History of African American and Native American Education

“It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” —Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education opinion



Education is a fundamental human right enabling society to practice other rights. The role and value of education, as well as its practice have been controversial issues in a variety of cultures and historical contexts, particularly among the African Americans (U.S. Black Americans) and Native Americans (indigenous societies). From the very first days of U.S. history, African Americans and Native Americans were subject to cruel forms of oppression by European settlers (Rury, 2005).  While the African Americans are known for their historical fight for public education, the Native Americans are known for the struggling against the imposition of education by the U.S. government through compulsory boarding schools. “The U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status” (Darling-Hammond, 1988). This paper presents these two important chapters of history of the U.S. education and discusses nature, characteristics, and overall different reasons for public education, or lack thereof for these two groups. The paper will also reflect the key historical dates, such as first schools opened for the African Americans and Native Americans, key legislation and landmark court decisions enabling education and/or creating racial segregation in the context of education.




Historical Fight of African Americans for Public Education

Although African Americans lived in the U.S.A. as servants and/or slaves, these labor roles and circumstances were experienced reluctantly. To acknowledge the racial segregation in regard to education, one can review the literature portraying African Americans as “happy” slaves who liked to “sing, dance, crack jokes, and laugh; admired bright colors, never in a hurry, and [were] always ready to let things go until the morrow” (Lawrence, 1934, p.230). As many biased historians reflect, they had no ambition to receive education. In fact, during the earliest years of U.S. history, Black Americans had no right to learn to read or write. Nevertheless, African Americans acknowledged the importance of education and its role in transforming their lives and communities.

The U.S. education system was strongly segregated by race and poverty. Poverty had affected racial and ethnic segregation, and “[t]he differential racial exposure to concentrated school poverty” was “a fundamental reason why segregation is so strongly related to educational inequality” (Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley, 2012). Wilberforce University was the first academic institution for black students developed and led by African Americans, particularly African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1856, while the oldest African-American school of higher education was the Institute for Colored Youth, founded in 1837 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its curriculum included advanced mathematics, philosophy, social and other sciences, and languages, namely English.

However, it was only after the American Civil War, fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, that the education of African Americans ceased to be a criminal endeavor. Margaret Douglass, for example, was sentenced to jail due to her attempt to educate the children of freed Black Americans, which simply focused on reading and writing (Douglass, 1854). Several U.S. states, such as Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia had harsher laws by the time of the Civil War (Kolchin, 1993).

African American communities had attempted to establish schools previously. But slavery and segregation imposed limits on educational access and opportunity for Black Americans. However, few African Americans got educated at all before the Reconstruction Era, the period from 1863 to 1877 in American history, characterized with a number of cultural and social improvements, namely establishment of public schools. According to the majority of historians, literacy rates among slaves in the Southern areas of the U.S.A. were as low as five to ten percent (Lucander, 2007).

In 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, widely known as the Freedmen’s Bureau (Butchart, 1980). Regardless of not hiring teachers, the aim of the bureau was to encourage aid societies to support Black Americans to receive education. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided the students with classrooms, learning material, such as paper and books. The bureau provided transportation, as well as military protection for its students and teachers if they had to encounter the adversaries of black education (Anderson, 1988). Thus, in 1865, slavery was prohibited with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in 1868, Black Americans became citizens with the rights to experience equal protection and privileges based on the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Although African Americans suffered from the lack of educational opportunity, some figures and institutions educated Black people with private funds for various reasons, including Christians’ ethical principles to teach the slaves.  In the late 1700s, for example, the Quakers played significant role in educating African Americans. The New Jersey and Philadelphia Quakers established two schools for Black Americans, maintaining this tradition in the 1800s as well. Despite the fact that non-violence was one of their fundamental principles, they used physical punishment in schools, such as solitary confinement, whipping, birching, caning, etc.

While these attempts were encouraging, Black Americans were continuously banned from institutions of higher learning. In 1833, Oberlin College was the first institution accepting Black applicants. In order to placate white adversaries, educational campaigns stressed location in order to receive tax funding. “When white voters could be assured, via disenfranchisement, that their increased local taxes would go to white schools but not to black schools” and only then “educational ‘progressivism’ succeeded” (Walters, 2001, p. 40).

The 1800s can be characterized with an increasing number of landmark decisions and state laws that prohibited Black students from learning to read and write (Reef, 2009).  One of those cases was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that set up separate public schools for black and white Americans.  This doctrine known as “separate but equal” suggested that the segregated facilities were of equal quality (Groves, 1951). Plessy v. Ferguson not only highlighted racial segregation in the context of education through “separateness”, but also failed to provide equality. For example, Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), a class action suit by the U.S. Supreme Court, decided to close a Black high school while it could have stopped a school district from allocating funds to a White high school.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) decided that the state laws related to separate public schools for black and white Americans are not constitutional. The court decision overturned key aspects of the Plessy v. Ferguson case that had enabled for “separate but equal” public schools. The Court declared that even if the quality of segregated black and white academic institutions was the same, the mere notion and concept of segregation is psychologically and socially degrading and unconstitutional. For example, the study conducted by Assari (2017) found that Black American men with higher years of schooling demonstrated fewer depressive symptoms. “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system. We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954).

In 1962, James Meredith was the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. In 1965, Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to federally fund public schools throughout the U.S. in order to solve this issue and enforce desegregation based on Brown’s federal mandate. ESEA exposed the essence of racism and presented tools to deal with it, as “most of the ESEA funds… were apportioned on the basis of the size of the low-income population” and directly “targeted toward improving education” for African American children (Walters, 2001, p.40).

The decision of Brown v. Board of Education led to a number of civil rights advances. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, enabled the U.S. Department of Justice to withhold federal funds from school districts that made Black students experience racial segregation, while previously it had only banned federally funded programs from discriminating due to race, religion, nationality, or gender (Minow, 2004). It was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy, but was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson who succeeded Kennedy due to long and radical opposition from southern members of Congress.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were formed before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to boost African American education as they were banned from attending academic institutions for the White Americans. Most of these colleges and universities, including private Black colleges stemmed from the academic and training institutions founded by the missionaries and funded by liberal philanthropic entities (Brown and Ricard, 2007).  Although the primary purpose of HBCUs was to educate African Americans, they willingly engaged various groups of people regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, etc. While the scope of their academic function was not that broad, HBCUs became valuable institutions in regard to research (Brown and Ricard, 2007).

According to Walters (1991), HBCUs had six specific goals: (1) maintaining the historical and cultural traditions of Black Americans; (2) leading Black American community through acknowledging the valuable social role of college leaders, educators, scholars, and students; (3) developing an economic center in the Black American community; (4) inspiring and motivating Black role models; (5) providing Black American college students with the opportunity to gain competence and confidence with an equal educational practice and to address problems across a variety of groups; and (6) preparing Black American graduates for specialized knowledge, research, training, and information dissemination for not only African community, but also Asian, Caribbean, European, Latin American, and White American groups.

By the early 1900s, segregation educational policy in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and the district government of Washington D.C. were precise, and the number of interracial academic institutions was increasing.   The literature review conducted by Orfield, Frankerberg, and Lee (2002) reported that racial segregation still exists, highlighting that the average White student attends a school with a population that is nearly 80% White and the average Black student attends a school that is less than 33% White (Orfield, Frankerberg and Lee, 2002).


The Imposition of Boarding Schools on Native Americans


“American Indian education, like so much of the Indian world, had been destroyed by the time for the twentieth century and replaced with an educational system designed and managed by European Americans to convert Indians into pale-brown imitations of themselves”

(Stein, 1999, p. 261),


The history of imposition of education on Native American in the U.S. in forms of boarding schools is as painful as the educational deprivation of Black Americans. The arrival of Europeans resulted in devastating, long-term colonization and transgression of human rights in North America, including the U.S. imposition of education upon the Native Americans through boarding schools.  According to Warrner (1999), Native American education experienced two primary historical phases. The first was the missionary period (1568 – 1870), during which colonial education of Indians was led by religious denominations, and the federal period (1870 – 1968), during which the colonial education of Native Americans was imposed by government.

During the pre-colonization period, the American Indian education was defined as colonial education since it was the education of the American Indian youth imposed by European American colonial authorities for the purpose of transforming Indian communities and to suppress self-government, self-determination, and self-education (Skinner, 1999).

The central ideology of educational imposition of Native Americans was “Eurocentrism,” an educational movement, positing the superiority of Europeans over non-Europeans (Henderson, 2000). Lacroix (1994) stated that American Indian girls studying at Indian boarding schools reported that the latter is an “imposed system,” which makes them lose their cultural identity. “One reason for the nineteenth-century development of public schools was to ensure the dominance of Anglo-American values that were being challenged by Irish immigration, Native Americans, and African Americans. Public schools became defenders of Anglo-American values with each new wave of immigrants. In the twentieth century, the culture wars were characterized by Americanization programs, civil rights movements demanding representation of minority cultures in public schools, and the multicultural debate” (Spring, 2004).

Boarding schools for Native American children emerged in the U.S.A. in the late 1800s with the purpose of imposing assimilation to White culture (Loring, 2009). They were designed to demolish American Indian cultures, traditions, languages, belief system and mentality. Students were compelled to accept white European culture, the English language, and Christianity.  In 1879, the first boarding school, known as the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School, was established in Pennsylvania by Richard Pratt, an Army officer.

On May 17, 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Appropriation Act, based on which a sum of money was to be spent on the development of schools for American Indian youth.  In 1887, as the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs had demanded, boarding schools for Native Americans were to use English language as an instruction and teaching language, as well as incorporate common academic subjects such as math, science, history, and art. The camp of the assimilationists provided fundamental support for the realization of the government’s policy. The passage of the Dawes Act in 1889 was the most important legislative decision regarding to assimilation, and it increased the use of boarding school as a successful tool.

In 1893, Congress enabled the Bureau of Indian Affairs to withhold supplies from American Indian families and communities who were against their children’s education in the Boarding Schools.  The education system significantly increased the hours of vocational training for students which ultimately changed the academic institutions into working factories. “A major barrier to empowerment for Indigenous peoples is their history of intellectual and cultural oppression in European American schools, which have generally approached the education of Indigenous peoples from a deficit model” (Yellow Bird and Chenault, 1999, p. 201). At Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, students should have practiced an hour of vocational training along with three hours of routine industrial work on campus. Instead of studying science, math, art and languages, female students learned to perform household chores, such sewing, cooking, mending, laundering, while male students learned blacksmithing, constructing and repairing new buildings, plumbing, keeping the boilers going, carpentry, stone masonry, farming, raising crops, caring for the livestock, making clothes and shoes, and more.

In early 1900s, most American Indian children were forcefully separated by their families, transferred to American Indian Boarding Schools, compelled to wear uniforms, have their hair cut, and think and behave like white people.  “Not only were children removed from their parents, often forcibly, but they had their mouths washed out with lye soap when they spoke their Native languages; they could be locked up in the guardhouse with only bread and water for other rule violations; and they faced corporal punishment and other rigid discipline on a daily basis” (Archuleta et al., 2000, p. 38).

The Snyder Act or the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the U.S.A. in Congress decided, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs shall direct, supervise and allocate money for the purpose of education.  The Johnson–O’Malley Act (1934) or the Act of April 16, 1934, was a law of the U.S. Congress that decided to subsidize education, medical care, social welfare, and a number of services provided by states to Native Americans (Sharpes, 1979). Education was the main purpose and beneficiary of the act, and was based on the assumption that it would be effective to educate the Native American students in the public schools rather than provide separate schools. However, it was effective only in Minnesota (Olson and Wilson, 1986).

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), along with Indian Elementary and Secondary School Assistance Act (1965) and Indian Elementary and Secondary School Assistance Act (1965) focused on financial assistance to local educational institutions for the education of students from low-income families, particularly Native Americans; school library resources, textbooks, and other teaching materials; development of supplementary educational organizations and services; educational research and training; grants to strengthen state departments of education and general provisions.

The purpose of the passing of the Indian Education Act in 1972 was to develop and apply adequate and proper educational services for Native Americans by providing future generations of Native Americans with the means of knowledge and competence in modern society without making them detach from their native culture and traditions. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 encouraged legal collaboration with federally recognized Indian tribes, including making grants directly to them. The latter would have authority to decide how to use and experience greater control over their academic and social welfare.

The purpose of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978 was to provide resources to Indian tribes for developing and improving tribal schools and colleges. The act focused on grants to community colleges led by tribes and technical assistance contracts. The act also increased the previously existing Federal contribution to the Tribally-Controlled Community College Endowment Program to $750,000.  However, the poor conditions of the educational institutions, bureaucratic delays in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Education and other legislative provisions, as well as design flaws in the Act helped only half of the eligible tribal colleges receive operating grants from the Act.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was the result of extremely high rate of forced separation of Indian children from their families, communities and American Indian cultures. According to Native American tribe Louis La Rose, “the cruelest trick that the white man has ever done to Indian children is to take them into adoption court, erase all of their records and send them off to some nebulous family … residing in a white community and he goes back to the reservation and he has absolutely no idea who his relatives are, and they effectively make him a non-person and … they destroy him” (Turner, 2016). The Augustus F. Hawkins-Robert T. Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988 enabled revisions in Indian and Native Hawaiian education and Bilingual Education Act to increase flexibility in teaching techniques. The act would eliminate the former harsh conditions which compelled students to speak English.



To conclude, both African Americans and Native Americans were victims of the U.S. educational system strongly affected by racial segregation. African Americans lacked educational opportunities due to laws, social norms, and restrictions stemming from and resulting in inequality. Those restrictions not only challenged materially but also spiritually. “Caring adults gave individual concern, personal time, and so forth to help ensure a learning environment in which African American children would succeed. Despite the difficulties they faced and the poverty with which they had to work, it must be said that they experienced no poverty of spirit” (Spring, 2004). By the early 2000s, American Indian children mostly studied in educational institutions, local facilities and local non-Indian schools led by the Tribes or the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian students. Native Americans, on the other hand, were to suffer from the imposition of education through boarding schools which were to destroy their ethnic identity and culture. In early 1900s, the U.S. government defined the boarding schools and compulsory education as ineffective as they found that the indigenous societies were not capable of rapid integration. Fortunately, this relatively positive shift provided the Native Americans with the opportunity to cherish what was left from their cultural identity.

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