In March, students from Lincoln Park High School in Newark, part of the North Star Academy charter network, walked out of school to protest the “frequent mistreatment of Black students and faculty.” They peacefully marched to City Hall, and when they returned to school, they found themselves locked out of the building. School officials told some student organizers that they couldn’t return in the coming days, either, and would have to study remotely.
School districts and states across the country, enabled by big dollars from far-right political organizations, have moved to make teaching about racism illegal.
While these stories are dominating headlines in 2022, the tactics on display are nothing new. Children of color and the families and communities that support and advocate for them have faced efforts to literally and figuratively lock them out of the nation’s schools for more than a century. In their fight for access to the same education White children receive, children of color and the adults who rally behind them have been the staunchest protectors of public education, defending a system that not only benefits Americans of all races, but our democracy itself.
Municipally-supported public school systems first emerged in cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia in the late 1840s as a way to Americanize newly arrived Irish immigrants and offer social stability to urban areas that lacked the infrastructure to support population growth. In 1848, Horace Mann shared proponents’ vision for this schooling. “Beyond all other devices of human origin,” he explained, public education “is the equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
Yet the rise of these schools was limited to the northeast. In the South, anti-literacy laws threatened steep fines, imprisonment and even physical punishment for people of color — enslaved and free — seeking education, as well as for the people, regardless of race, offering it. These laws thwarted the spread of formal educational institutions before the Civil War, leaving Black Americans to teach and learn in secret.
With the close of the war and the dawn of Reconstruction, formerly enslaved Black Americans led the charge for public education. Due to newfound Black influence, biracial Reconstruction governments created state laws that historian James Anderson characterized as “elaborate legal frameworks for universal public schooling.” These laws catalyzed school systems sprouting up with amazing speed. In 1881, The Washington Post noted that during the prior school year, there were 3,057 public schools across South Carolina, whereas before the war there had been none. Black children accounted for nearly 55 percent of the school-attending population and teachers of color accounted for more than a third of the 3,240 teachers in the state.