Thomas Sowell

The history of the education of blacks in America has become politicized to the point where it is barely recognizable as history, rather than as an arsenal of horror stories to be used in the political wars of today. Many of these horror stories are true, even if increasingly dated, but there is an almost complete disregard of other important aspects of the history of black education that are also true.

Yes, Governor Wallace stood in front of the entrance to a building on the campus of the University of Alabama, in order to try to prevent black students from being enrolled. Yes, white mobs jeered and attacked the first black college students to enrol in previously segregated Southern colleges and universities. Worse, such mobs tried to impede the enrolment of black youngsters in public schools in various Northern cities, as well as in the South.

But the real story is that all these efforts failed. And they failed because the American government, with the support of the American people, would not stand for letting them succeed. More important, these episodes were just episodes in a much larger epic.

During the era of slavery, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, throughout the Western Hemisphere. In parts of the antebellum South, it was also illegal for free blacks to be educated, and there was no provision for them to be educated in much of the North. Yet the census of 1850 showed that more than half of the 500,000 free blacks were able to read and write.

How did that happen? It happened because they set up their own schools, even in places where such schools were illegal and had to operate underground. What an insult to their memory when blacks in ghetto schools today who want to get an education are accused by their peers of "acting white"! Black people risked jail to set up schools for their children before the Civil War.

One of the most inspiring and heroic episodes in the history of black education in America came after the Civil War, when numerous white school teachers from the North went South to teach the children of the freed slaves, often under the auspices of religious organizations -- and in defiance of ostracism by Southern whites. Voluntary and privately financed efforts to educate blacks were so widespread that it was 1916 before there were as many blacks in public high schools as in private high schools.

Blacks themselves went to extraordinary lengths to create an educated class. The building of Tuskeegee Institute, literally with the students' own hands, is a story seldom told, because it was done under the leadership of Booker T. Washington, who is not politically correct today. He is excoriated by those who have never bothered to study the facts about the man or his times.

As far back as 1899, the one black academic high school in Washington scored higher on standardized tests than two of the three white high schools in the nation's capital. In the decades that followed, its graduates went on to college at a higher rate than that of white Americans. From this school came the first black federal judge, the first black general to lead men in combat, the first black Cabinet member, the first black elected to the Senate and many other firsts. All this from one school.

Yet this story too is seldom mentioned today, because it too was done in ways that are not considered politically correct today. Far from looking inward at the ghetto or being Afro-centric or teaching -- or even tolerating -- "black English," it opened the students' minds to a wider world of culture, including requiring the learning of Latin and the study of the classics.

Facts about other successful black schools, past and present, get very little attention from the intelligentsia because the stories of these schools would not forward the agendas of the left. In short, history is treated as just the continuation of politics by other means.

But for anyone who is serious about wanting to see black youngsters get a better education, the story of what works and what doesn't work is more important than what is fashionable and not fashionable in the education establishment, or what is or is not considered politically correct among the intelligentsia, politicians, the education establishment or the media.

The real question is: How many people are serious about improving the education of black youngsters, as distinguished from advancing the many other agendas that stand in the way of that improvement?

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate