The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will fewer Black students come back to school this fall?

Black parents have long kept their kids out of schools that fail to meet their needs.

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When schools reopen in person, some for the first time since March 2020, will families of color want to send their children back? During the coronavirus pandemic, many parents of color opted out of public schools altogether. The number of Black parents who home-school, for example, shot up in 2020 from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent, the highest of any demographic group.

And many Black parents plan to keep their children at home this fall, not only to keep them safe from the coronavirus, but because staying home offers a way to navigate the systemic racism in schools that is traumatic and may impede their children’s learning.

This isn’t the first time Black parents have opted to exit the existing school system rather than accept an inadequate education. Black parents faced similar questions two centuries ago — and their answers led to the creation of urban public-school systems in the United States. Today once again, we have a rare chance to step back and look at schooling as it could be, not only as it has been.

In the late 18th- and early-19th centuries, cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York had a patchwork of school options. Most schools ran on tuition dollars, with families paying directly for the kind of schools they wanted. For poorer White families and for all non-White children, there were few options. Churches ran tuition-free schools for some children, but there were not nearly enough of these schools and they tended only to teach children of their own denominations. Children with no church connections were out of luck.

White elites saw this as problematic because they feared that illiterate children would grow into criminal adults. So they founded philanthropic organizations to provide segregated, tuition-free schools for Black families. In New York, the Manumission Society opened its first free school for Black children in 1787. In 1799, elite Philadelphians organized the “Philadelphia Society for the Free Instruction of Indigent Boys.”

Pennsylvania’s state government recognized the need for tuition-free education for low-income families, organizing its first “Public School” district for Philadelphia in 1818. As in New York, Philadelphia’s schools expressly mandated that African American children be included in the new tuition-free schools, though in Philadelphia it took four years for city leaders to open a segregated school for Black children.

This first generation of free schools was not popular. To be sure, Black parents wanted schools for their children. They often made great sacrifices to fund and maintain schools of their own. But they did not like the specific kind of school provided by White-run charity organizations, and they let the leaders of those schools know it.

Parents charged that these schools offered only the basics — rudimentary reading, writing and math — instead of the more advanced subjects they wanted. They also isolated lower-income White children and all non-White students, instead of integrating them in a healthier common education.

Black parents worried that segregated, basics-only schooling shunted their children away from intellectual enrichment and professional opportunities. Perhaps worst of all, due to the low pay and demanding work conditions, the quality of teaching in the free schools was terrible.

In 1827, for example, the Black editors of New York’s Freedom’s Journal criticized the low quality of teachers in the segregated “African Free Schools.” Teachers in the free schools, they complained, were “dull and stupid,” and “if placed in any other than a colored school, would hardly be considered as earning their salt.” Why was it, they asked pointedly, that “any one … is, in the general estimation fit to keep a school for us?”

Some White teachers were worse than incompetent. One White teacher at an all-Black public school in New York alienated the community with his harsh criticism of the poor. The teacher, Charles Andrews, called lower-income Black children the “pests in our streets.” He referred to them as “uncultivated, unpolished, [and] heathenish.” Lower-income Black children, Andrews explained in an 1830 book, had a telltale “idle, vacant, stupid look.”

Black parents and pundits did not have much success with their complaints and petitions. But they had one option that school leaders could not ignore: keeping their kids at home. In 1828, for example, the Rev. Peter Williams — New York’s first Black Episcopal priest — lamented that while there were 2,500 Black children in the city, only 600 of them were enrolled in the free schools. And as Williams noted, even those that attended did so irregularly.

Just as some commentators have done today, at the time many city leaders assumed that Black parents simply did not value education enough. New York’s free-school leaders lectured parents in 1818, “Parents ought soberly to reflect on the great advantage it must be for their children to have school learning.” Unfortunately, the New Yorkers explained, too many low-income parents set a bad example by preferring “Spiritous Liquors” to the delayed gratification offered by hard work and education.

The leaders of the free schools even tried to coerce parents to opt in. In Philadelphia, White philanthropist Roberts Vaux wondered in 1827 if the “vicious children” of “indolent and worthless parents” could be forced by law to remain in school.

In New York, the prominent Black minister and editor Samuel Cornish visited homes to encourage attendance. But, at least one Black New Yorker resisted, saying that if the schools were not up to families’ expectations, parents had every right to keep their kids home.

In the long run, Cornish’s visits did not improve attendance or enrollment because the all-Black schools continued to offer only basic literacy courses and employ teachers who belittled their children. It was only when school leaders made substantive changes that parents changed their minds. For example, in 1832 when the leaders of New York’s Manumission Society finally fired Andrews and replaced him with James Adams, a more sympathetic Black teacher, attendance shot up.

Similarly, as long as the free schools offered only basic subjects, children stayed away. When the segregated schools offered more advanced topics, including Latin, Greek, surveying, accounting, poetry and art, students eagerly enrolled.

For many Black families, those advanced classes offered a double promise. Some students were able to break barriers and enter the world of elite higher education. By 1830, graduates of New York’s African Free School had become the first Black graduates of colleges such as Amherst, Bowdoin and Columbia.

Even when families could not afford to send their children to college, many of them agreed that advanced education was good for its own sake. One writer in Freedom’s Journal hoped that with enough intellectual achievement among Black children, “prejudice will and must sink into insignificance.”

At the time and ever since, Black parents sometimes faced a stark choice about schooling and education. On the one hand, sending children to inadequate schools was not worth the time and obstacles generated by the schools themselves. But on the other, for many Black families in America’s early cities, no sacrifice was too great to introduce their children to the riches of advanced intellectual endeavors.

The lesson for today’s school leaders is clear: The only surefire way to guarantee school enrollment is to offer high-quality schools with welcoming, nurturing environments. In 2021, as in 1821, parents will not send their children to be insulted or to have their time wasted. Instead of blaming parents for inadequate enthusiasm, school leaders need to invest resources to fix inadequate schools.

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