Schools for a Minority


By Gould Beech, An Article in Survey Graphic, October, 1939

Editor’s Note: Gould Beech (1913-2000) was a successful journalist in Alabama. At different times he wrote for the Anniston Star, Montgomery Advertiser, and the Southern Farmer.  His reporting and articles shed light on the racism that permeated Alabama’s political and legal culture at the time. Because of his writings, Beech was attacked by conservatives as a radical and a Communist; and in 1950, he moved to Houston, Texas.

BOOKER T. WASHINGTON, WHO STILL CONTRIBUTES AT LEAST one quotation to every discussion of Negro education, once observed that it was “too great a compliment to attribute to the Negro child the ability to gain equal education for one dollar to every seven spent on the education of the white child.” Thirty years have not altered the fact which inspired the observation. And yet even against such handicaps, the Negro race has advanced in little more than three generations from 80 percent illiterate to better than 80 percent literate—a heartening measure of capacity to make bricks with such straw as there is.

In the plantation area of the South or in the teeming slum districts of Harlem, the Negro boy or girl finds that color determines in varying degree the quantity and quality of educational opportunity. It may be a 15-to-1 difference in the outlay per child enrolled, as in some Mississippi Delta and South Carolina Tidewater counties; or it may involve only comparisons in the age and attractiveness of school buildings and the relative ability of teachers, as in New York or Chicago. It may be that the Negro child attends mixed schools in California, Illinois or Connecticut, and is the victim of individual discriminator on the part of teachers or fellow pupils. But in the case of all but a negligible portion of this one tenth of our population, there is a difference.

Educational discrimination is only one phase of the Negro’s economic, political and social status, but it is perhaps the most vital standard by which his participation in American life is measured.

Outside of the eighteen states and the District of Columbia where segregation is mandatory by law, the Negro’s role in education varies considerably. In most northern metropolitan centers, there is a de facto segregation based upon residence in restricted districts, and in some parts of New Jersey, Ohio and Illinois by administrative action regardless of residence.In some of the cities in these and other northern states—usually where they constitute a minority—Negro pupils attend mixed schools and in individual instances may be found leading their classes and being elected to student offices. However, mere attendance in mixed schools is not at present a guarantee that the lot of individual Negro students is happy.

A comprehensive survey of minorities in the American educational system would properly deal with the Negro in the North more thoroughly, and would include the Japanese and Chinese of the West Coast, Indians, and various immigrant groups. But it is with the Negro in the South that this discussion is primarily concerned, and more specifically with the eleven states of the Southeast in which some nine of the thirteen million Negroes of the United States live. It is here that their numbers, their poverty, their political impotence and the extent of prevailing discriminations present a challenge which goes to the roots of American democracy.

The factual background, which must take into account the relative poverty of the region may be summed up in general terms:

The Southeast has 12 percent of the nation’s wealth with which to educate 25 percent of the nation’s children.

These eleven states rank uniformly at the bottom of the list in every significant quantitative index of education—per capita expenditures, teachers’ salaries, length of term, etc.

Yet in percentage of per capita wealth and percentage of public revenues devoted to education, these states rank uniformly high. (If Mississippi devoted its entire tax income to education it would then approximate national standards.)

For each dollar spent on the education of the average child in the nation, the South spends 50 cents for each of its white children, 14 cents for each of its Negro children.

While the region as a whole spends approximately one fourth the amount for each Negro child that it does for each white child, there is a considerable variation from state to state. The ratio is more than 1-to-9 in Mississippi, 1-to-8 in South Carolina.’

In expenditures for buildings, school equipment, transportation, vocational education and libraries, discrimination is even more marked.

Until recently public educational opportunity on the college level for southern Negroes has been largely confined to teacher-training. Public graduate and professional training comparable to opportunities for white students in public universities and colleges has been non-existent.

In addition to these discriminations in formal education, the adult southern Negro finds himself barred from such advantages as lecture courses, concerts, theaters, and not infrequently from public libraries and museums.

Within the Southeast there is a wide variation in Negro schools, ranging from a few city high schools which approximate the facilities for whites, to the “schools” in the plantation area. In this area the country school for Negroes is frequently not a school building at all but a church, the lodge hall of a burial society, or an abandoned tenant shack, sometimes without heat, windows, or the most primitive sanitation. In such schools pupils, ranging in age from six to eighteen or older, sit on rude benches or discarded church pews. They lack blackboards, writing materials and adequate books. Some states—and the number is increasing now—provide textbooks for Negro schools. Though these are apt to be hand-me-downs, they are far better than no books. But in hundreds of rural Negro schools there is absolutely no teaching material except a few old readers (usually primers or first readers) which pass from hand to hand. Due to differences in background and in educational opportunity, including irregular attendance because of poor health, undernourishment, insufficient clothing, and the demands of farm work, almost half of all Negro pupils in the South are enrolled in the first and second grades.

But even with meager equipment and short school terms, a surprisingly large number of teachers succeed in imparting the rudiments of schooling to their pupils. Speaking of the quality of instruction, one county official complained that “it is hard to get good Negro teachers.” There is at least partial explanation for this in the average annual wage of $300 for Negro teachers prevailing in his state. In many counties salaries—while school is in session—are approximately the same as wages for urban cooks, who have the additional security of year-round work. Salary schedules of southern Negro teachers range from 40 to 75 percent of those prevailing for white teachers of the same qualifications.

When Negroes Can’t Vote

BY NO MEANS ALL OF THE SCHOOL PLANTS ARE SUBSTANDARD. There are several thousand rural Negro communities with attractive and adequate buildings. In the movement to provide such facilities, the Julius Rosenwald Fund has played an important role. Through gifts totaling $5 million, this foundation stimulated the construction of schoolhouses and homes for teachers valued at six times that amount, most of them for Negroes. These gifts encouraged contributions from Negro and white individuals and from state and local governments. Negroes raised approximately 44 percent of the total outlay of $30 million, white individuals and public moneys combined made up 40 percent, and the Fund gave 16 percent. So strong is the tradition that good schools are Rosenwald schools, that new structures are sometimes given the name even though the Fund, which has recently discontinued this phase of its activities, had no share in the undertaking.

Philanthropy has played an important part in other aspects of education, particularly Negro education. The “Jeanes teacher,” subsidized partially from funds set aside in the will of Anna T. Jeanes, acts in a supervisory capacity over the schools in her county, directs money-raising campaigns and serves as a community leader. The “state agents for Negro education,” who are white officials attached to state departments of education, serve in general administrative capacities and as spokesmen for the needs of Negro education. Their salaries are usually paid by the General Education Board (Rockefeller). The Slater, Phelps-Stokes, Peabody, Dillard and Carnegie funds also have played a helpful part, as have various religious organizations, outstanding among them the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church. It is expected that within a few years the resources of the major foundations active in supporting Negro education will be exhausted. Already there has been a sharp decline in aid from these sources, as well as from religious bodies.

Southern education traditionally has been looked upon as a county and school district responsibility. The same attitude which condones differences in educational opportunity for rich and poor individuals also has applied to rich and poor districts. Various gerrymandering devices have been employed in laying out school districts to escape the sharing of educational advantages with the Negro and with the whites who own little property.

The issue of public education in the South before, during and since Reconstruction has been one of poverty vs. property, with large taxpayers preferring to send their children to tutors or private academies rather than provide adequate public schools open to all. As late as the 1920s there was widespread opposition to accepting high schools for whites as a public responsibility. The middle class whites, who compose the pro-educational forces, have not included the Negro’s needs in their demands for expansion of school facilities. In many instances the Negro has been a victim of neglect rather than opposition, being left behind in the intense struggle for improvement in white education. The convening of a southern legislature today is inevitably the signal for a fight over additional taxation for schools.

Without minimizing either the extent or the seriousness of racial discrimination, it should be recognized that race is not the sole factor in school inequalities. Most Negroes are in the low income strata; to a large extent they live in rural areas, though this is changing. There are also wide differences between expenditures for whites from county to county. In Alabama, for instance, more money is spent upon the education of Negro children in the industrial region than upon white children in some of the poorer rural counties. Discrimination based upon poverty is no more in keeping with the American ideal than discrimination based upon race; but it is certainly more universal. Wherever the Negro’s present status is based upon economic discrimination or rural-urban differentials, the problem ceases to be one of race. It affects white tenants and unskilled laborers as well as Negroes.

In some counties, where the school superintendent is elected by popular vote, successful candidates may be openly anti-Negro. In a Georgia plantation county with a predominantly Negro population, the superintendent served for twenty years without providing a single additional schoolroom for Negroes from county funds. In an Alabama county the superintendent served for a quarter-century without making any improvement in the school facilities for Negroes. In both of these counties, as well as in many others, it has been an open practice to divert funds allocated by the state for Negro schools to the support of white schools—the whites do the voting, they are the ones to be pleased.

The States Come into Action

SINCE 1930, THERE HAS BEEN A DECIDED TREND TOWARD A greater measure of financial and administrative responsibility by the state. With the levying of sales taxes for education and the setting up of “equalization funds,” the relative status of the Negro has improved. State officials are endeavoring to cut down the differences between economic levels as well as to reduce those prevailing between Negro and white.

North Carolina, while unfortunately not typical, provides examples of progress which it is hoped will be followed by other southern states. The number of Negroes enrolled in accredited public high schools in this state rose from 3500 in 1923 to 35,000 in 1938, a ten-fold increase in fifteen years. Nearly a third of the increase took place in the abnormally hard times from 1933 to 1938. In the same state, Negro enrollment in publicly supported colleges grew from 109 in 1923 to 2435 in 1938.

State commissions were set up in North Carolina in 1933 and again in 1938, to make studies of Negro education in the state. The 1938 commission outlined a program for future development which included the provision of accredited consolidated high schools for Negroes wherever the number of pupils justified it; a progressive decrease in the differentials between salaries for Negro and white teachers; a building program; expansion of facilities for vocational education and the addition of libraries and laboratory equipment; and the development of graduate and professional courses in Negro colleges.

That there was conviction behind the recommendations has been demonstrated by the recent action of the state board in distributing an appropriation of $269,000 set aside by the legislature under the broad provision that it be used for “increasing teachers’ salaries.” Of this amount $117,000 has been allocated to help equalize Negro and white salaries, the remainder for increases in specific classifications regardless of color.

Under Alabama’s state “minimum school program,” the salary schedule for Negro teachers has been set at 75 percent of the prevailing rates for white teachers. If the counties comply with the provision, and there are prospects that they will, the state would outrank any other in the South in this particular.

In Virginia, prevailing discriminations are being attacked by Negro teachers, who have considerable support from whites. The movement has centered on the Aline Black case, a suit brought in Norfolk to test the legality of salary differentials based on race.

Higher Education—the Southern Picture

MANY OF THE INADEQUACIES OF THE NEGRO PUBLIC SCHOOLS are reflections of the inadequacies of college facilities. State supported colleges for Negroes, with minor exceptions, have been confined to teacher-training and agricultural and trades courses. Until recently there has been a total lack of graduate and professional training in these colleges and a tendency to apply the name “college” to many private institutions more properly described as preparatory schools. On the other hand, some of the most notable educational opportunities for southern Negroes have been provided by privately supported institutions which do not grant degrees or seek college rating. Outstanding among these is, of course, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Alabama) which has afforded schooling and vocational training for thousands of ambitious students, and produced some of the Negroes’ most forceful and influential teachers and leaders.

Following a survey in 1932 which disclosed that, of the one hundred colleges for Negroes in the South, only six were doing grade A work, the major foundations contributing to Negro education decided to concentrate on the development of four centers of graduate and professional training. Howard University in Washington, D. C., is maintained by the federal government. At Nashville, there has been a continuing development of Meharry Medical College and Fisk University, the latter maintaining graduate departments in the social sciences which are of exceptional quality judged by any standards. At Atlanta, where there had been five private colleges for Negroes working independently, a program of consolidation and coordination has resulted in a division of fields of activity among the various units grouped around Atlanta University, which offers graduate and professional training only. In New Orleans, too, a program of coordination has been worked out in the new Dillard University.

The recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Lloyd Gaines case has important bearings on graduate training for Negroes. A number of southern and border states, including Missouri where the suit was instituted, have been granting fixed sums to qualified Negro residents to take graduate or professional courses in states having no “color line.” The appropriations for this purpose were seldom adequate from the standpoint of individual students or of the total demand. The Supreme Court held that such arrangements were not a valid substitute and that the state had two alternatives: it could admit qualified students to white institutions or provide equal accommodations for Negroes.

The chief effect of the Gaines case thus far has been to increase graduate and professional opportunities at a few existing Negro institutions.

In any evaluation of the progress of the South in providing graduate and professional work for Negroes, it should be kept in mind that graduate work for whites in most of these states is still in the formative stage. South of the University of North Carolina and east of the Mississippi River, graduate work leading to the Ph.D. degree is practically unknown in state institutions. There are, for whites, law schools, two-year medical schools and graduate work on the A.M. level supported at public expense. The intense rivalry among the public colleges and normal schools within each state adds to the disadvantage of Negro colleges in the quest for funds.

Attention has been focused upon dollars and cents differentials, but there is a growing consciousness of a type of discrimination which cannot be measured in such terms. It has to do with the content of education, both Negro and white. From the first grade, whether he is reading stories of fairy princesses, Biblical characters, or George Washington, the Negro child comes in contact only with white heroes and heroines. The curriculum, which has been identical with that of the white schools until recently, has not given him the emotional security which familiarity with the contributions of his race to American history would afford. For example, he has not known (nor have his white neighbors) that Negroes fought and died for freedom at Bunker Hill and on many other Revolutionary battlefields.

Few white southerners today have ever heard a classroom discussion of the Negro comparable to discussions of Indians, immigrants, or other American groups. In this respect as in some others, however, there has been a heartening change for the better. During the last six years all southern states have undertaken a revision of the courses of study and methods of instruction in their public schools. In the programs of the various states, the study of race relations is now recognized as an essential responsibility of education.

For two decades the Southern Commission on Interracial Cooperation has been paving the way for this change through the preparation and distribution of more than a million pamphlets, the sponsorship of interracial institutes for teachers and the publication of its research materials. Several hundred schools and fifty or more colleges now include objective material on the Negro in their courses of study, and the university presses of North Carolina and Oklahoma have taken the lead in publishing books by and about the Negro for use in the schools and colleges of both races.

What course, if any, is likely to gain for the Negro a greater relative opportunity in the educational system? The more effective education of the white population is resulting in changes and will continue to do so at an accelerated pace. But deeply rooted folkways and attitudes are not subject to easy reeducation. Nor can the desired end hinge only upon legislation and court decisions. Progress will include changes on a thousand fronts—many of them seemingly minor in importance and involving concessions on the part of local school boards, changes in the personnel of state administrations, and the actions of Negroes in their individual communities.

Such a ruling as that handed down by the Supreme Court in the Gaines case represents at most a theoretical recognition of the Negro’s status as a citizen. Its usefulness depends Upon the manner in which it is applied and implemented. A policy which would work successfully in the border states might have the effect of delaying progress in the Deep South—indeed its application there might result in serious losses.

Prof. Charles S. Thompson of Howard University, in the yearbook issue of The Journal of Negro Education, outlines steps toward a more effective utilization of existing facilities. He submits that the philosophy and administration of Negro institutions must be drastically changed, and cites the presence in some of them of an atmosphere of dogmatism and undemocratic suppression. He concludes that “any real program of improvement will depend upon the extent to which the superior brains of the race are corralled, developed, and enlisted” in a long range process of development.

As James Weldon Johnson emphasized in his “Negro Americans, What Now?”, every Negro is a salesman of his race. What is true of the nation as a whole in this respect is even truer of the South, which still is not wholly convinced that Negroes either can or should be educated.
Can the Country Afford Ignorance?

SECOND ONLY TO THE HARDSHIPS IMPOSED UPON THE NEGRO IS the hardship laid upon the whole South by its failure to prepare this third of its population to make a maximum contribution to the development of the region. Given the opportunity, the Negro would be able to assume a far greater share of the responsibility of providing social services for himself and for others. The new emphasis upon health services, old age pensions, aid to dependent children and mothers, and the like, will exact an increasing toll, a toll which should be distributed over as great an area as possible. In addition, the Negro could and would contribute more adequately to such bi-racial necessities as law enforcement and highways.

Even ignoring questions of humanitarianism and simple justice, economic considerations are compelling. Negroes remain the custodians of almost half the South’s farm land and more than half of its children. Soil erosion and hookworm refuse to recognize the color line, as do certain of their by-products—inefficiency, ignorance, and dependency. And as the welfare of the South is dependent upon opportunity for the Negro, so indirectly is the welfare of the nation.

The mouthings of sectional demagogues, South or North, should not be allowed to obscure the necessity of federal subsidies for education. If there is to be any far-reaching improvement in educational opportunity for the present generation in the rural South, black and white, such help will be essential. As long as the working population of the South remains backward, the region will continue to be a doubtful asset (or even a liability) economically, and at times politically.

There will not be any immediate or widespread demand for a federal program designed to aid rural education, since those who would be most benefited, Negro and white, are inarticulate and politically impotent. Is not the failure of these groups to be alert and aggressive in their own interests evidence enough of the precarious position they now occupy in the democratic processes?

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Beech, G. (1939, October). Schools for a minority. Survey Graphic, 28(10), 615. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/schools-minority/.

Source: New Deal Network, (March 24, 2014).


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