Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Lessons Learned: The Role of the Classics at Black Colleges and Universities

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Lessons Learned: The Role of the Classics at Black Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

This article applies the paradigm of Black insurgency and social uplift to the teaching of the Greek and Latin classics at Black colleges and universities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It demonstrates how study of the classics helped construct the tools of Black agency by imparting three important lessons: the knowledge that African Americans were indeed linked to the classical civilizations through northern Africa, which therefore gave them the inherent right to study the classics; the development of leadership training, particularly through study of the classical rhetoricians; and a variety of techniques of resistance, ranging from dissimulation to overt acts of physical resistance. The authors use three case examples: Howe Institute in Memphis, Tennessee; the J. K. Brick Industrial School in Enfield, North Carolina; and the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Keywords: classical liberal arts, Howe Institute, J. K. Brick Industrial School, Florida A & M, rhetoric, resistance, Greek and Latin

INTRODUCTION

Following emancipation, African Americans quickly moved to gain the formal education they were denied while enslaved. As eyewitness Harriet Beecher Stowe noted, "They rushed not to the grog-shop but to the schoolroom - they cried for the spelling-book as bread, and pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life" (Anderson, 1988, p. 3). Almost every account of this period notes the demand of the freed men and women for universal education, and thus schools, for themselves and their children. Concomitant with their emancipation was their desire to create and control schools of their own. As William Gannett, a White American missionary teacher from New England, noted, "What they desire is assistance without control" (Anderson, 1988, p. 5). Even before the Civil War's cessation, African Americans began setting up schools. According to the Freedmen's Bureau, these first schools "were poorly run, financed, and operated. But they were schools nonetheless" (Williams, 2005, pp. 106-107).

In this article, the authors propose to apply the paradigm of Black insurgency to the teaching of the Greek and Latin classics at Black colleges and universities. In it, three lessons learned by African Americans will be discussed: The first lesson is that African Americans were linked culturally to the classical civilizations through northern Africa; therefore, classical civilization was as much their domain as it was that of White Americans. It was this impetus toward a liberal arts education that led to the founding of Black colleges and universities. The second lesson has to do with the development of leadership training, particularly through the study of the classical rhetoricians. The third lesson, which grows out of the first two, is that to protect the classical liberal arts curriculum from the imposition of the Hampton-Tuskegee model of industrial education, African American classics students, their teachers, and administrators would need to employ a variety of techniques ranging from dissimulation to overt acts of physical resistance. Indeed, the overall theme of this essay is how a classical, liberal arts education provided tools of empowerment.

THE ROLE OF INSURGENCY IN AFRICAN AMERICAN EDUCATION

When one looks at the traditional histories of Black education in the United States, including the history of the Black colleges and universities that sprang up in the South after the Civil War, one is struck by how African Americans are objectified in this history (see Butchart, 1988). Things were always being done to them; they were never or rarely portrayed as the agents of their own history. However, the last two decades of African American history have seen a dramatic shift from this essentially race-relations model that placed African Americans on the periphery as passive victims, to an agency model where African Americans are at the center of their own history (Gasman, 2006; Jewell, 2002). …

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