Throughout American history there have been significant barriers to equality in education in the United States, with obstacles over the centuries such as slavery and segregation having an impact on African American learning. In the absence of public education in the days of slavery, religious institutions in the United States took the lead in African American education. Two religious groups, the French Catholics in Louisiana in the early 1600s, and the Pennsylvania Quakers in the early 1700s, worked to improve the lives of black Americans. While religious organizations provided education for African American children, most state governments refused to grant equal privileges to their black inhabitants, whether free or enslaved. In 1820, the state of Maine extended school privileges to children of all colors. Rhode Island's legislature provided the same educational privileges in the state's 1843 constitution. But the majority of states either forbade black education outright or neglected to provide for it in their education laws. However the early 19th century did see the first African American college graduates. In North Carolina John Chavis, a well-educated Presbyterian minister, operated a prestigious day school for whites and an evening school for children of his own race.
Desegregation was not only a debate about whether blacks and whites should be educated in the same schools, it was also a dispute over racial stereotypes, housing segregation, job discrimination, and equal protection. Schools influenced where a family lived, what types of jobs they could obtain, and how each individual defined their position within the community. While desegregation continued in public education, higher education witnessed a different controversy between two highly influential figures, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963). Washington was the most influential black leader of this period, and was convinced that the economic stability of black Americans had to precede the granting of full political and civil rights. He founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1881, which taught trades such as carpentry, farming, and mechanics. In contrast, DuBois maintained that African Americans would be better off by actively campaigning against inequality. He founded the Niagara Movement in 1905, which demanded that whites take responsibility for racial problems, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and was also the first black leader to articulate the importance of Pan-Africanism, a philosophy that all people of African descent must join together to address common problems. DuBois felt that Washington's emphasis on technical training at the expense of higher education simply confirmed white views of black inferiority.
From 1865 to 1871 a handful of black colleges were founded including Fisk University, Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University), the Augusta Institute (now Morehouse College), and Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University). By 1900, more than 2,000 students had obtained degrees from black colleges. In 1907, Alain Leroy Locke (1886-1954) was named the first black Rhodes Scholar. But it took more than fifty years before an African American student was awarded the scholarship again, in 1960. In 1946, the University of Chicago appointed Allison Davis (1902-1983) as its first black professor, but Harvard Business School did not appoint a black tenured professor until 1985.
It was not until 1954 and the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that separate education was declared to be inherently unequal. The Supreme Court mandated that all states rectify their school policies to incorporate this ruling and to provide equal opportunities for black and white students. In the years after the Brown decision, American public schools and colleges took small but vastly significant steps towards integration. In 1957, Little Rock Central High School enrolled nine black students. In 1962, under court order, the University of Mississippi accepted James Meredith as its first African American student. In 1973, a federal judge ordered Boston to implement a comprehensive desegregation plan. During the 1960s, the civil rights movement also achieved great success in the desegregation of public education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 insisted that there could be no laws that upheld political discrimination against African Americans. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 also assisted desegregation by enabling black Americans to relocate into better neighborhoods, which in turn gave them access to better schools and colleges for their children. The Supreme Court continued to uphold school desegregation laws, and by 1971 the majority of schools in the Southern states had achieved racial integration.