Racially Mixed School Controversy in the Post-Civil War United States

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Mishio Yamanaka, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Following the Civil War, access to public education became a crucial element for African Americans to embody their freedom in the United States. While many studies have explored the contribution of missionary and philanthropic workers and freedpeople’s agency in establishing their own schools, African Americans’ demands for desegregating white-only public schools have seldom had scholarly attention. This paper explores how African Americans advocated for racially mixed schools and sparked the national conversation about civic equality and public education.

This paper argues that African Americans’ mixed school movements were spread across the Mason-Dixon line. For both northern and southern African American communities, especially among antebellum free people of color, access to white schools signified their freedom from slavery. In the North and the border South, where the black population was relatively small, segregation excluded black children from public education, as they were not qualified to establish their own public schools. In the Deep South, African American communities experienced inequality of facilities, funding and teachers between white schools and ‘colored’ schools. In addition, desegregation activists envisioned public schools as institutions for the future racial unity and demanded equal power in school politics. By examining records such as educational convention proceedings and black and white newspapers, this paper reveals that these local mixed school debates led the Congress to discuss school integration.

This paper, however, concludes that the civil rights debates triggered white backlash that then rigidly implemented educational segregation in the South. The rhetoric of black inferiority, the forced integration demanded by the federal government, and racial chaos in classrooms led the white population to enforce white-only education by confining African American children to segregated schools. The mixed school controversy demonstrates Reconstruction public education as a contested ground of civil inclusion and exclusion that became a cornerstone of the Jim Crow system.

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