Griot: Russell Brooker, PhD

Copy Editors: Adekola Adedapo and Fran Kaplan, EdD

Photo Editor: Fran Kaplan, EdD

Education is the key to economic success. It is true now, and it was true in the Jim Crow South.  Southern education was not very good – even for white children. But education for blacks in the South in the early 1900s was worse in many ways.

Why Education for African American Children Was Inferior

  • Southern schools were racially segregated.  Blacks and whites had to attend different schools. The separate school systems were not equal. Schools for white children received more public money.
  • Fewer African Americans were enrolled in school.  Black children were often pulled out school because they were needed on the farm. Many of their parents were sharecroppers. To plant and harvest enough crops, sharecroppers’ children had to work alongside their parents.
  • Even if they weren’t needed on the farm, the white owner of their farm might pull black children out if he decided they were needed for work. Or he might simply believe that African American children did not deserve an education.
  • There were not as many public schools available for blacks.  If a town did not have enough money for two separate schools, they built only one school – for white children. This was especially true in the rural towns, because most rural towns had little money.
  • City school systems had more money than rural ones. However, at that time in the South, most African Americans  lived in rural areas, on farms. On the other hand, many white children lived in cities and could attend well-funded city schools. In rural areas, schools for both black and white children were scheduled around the cotton growing season. These schools were open fewer days than city schools.  As a result, many black children went to school only two or three months out of the year.
  • Among the African Americans who did attend school, most were in the fourth grade or lower. Many left school after fourth grade. Therefore it would be a long time before there would be a large number of blacks going to college.

The Conditions in the Schools Where Black Children Studied

  • Many school buildings for African Americans had leaking roofs, sagging floors, and windows without glass.  They ranged from untidy to positively filthy, according to a study issued in 1917.
  • If black children had any books at all, they were hand-me-downs from white schools.
  • Black schools were overcrowded, with too many students per teacher.  More black schools than white had only one teacher to handle students from toddlers to 8th graders.  Black schools were more likely to have all grades together in one room.
  • There were not enough desks for the over-crowded classrooms.
  • Black teachers did not receive as much training as white teachers. On top of that, the salary for black teachers was so low that it was hard to find fully qualified ones.
  • There were limits on what blacks could be taught in school.  White school leaders did not want black children to be exposed to ideas like equality and freedom. Carter G. Woodson told how some black children in Southern schools were not allowed to use books that included the Declaration of Independence or the U. S. Constitution. These documents state that government should get its power from the consent of the governed. Reading them would confirm for African Americans that they were being denied the rights due to all citizens of the United States.

The One Bright Light

Fortunately, some schools for black children were built with money sent by Northern foundations.  The Rosenwald Foundation was most important of these. It gave over four million dollars to help build nearly 5,000 black schools throughout the South. These schools were built with the health and comfort of the children and teachers in mind. Thousands of African American children received a good education in the Rosenwald Schools.  (Visit the Rosenwald Schools exhibit.)


Russell G. Brooker, PhD, is Professor of Political Science at Alverno College, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He teaches courses in political science, and research methodology.  He has taught courses in African American history, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement since 1981.  He is currently writing a book on the civil rights movement before 1954.