Violence Over Schools is Nothing NewRoundup
tags: racism, schools, teaching history, desegregation, COVID-19, critical race theory, Educational History
Sherman Dorn is a historian of education at Arizona State University.
A California father who punched an elementary school teacher on the first day of class. Screaming matches at school board meetings about mask mandates and history classes. Explicit threats of violence against school board members and community doctors testifying in front of school boards and vandalism targeting school board members’ homes.
Chaos and violence seem to be the themes of the first month of school. To many observers, these may appear to be exceptional, unprecedented times. But there’s a long history of public schools serving as ideological and physical battlegrounds, particularly when it comes to conflicts over citizenship and civil rights.
The violent response this fall by some Americans to public health measures and teaching our history of racism is an echo of violent responses in the past to efforts to broaden the reach and mission of schools. And this history also shows that how government reacts is not foreordained, and that the choice of responses will play a major role in determining the long-term consequences of this violence.
In the 1830s and 1840s, industrialization in Massachusetts triggered civil disorder, including the Boston riots between Protestants and immigrant Catholics. State Secretary of Education Horace Mann thought he had a solution to this strife, arguing for educating all children together in what he called common schools designed to foster a background that all children would share.
But this concept proved fractious from the start.
No sooner did common schools emerge than violence engulfed them. In 1844, Catholic families in Philadelphia sought representation in the schools. Yet many White Protestants saw Catholic immigrants as a threat to a burgeoning national identity, and nowhere was that assault clearer than in their supposed attempts to take over the public schools. So nativists spread false rumors that Catholic immigrants were pushing local public schools to remove Bibles.
These rumors, fear and anger spread and neighbors took to the streets. Multi-day riots in May and July resulted in the burning of multiple Catholic churches and the deaths of more than two dozen people.
Violence at and around schools became even more widespread after the Civil War. As newly elected Black politicians joined with community members to create a system of public schooling in the South, they fused schooling and citizenship. All the Reconstruction-era state constitutions that Congress approved had education embedded as a right. The appearance of public schools for Black children and the promise of access to all aspects of society enraged some White Southerners who feared the erosion of a social order that gave them privilege and power. Those fears translated to direct attacks.