Photographs of schoolhouses showing the economic disparity of Tennessee's segregated education system.
Like its sister Southern states, Tennessee’s commitment to public education hovered on the periphery in the early twentieth century. By that time Progressivism and race had become central but conflicting factors in influencing the development of education mores. Progressive thought drove reform forward but the complications of race inhibited change. This TeVA unit examines those influences by exploring government involvement, school architecture, and curricula in a "separate but equal" education system. The exterior images of town and rural schoolhouses presented here were chosen for their documentation of architectural style, to compare and contrast white and African American structures, and to take advantage of an opportunity to discuss the Rosenwald Fund.
"He Who Builds a School Closes a Prison"
-Samuel L. Smith, Montgomery County, Tennessee Agent for Negro Schools, 1913-1920.
The future of education in Tennessee toward the end of the nineteenth century seemed bleak, although modest progress had been made since Reconstruction. Throughout the South, two public school systems—white and black—operated in a strictly segregated society. Public funding for both was dismal, but more so for African Americans.
Samuel Smith’s outlook reflects the spirit of the Progressive Age (ca. 1890-1920) with its idealism and commitment to reform. This TeVA unit examines the effects of that progressivism on white and black education in Tennessee during the first half of the twentieth century. Also assessed is the issue of racial conflict, which hobbled many Southern states’ ability to deliver evenly and maintain high-quality public education.
Tennessee’s 1870 constitution specifically forbade integration in public education, although Nashville was one of the first cities in the South to provide it for its African-American children. In 1885, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to establish white secondary schools, but it was not until 1899 that the state required the foundation of such schools in each county. As late as 1940, however, only forty-one of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties had African-American high schools. Just after the turn of the century, progressive educators began pressuring the legislature for the reform of public schools and made remarkable gains. One of their early successes was the passage of the General Education Act of 1909, which unified the state school system and vastly increased funding. Another victory came in 1913 with the enactment of a compulsory attendance law. Still, only small amounts of money trickled down to black schools.
In his inaugural address of 1909, Governor Malcolm Patterson optimistically but prematurely announced that the state had successfully grappled with the problems of education and could now help prepare Tennessee’s children for the responsibilities of adulthood. The school, he said, was a "nursery of good citizenship." Throughout the 1920s, state funding for public schools improved, but the Great Depression of the 1930s slowed that trend and many schools fell into disrepair. Many schools were already dilapidated and some buildings were deemed unfit for human occupancy. However, in 1937, as the nation was inching its way out of the Great Depression, the legislature passed another general education bill. It earmarked more than $4 million for schooling, an 81 percent increase over the previous level. Even though there would be a revenue shortfall, the act signaled forward movement on education reform.
Philanthropies, especially Northern ones, thrived in the South during the Progressive Era. In 1902, the General Education Board (GEB) was founded by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., who had amassed a fortune in the oil industry. The Board’s mission was to further the cause of black and white education in the South, and it granted several hundred million dollars to the campaign. The Negro Rural School Fund (Anna T. Jeanes Foundation) was created in 1907 and operated as an arm of the GEB. It emphasized industrial education and improvement of rural schools and homes. A Pennsylvania Quaker, Miss Jeanes had a special interest in educating African-American children in the South and quietly gave a million dollars to that end. The John F. Slater Fund had been founded in 1882 to advance black vocational education in secondary and higher education, providing "uplift" for the recently emancipated. Slater, of Connecticut, was a wealthy cotton manufacturer who wished his million-dollar bequest be used for the Christian education of former slaves and their descendants. These philanthropic concerns, among others, had, for the most part, positive effects in the South.
Some historians believe that benefactors were driven more by a sense of noblesse oblige rather than a belief in the equality of all human beings. Recent revisionists have begun questioning the motives of Northern philanthropists who helped bring improvements to Southern schools during the Progressive Era. The effects of these good deeds are also being reexamined. All the literature, revisionist or not, explores the huge gulf between white and black education. Historians such as Mary S. Hoffschwelle, an authority on Southern schools and the Julius Rosenwald Fund (JRF), present well-balanced views of education and philanthropy during this time without sermonizing. According to Hoffschwelle, African-American education would provide "economic independence and the development of physical, mental, and moral skills for the advancement of their race."
Julius Rosenwald, who helped create the Sears & Roebuck empire, was a progressive thinker and devoted philanthropist. Formally incorporated in 1917, the fund that bore his name granted millions of dollars for the construction of African-American public schools throughout the rural South. By the time it was dissolved in 1932, the JRF gave rise to nearly 5,000 educational institutions throughout the region. More than 350 were built in Tennessee.
Rosenwald preferred to believe that his support of these rural public schools was an investment in progress rather than charity. Communities themselves provided partial funding and built the schools from well-formulated architectural plans designed principally by Rosenwald agents. Black neighborhoods raised money by organizing box parties, passing the plate at church, and donating the land for buildings. Whites contributed as well, giving money, used school furniture and textbooks. State and county governments allotted a substantial percentage of money for the construction of Rosenwald schools. In spite of the philanthropic work and additional tax dollars, some rural African-American classes were conducted in privately-owned buildings, lodges, and churches in meager conditions.
At the turn of the century two schools of thought were being advanced by eminent black men. W.E.B. Du Bois, a Fisk graduate who had taught two summers in Wilson County (once in a school that basically amounted to a corn crib), radically advocated liberal education for black Americans. Booker T. Washington (a graduate of the Hampton Institute), at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, emphasized a blend of industrial/vocational education and academics. Increased literacy for African Americans meant better jobs, social awareness, race pride, and dignity. Education in trades—mechanics, agriculture, carpentry, home arts and the like—hopefully meant steady employment and the development of labor skills necessary for the workforce. Du Bois went further, supporting equal rights and black suffrage, which met resistance from many whites and some blacks who wanted to proceed at a slower pace.
Dr. Washington and Julius Rosenwald enjoyed a creative and productive relationship. Rosenwald was deeply impressed with the work going on at Tuskegee and Washington was able to recruit him as a trustee. Their collaboration was to have profound effects on black Southern education. The first Rosenwald schools were designed at Tuskegee beginning in 1912 and the program was headquartered there before it moved to Nashville.
Despite sharp criticism from Du Bois, Washington continued to believe that industrial education and self-help for persons of color were necessary for the well-being of the race. Those educated in the Hampton-Tuskegee tradition were to give back to African-American communities in the form of teaching trades, home economics and, to a lesser degree, academics.
Predictably, many whites were suspicious because they feared formal education for black children and adults would upset the apple cart of white supremacy. The thinking was that keeping black people in menial jobs (which ironically prevented the South from developing economically) would thwart the demise of Jim Crow. Many Southern whites were clearly hostile to the idea of black academic education, and most philanthropies acceded to their demands. In fact, some whites opposed the idea of any kind of schooling at all for African Americans. Others believed that education could provide the emancipated and their children the essentials of good citizenship and morals. Meanwhile, white children were learning the basics of reading, writing, spelling, science, and arithmetic. As time allowed, they studied community history, music, literature, and arts. In Nashville at least, black students were learning the fundamentals as early as the 1890s, although overcrowding prevented hundreds from enrolling.
In the decade of the 1910s, improvements in education for whites flourished, but public funding for African-American education still lagged far behind. It was not until the mid-1920s that more serious attention focused on African-American schooling even though overall conditions continued to be substandard. By 1936, the Tennessee Department of Education could say that local and state school officials were increasingly willing to take on the responsibilities of "Negro education." All children, the report noted, are entitled to equal educational opportunity, but the idea had not yet taken root in public opinion. The goal—wiping out ignorance in a racially diverse society—was far from being realized though literacy among African-American and white populations had risen steadily since 1900.3 Adult, as well as child education, was made available for both races in Tennessee.
As the United States slipped out of depression and plunged into war, state-funded education experienced something of a boom. Schools had become targets for severe cuts during the Great Depression and consequently, the quality of education and the condition of school buildings suffered. However, wartime governor Prentice Cooper (served 1939-1945) regarded public education as one of the most basic functions of democratic government. Because of inadequate salaries, many teachers were leaving their profession for war industries and the armed services. Cooper slowed the exodus by recommending—and winning—higher pay for them than any previous administration. By the time he left office, Cooper was credited with instituting a free textbook program, an eight-month school term for African-American children, and a 66 percent increase in expenditures for public elementary and high schools.
By the time the U.S. entered World War II, there was still a vast disparity between the amount Tennessee spent on white and black students. In some areas of the South, the ratio was more than 6:1, and black teachers earned about half the salary of their white counterparts. At the same time, the Tennessee Negro Education Association was calling for an end to unfair treatment in education, it was calling on the military to end discrimination so African Americans could participate in combat. (It was said that in the armed forces black men would rather die with a gun in their hands instead of a mop.) All schools were encouraged to add civics and citizenship classes so students could learn about democratic ideals.
The effects of Progressivism on Tennessee’s public education were mixed. At the turn of the last century, University of Tennessee president Charles W. Dabney preached free public schools and compulsory attendance for all students. "All" included African Americans but only for industrial and vocational education. The Du Bois faction eventually won out and more and more black schools began offering classes in academics. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case ruled that "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional. Clinton, in Anderson County, Tennessee, captured national headlines in 1956 as its public high school was the first in the state to integrate. It was not a peaceful transition; in fact, Governor Frank Clement received hate mail for supporting the desegregation. Progress was made during the 1960s but some Tennessee schools were not fully integrated until the 1970s.