Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890

By Hilary Green | Go to book overview

Epilogue
The Blair Education Bill and
the Death of Educational
Reconstruction, 1890

After twenty-five years of steady progress, the events of 1890 provoked unexpected commentary from two individuals invested in African American education. In December 1890 Maria L. Waterbury surveyed the contemporary African American educational efforts in the city of Mobile, state of Alabama, and across the South. The former Mobile Freedmen’s School educator found the lack of adequate local school funding and northern philanthropy disturbing. To city and state officials, Waterbury demanded, “In view of this state of things in one of the Gulf states, will the South please the North, a chance to keep still, by giving free schools to all its people.” But for her northern audience she offered a stronger rebuke. Their perceived abandonment of the eight million southern African Americans prompted Waterbury to conclude her autobiography with a pointed question: “Reader, have you done you duty by them?”1

Thirteen years later, W. E. B. Du Bois offered similar commentary on the retreat from Educational Reconstruction. Like Waterbury, he questioned why conditions had deteriorated since 1890. In his essay, titled “Of the Training of Black Men,” Du Bois argued that the “years of constructive definite effort toward the building of complete school systems” crumbled as a result of “new obstacles.” He reasoned, “In the midst, then, of the larger problems of Negro education sprang up the more practical question of work, the inevitable economic quandary that faces a people in the transition from slavery to freedom, and especially those who make that change amid hate and prejudice, lawlessness and ruthless competition.” Hence Du Bois concluded that these new obstacles, specifically the rise of industrial education, attacks on the liberal arts tradition instituted in the postwar African American public schools, and worsening race relations, permitted the deteriorating conditions.2

After the gains of Educational Reconstruction, what had transpired that would allow Waterbury and Du Bois to make such remarks? The answer lies in the events surrounding the Blair education bill in 1890 and the shared realization of the two divergent port cities that the future of African American education

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