My Great-Grandmother Ida B. Wells Left a Legacy of Activism in Education. We Need that NowRoundup
tags: education, African American history, Ida B. Wells
Michelle Duster is an educator, public historian and author of several books including Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells (Atria/One Signal Publishers).
As it hones its agenda, the new Biden administration would be wise to focus on racial and economic educational inequality. Although the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, many low-income students, who are disproportionately people of color, do not have access to high-quality educational resources and opportunities. The neglect of students on the basis of race and income is long-standing and only addressing it will maximize latent talent, thereby benefiting all Americans.
Ninety percent of American students attend public schools, and the crux of educational inequality is in how those schools are funded — primarily by property taxes. Lower-income neighborhoods where there are high levels of renters or lower home values simply have less money to work with than areas that have higher incomes and higher priced homes (which therefore generate higher property taxes). So, in a country that has a long history of housing and income inequality, the majority of students live in neighborhoods where over 50 percent of the population looks like them. A study by EdBuild estimated a funding gap of $23 billion between predominantly White schools and those dominated by children of color.
This isn’t surprising. Over the past four centuries, barriers have consistently and deliberately been erected to limit African Americans’ access to high-quality education — or even any education at all.
During the 246 years of enslavement, it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read. After the Civil War, there was a brief flurry of school-building in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau with the aim of quickly educating almost 4 million formerly enslaved people. Many schools were created in churches because obtaining funding to build separate structures was difficult. The schools taught all ages, many times with children during the day and adults at night. The demand for teachers was so high that many were recruited from the North to meet the need. However, the progress of Black people was sometimes met with backlash from enraged vigilante White people, who burned Black schools and attacked teachers.
Despite these challenges, there was a clamor for education. More than 90 percent of the formerly enslaved were illiterate, and education was seen as a source of power and independence, and as a tool for having control over their own lives. My great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, who was 3 years old when the Civil War ended, was fortunate to attend Shaw University (Rust College), which was established in 1866 in her hometown of Holly Springs, Miss. Knowing how to read helped Black people have equal footing with White people. It enabled them to decipher contracts, build businesses, engage in politics and influence social issues that affected their lives. As a child, Wells read the newspaper to her father and his friends who were eager to vote and take advantage of opportunities as full citizens. The desire for self-determination also spilled over to Black people wanting to educate their own communities and become professionals in other areas.
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