Cultural Capital and African American Agency: The Economic Struggle for Effective Education for African Americans in Franklin, Tennessee, 1890-1967

Article excerpt

In Tuskegee, Alabama in the early 1880s, Booker T. Washington, a novice principal and fundraiser, initiated a capital campaign to construct permanent buildings on Tuskegee Institute's barren campus. The young school was growing and drawing students from across the countryside. The old, rickety, but clean cabins on the school grounds were no longer sufficient to accommodate the school's needs. All totaled, Washington needed six thousand dollars to build this new spacious facility. But, where would he get it? Seeking the local black community's support of this project, he called a meeting of community elders. Washington, who was neatly dressed, stood erect in front of his economically impoverished neighbors and precisely articulated his vision for the school, its students, and the emerging campus.

Although many of them were clad in rags, spoke in broken English, and were illiterate, they cheered this bold, brown-skin brother who proposed the key to their children's future--an education. As Washington and his trusted colleague, co-teacher, and wife, Olivia Davidson, stood before the crowd, "an ante-bellum coloured man" rose to speak. He had come twelve miles to attend this meeting and had a large hog in the back of his ox-cart. Probably pondering his decades in unpaid chattel service as well as the hope this new school could bring to the black community, he announced that he had no money to contribute, but he did have two fine hogs. And he intended to give one of these hogs in support of the school. He concluded that anyone of his neighbors who has love for their race, or any respect for themselves, would bring a hog to the next meeting. (1)

In this anecdote of the early days of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington claimed that an elderly African American farmer traveled twelve hard miles to donate a hog to support the establishment of Tuskegee Institute in the mid-1880s. Although quite poor, this farmer felt the education of black children in his community was important enough for him to donate a substantial portion of his personal income. His act underscored the appreciation that many nineteenth-century African Americans had for education. The African American farmer's donation of the hog and his subsequent challenge to his fellow citizens to do the same captured the interaction between African Americans' desire for education, their zeal for socioeconomic mobility, their race pride and their belief in self-determination. It is this perspective that provides a glimpse of African American agency and the use of cultural capital for schooling in the South in the nineteenth century.

This essay presents the history of four public, segregated, African American schools in Franklin, Tennessee between 1890 and 1967. (2) It examines how the black community in Franklin, Tennessee demonstrated agency through establishing, maintaining, and enhancing its schools, in spite of the discriminatory policies imposed by local, all-white school boards. I argue that this agency of Franklin's black community stemmed from a global ethos of self-determination and social advancement. Their cultural capital was developed as a direct result of community-wide agency. The cultural capital produced by African Americans in Franklin can be organized into three major components--resource development, community leadership, and extraordinary service.

* Resource Development. Because of the limited funding of their schools (whether private or public), southern African Americans taxed themselves to provide the resources--monetary or material--that ensured the success of their schools. (3)

* Community Leadership. Community members, as individuals or as part of a group, created a public will within their community to establish and maintain their schools in spite of the opposition from the larger white community. (4)

* Extraordinary Service. Although teaching was their profession, principals and teachers provided extraordinary service to their students. …