies in the 17th century. Even after 1865, when the United States abolished slavery, the legal doctrine of "separate but equal," as enshrined by constitutional law, effectively excluded African-American students from mainstream, and superior, educational institutions. A complicated maze of social and legal restrictions remained in place until the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
During the period when slavery was entrenched in the American South, white masters believed it was to their advantage to keep the blacks illiterate. Laws were passed making it illegal to teach slaves to read. Slaves were prohibited from entering schoolhouses and could, depending on how strict their master was, be punished for simply glancing at a picture. In the South, even freed slaves faced obstacles to getting an education.
In the North, the situation for African Americans was less dire. Still, while there was no legalized segregation, educational institutions practiced overt academic racism. For example, Harvard Medical School accepted its first black students in 1850. However, as a condition of admissions, those three students would only be allowed to practice medicine in Africa. Even with that proviso, the Harvard student body protested with such vigor that all three students were eventually expelled.
Prior to emancipation, only 12% of African Americans were legally free. While African Americans certainly considered liberation to be a desirable goal, free African Americans were still second-class citizens and subject to racial discrimination. For the most part, the almost 500,000 blacks who lived in America from 1830 until the start of the Civil War lived and died without ever having learned to read or write.
There were some exceptions. In New York City, progressive whites, most of them Quakers, endeavored to make education accessible to African Americans through the establishment, in 1878, of the African Free Schools. Alumni of these early black city schools included James McCune Smith (d.1865), a physician and abolitionist; Theodore S. Wright, one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society; and the Rev. Alexander Crummell, an Episcopalian minister who later traveled to Liberia.
Of course, during this period, child labor laws were not yet in effect. As a result, even where education was available and free of charge, black children were often compelled to work to help support their families rather than attend school. To fill the gap, literary societies, evening schools and lyceums sprang up, offering informal education programs for youths and adults. In Manhattan, African-American newspapers encouraged readers to emulate the whites and get an education. Nonetheless, most African Americans remained uneducated until the end of the Civil War.
Toward the end of the war, individuals moved by the plight of the slaves entered Union-occupied parts of South Carolina to teach black children and adults. These educational efforts, which entailed much personal hardship and bravery, were sponsored by evangelical elements of the Protestant church and are documented through several hundred thousand letters written by the volunteers to the American Missionary Association. During the mid-1850s, the first two African-American schools of higher learning, Lincoln University and Wilberforce University, were founded. After emancipation, the demand for excellent institutions of higher education for blacks grew. By the first decade of the 21st century, the United States was home to 105 black colleges.
The end of the Civil War did not end the issue of black education in the South. In 1869, Indiana became the first state to create a separate school system for its African-American population. Nearly 30 years later, in 1896, the Supreme Court formulated the "separate but equal" doctrine to support its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
More than five decades passed until 1954, when the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. From that time on, United States law forbade desegregation in all public schools and spaces. Some governors of Southern states refused to comply with the new law, while others closed white schools to avoid enrolling black students. During the 1957-1958 school year, Governor Faubus of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. President Eisenhower was forced to send in federal troops to escort the students into school.
Over the years, integration has become a fact of life. The process culminated in 2008, with the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the first black president of the United States. While racism, and even de facto segregation, still exists in a few private schools, African Americans today enjoy opportunities and a level of education comparable to all other Americans.