Schooling along the Color Line: Progressives and the Education of Blacks in the New South

By Dennis, Michael | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Schooling along the Color Line: Progressives and the Education of Blacks in the New South


Dennis, Michael, The Journal of Negro Education


Perhaps one of the most neglected features of the history of postbellum Black education is the role of White southern university leaders in proselytizing the northern-inspired and financed industrial education movement to their fellow southerners. This article examines the writings and speeches of several "progressive" southern academics who formed the linchpin of the industrial education crusade. It shows how, as advocates for school reform, these intellectuals lent the authority of their institutions and the weight of their ideas to promote and defend an educational system designed to maintain racial control and Black subservience in the post-Emancipation South.

State universities were at the forefront of social reform in the American South after the Civil War. Troubled by the region's chronic poverty, growing numbers of public university leaders shrugged off classical educational models of the antebellum era and adopted practical schooling as the vehicle for social uplift in the "new" South. A new generation of progressive administrators and faculty members promoted the addition of professional schools, social science departments, and university extension programs in the belief that a utilitarian education was the springboard to economic development.1 As intellectuals and technical experts, these educational leaders became the architects for an emerging education movement in the new South and the leading lights of southern progressivism (Dennis, 1996). However, it was in their assumed capacity as authorities on racial issues that they left their most indelible mark.

A group of southern White educators, not northern industrialists, emerged as the most influential propagandists for a system of instruction designed to maintain Black subservience. Paradoxically, while these educators assumed a leading role in promoting educational improvement for southern Whites, they simultaneously propagated a pedagogical philosophy that fit conveniently into a scheme supporting the continued racial submission of the freedmen and women. Southern higher education leaders such as Edwin Alderman (president of the University of Virginia), Samuel Chiles Mitchell (president of the University of South Carolina), Walter Barnard Hill (chancellor of the University of Georgia), and Charles Dabney (president of the University of Tennessee) formed the linchpin of this growing educational movement. As southerners and educational experts, they imparted an aura of intellectual legitimacy to the movement that its northern originators and proponents could not. Unlike their outsider counterparts, southern university leaders active in the educational wing of the progressive movement cast themselves as disinterested technocrats committed to promoting economic vitality and political tranquility in the South. Under this banner, they wrote articles, speeches, and treatises that promoted technical education for Blacks and liberal education for Whites. By positioning themselves as scientifically minded experts with unimpeachable southern credentials, they filled a crucial void in the northern program for industrial education.

From strategically important positions within the southern education movement, men such as Alderman, Mitchell, Hill, and Dabney provided leadership and direction for the industrial education crusade. Politely distancing themselves from the racial extremism that sent the rates of lynching and other hate crimes against Blacks skyrocketing in the 1890s, they espoused a program of race-based educational discrimination that was more palatable to White middle- and upper-class southerners. More than northern philanthropists or southern Black educators, they became the leading boosters of education for the region's newly emancipated Blacks.

Central to this analysis is the suggestion that improved educational standards and an increasing emphasis on regional development went hand in hand with Black educational proscription in the American South. …

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