During segregation, African American parents were faced with the difficult choice of allowing their children to attend school (most without transportation) or stay at home and help the family. My great aunt once told me her school was located five miles away, and the two feet God gave her to walk was her mode of transportation. Occasionally a white family with the same surname would pick them up on their way home and drop them off at the end of the dirt road leading to their house. (My research suggests a deeper connection between the families).
At such a critical time for African Americans, I can only imagine the wrenching decision parents faced when deciding whether or not to send their children to school. On one hand, you want a better future for your children, that educational opportunities provide; on the other hand, if your children are in school, they cannot work, which may impact your ability to fulfill such basic needs as food, water, heat, and shelter. What an unfortunate and prime example of the old adage “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” (Some of my interview participants expressed anger towards parents for not allowing them to “leave the farm for school.”)
African Americans schools remained at the mercy of the white-controlled state government for funding. The slavery mindset continued during this time because whites did not want blacks to become educated, fearing they would challenge white supremacy and object to the labor assigned to them (e.g., working in the fields, sharecropping, domestic servants). Who can blame them for wanting an easier life attainable through education?
Mr. Welton “Deacon” Jones on Segregation
The education received by African American children lacked the quality presented to their white peers. Peters Irons, Political Science professor at the University of California, San Diego, notes, “Alabama spent $37 on each white child in 1930 and just $7 on those who were black; in Georgia the figures were $32 and $7, in Mississippi they were $31 and $6, and those in South Carolina were $53 and $5, a disparity of more than 10-to-one.”
Mr. Welton “Deacon” Jones, one of my interviewees, expressed his opinion of education and added afterthought: African Americans during segregation were just fine socially among each other, creating a sense of unity that and safety needed to fight against the violent opposition of whites.
In addition to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, African American teachers were tasked with the responsibility of preparing kids to stay optimistic about the future and educating students about their “place” in society. Talk about a catch-22!
Inspirational teachers had to teach their students something similar to”code switching,” then a matter of life or death. Failure understand how to behave appropriately in public during segregation could be fatal. A plethora of examples illustrate the consequences of activity deemed “unacceptable” for African-Americans.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ended segregation in their ruling on Brown v. Board of Education; however, access to equal education still does not exist for children of color and/or lower socioeconomic status. Today’s social climate requires us to ask, “What has changed”? Our schools now are becoming more and more segregated, up-to-date books are scarce for schools in lower socioeconomic districts, structures are dilapidated, and teacher pay flat out sucks.
Blessings to all of the children who attended Rosenwald Schools or taught by the village.