When Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, her victory was treated like an anomaly: a solitary bright spot in a sea of underperformance. In a way, this is understandable. Nationally, just 12 percent of Black eighth-grade males can demonstrate reading proficiency for their grade level. But in reality, Black Americans have a heritage of educational excellence dating back at least to Emancipation.
Why we lately have been unable to build effectively on that heritage on a wider scale is undoubtedly due in part to our national obsession with assigning blame for our current predicament. Progressives insist that racism explains why our school system is failing Black youths, while too many conservatives believe that Black parents don’t value education, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
At the turn of the 20th century, Black America achieved what was undoubtedly one of the greatest educational feats in human history. After centuries of slavery, Black literacy rates skyrocketed from just 20 percent in 1870 to almost 70 percent in 1910. Even against the backdrop of enduring, legal discrimination against Blacks in the form of Jim Crow laws and enforced segregation, Black children excelled.
If we did it then, why can’t we do it now? How could racism explain the failure of our schools today, when racism did not hold us back just 100 years ago?
The Rosenwald schools were the joint project of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish philanthropist. Between 1914 and 1931, close to 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built, mostly in poor, rural areas in the Jim Crow South.
At a time when Blacks were prohibited from learning in better-funded white schools, the Rosenwald schools dramatically narrowed the Black-white schooling gap. By the 1930s, one in three Black kids in the South were taught at a Rosenwald school.
But these institutions did more than just get Black kids into a physical building; their teachers were members of the local community who had the trust of the parents and cared personally about the success of each child. The communities themselves built these schools, contributing more, dollar-for-dollar, toward their construction and operation than Rosenwald himself. With such a sense of ownership and participation, is it any wonder these schools were directly responsible for a monumental leap forward in Black educational excellence and achievement?
We’ve reaped the rewards of this success for decades. The Rosenwald schools educated some of our nation’s greatest Black leaders, especially in the civil rights movement. John Lewis and Maya Angelou, to name just two, attended Rosenwald schools as kids.
What lessons can the Rosenwald schools teach us today? I can think of at least three.
The first is that integration was never necessary for excellence. The Rosenwald schools were excellent, even outstanding, all-Black schools. While the Rosenwald schools often received a small amount of money from the nearby white schools, white people had no say in what was taught, how it was taught or who taught it. These were Black-led, Black-run schools. Being Black was not synonymous with low standards or low achievement then, and it shouldn’t be now.
The second is that, while racism is real, focusing on it is a dangerous distraction when we are talking about improving education. Ambient white hostility to Black education was far greater in the Jim Crow South than it is anywhere today. That says to me that Black performance never has been dependent on white attitudes.
At the same time, the Rosenwald schools did more with less; at the time, spending on Black schools was about one-third of what it was for white schools. Fast forward to today, where we spend billions of dollars on public schools that still can’t produce literate students of any race, and I think it’s quite clear that lack of funding isn’t driving our country’s education failures.
But maybe the most important lesson from the Rosenwald schools is one we can start implementing today. The Rosenwald schools were community projects; they were led by, and populated with, strong, healthy families. They were autonomous, and hence, free to innovate and do what they knew was best for their students, not what some bureaucrat hundreds of miles away thought was best. They focused on building and cultivating the skills and values that would lead to success in the real world.
We can replicate this same attitude and approach to school today. We can encourage, whether through community programs or other initiatives, the habits of studiousness and care that defined the families of the Rosenwald schools. We can design our schools to involve parents as stakeholders and collaborators; we can encourage real diversity in schooling and reject the status quo monopoly that’s underperforming with our kids.
These are the lessons we aren’t learning, insofar as we fixate on assigning blame instead of innovative solutions. Kids of all races, but especially Black kids, need better education. The Rosenwald schools have a lot to teach us, if only we are willing to listen.