This month, many students will learn about the Underground Railroad and its heroic participants. What they might not learn is what happened to those slaves who followed the North Star. Many reached Canada, built new lives, and established thriving communities. My mother was born in such a town in southwestern Ontario. Now called North Buxton, it was originally Elgin Settlement: The Community That Hope Built. What the former slaves built first were homes, churches, and schools.
Buxton Mission School opened in Spring of 1850; followed a few years later by another, and then in 1861 by S.S.#13, which is the only school still standing (left). In its prime, theschool offered courses from Latin and Greek to embroidery. So great was the reputation of the settlement schools that they attracted blacks and whites from great distances. Some graduates returned to the U.S. after the Civil War to help educate newly freed slaves.
Five miles from where I now live in the Mississippi Delta, at what would have been one of the starting points of the Underground Railroad, is another town created by former slaves: Mound Bayou. With assistance from Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin Green led a group of fellow former slaves to develop a thriving community in the heart of cotton country. At its peak, Mound Bayou’s 8,000 black citizens had a newspaper, bank, telephone system, railroad station, several businesses and industries, churches, and multiple schools. Like its Canadian counterpart, the quality of Mound Bayou’s schools was legendary, producing generations of leaders and productive citizens. At one point, over 95% of the town’s graduates went on to either college or the military.
Today, SS#13 in North Buxton is part of the town’s historical museum, used to reenact early school days for students and teachers from around Canada. And in the U.S., Mound Bayou’s schools are still in use, but have fallen victim to many of the same problems that plague so many of our public schools. Now a struggling and impoverished community, Mound Bayou’s tax base can only generate about $233 per child towards the minimum $5,296 per student required by state law.
More than economics, however, has changed, not only for Mound Bayou, but also for the larger African American community: Our schools have lost their soul.
To understand this loss and how grievious it is requires a history lesson. Americans of African descent were the only group of people in the history of this country who were forbidden by law to read or write. It was punishable to be caught teaching Black people (slave or free) to read or even to give them a Bible. Yet the more it was denied them, the more Black people pursued education for ourselves and our children.
Among the cultural carryovers Black people sustained from Africa were deep-rooted attitudes about education. Thomas Holt explains it well:
. . . African griots, the storytellers . . . and other elders . . . took responsibility for teaching young people. [That education] included the history, values, and traditions of the family, of the clan, and of the nation. Education was intended to provide the young with a sense of one’s place in that history and, thus, one’s purpose in the world; a sense of obligation to kin and community, to one’s ancestors and posterity (“Knowledge is Power: The Black Struggle for Literacy”)
From the beginning, forces at all levels of American society had worked “to limit access of African Americans to literacy and to instill within them feelings of racial inferiority.” Even among those who considered themselves friends of the slaves, there was disagreement over whether Blacks deserved or desired formal education (Violet Harris 1992).
As white politicians and abolitionist allies fretted over what to do with us, Black people were making our own decisions, which included maintaining our own schools, openly in the North and covertly in the South (Molefi Asante 1991). After the Civil War, when victorious Northerners “launched . . . an educational crusade . . .against the South,” they found that many Blacks had not only already learned to read and write, but were also ahead of the new missionaries in their zeal to secure education’s benefits for themselves and their children (Robert Church 1976).
By the time the federal push for educational access began to fade into the Post-Reconstruction backlash, some Blacks had been able to achieve significant levels of learning.The system of separate and unequal public education, however, continued legally until the mid-twentieth century. Meanwhile, the vast majority of African Americans remained caught somewhere between illiteracy and a frustrating taste of formal education.
Black schools, however, strove to continue the best traditions of the Black community toward education. Anthony Petroskey authored a 1988 study of literacy here in the Mississippi Delta that focused on teachers and students at two traditionally Black high schools, one of which was in Mound Bayou. He was curious about the remarkable success rate of these students on the then-new state mandated test (Functional Literacy Exam) as compared to other students (Black and white) around the state. By all statistical measures, the students in these two districts were “at-risk,” yet they consistently performed well on standardized tests and had high graduation and college attendance rates.
A former student of another segregated Black high school “recalled the stringency of its graduation requirements. Students had to be proficient in public speaking, writing, and communication before they could graduate. They had to memorize and recite 100 literary selections from traditional Western classics and significant words by Black writers that represented human struggles, worth, dignity, and victory” (Mary Nix 1993).
Remembering the Black schools of her childhood, Bell Hooks observes:
Teachers worked with and for us to ensure that we would fulfill our intellectual destiny and by so doing uplift the race. My teachers were on a mission. To fulfill that mission, my teachers made sure they `knew’ us. They knew our parents, our economic status, where we worshipped, what our homes were like, and how we were treated in the family . . . . Attending school then was sheer joy.
Then, as an unexpected consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, more than 38,000 of the 82,000 Black teachers across the South lost their jobs, as did over 90% of the Black principals, when white-controlled school districts refused to hire them to teach in the newly desegregated schools. This despite the fact that many of the Black educators were actually better trained than their white counterparts.The percentage of Black teachers in America has been on a steady decline ever since.
To her joyous early educational experiences, Hooks contrasts her crushing encounter with education in a desegregated school:
School changed utterly with racial integration. Gone was the messianic zeal to transform our minds and beings that had characterized teachers and their pedagogical practices in our all-Black schools. Knowledge was suddenly about information only. It had no relation to how one lived or behaved. It was no longer connected to antiracist struggle. Bussed to white schools, we soon learned that obedience and not a zealous will to learn was what was expected from us. Too much eagerness to learn could easily be seen as a threat to white authority.
Formerly, Black schools and Black teachers, especially in the South, had maintained the traditional hallmarks of African education. Although the segregated Black school suffered from lack of materials, space, and equipment, they relatively luxuriated in the control of their curriculum and teaching methods (relative, that is to many of today’s Black schools both inner city and rural). Within the bosom of the community, young African Americans learned not only language arts, including impeccable standard usage, but also the literature, stories, histories, ethics, songs, hopes, and expectations of our people as well as those of the nation at large.
This is not to romanticize the degrading realities of segregation or to suggest that all the teachers and methods of the past were excellent. Nonetheless, it is widely believed in the Southern Black community that poorly implemented desegregation plans and the corresponding loss of control over our children’s education precipitated the current cultural crisis in our communities which is demonstrated in the uncharacteristic lack of motivation in our schools.
Lessons from the past for zealous school reformers of today?
“My soul looks back and wonders, how we got over.”