THE REPENTANCE PROJECT / AN AMERICAN LENT
Keeping Education Out of Reach
WEEK VI / DAY I
Monday, March 19, 2018
Scripture / Isaiah 58:6
Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Our History and Its Legacy
At the Corhaven Graveyard in rural Virginia, where lie the remains of 24 enslaved people from before the days of the Civil War, there are only field stones, stuck straight into the ground, to mark where some of them lay. There are no inscriptions on them, no names, no dates of birth, no dates of death, no Bible verses, and no kind words. If these enslaved people had put any inscriptions on a gravestone, they would have betrayed the fact that they knew how to read and write, which could have led to severe punishment by their owner. Even their owner could have been punished and fined, as well, for allowing those he enslaved to learn how to read and write, since this was illegal in Virginia after 1830 and in many slave-holding states.
What generated these laws was simply fear. From here: “It was believed that literacy was incompatible with the institution of slavery and could ultimately lead to its downfall through rebellion and educated blacks demanding the same rights that whites enjoyed.”
This statute from North Carolina in 1830 was somewhat typical:
AN ACT TO PREVENT ALL PERSONS FROM TEACHING SLAVES TO READ OR WRITE, THE USE OF FIGURES EXCEPTED: Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State: Therefore, Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction, shall, at the discretion of the court, if a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes. II. Be it further enacted, That if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.
These laws were made even stricter after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831.
During the Civil War many black Americans, both black soldiers and runaway slaves living in camps protected by the Union Army, were educated in schools created by the army. During the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, there was a surge in the education of blacks in the schools created by both the Freedmen’s Bureau and by Blacks themselves. With the end of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow, however, the lack of commitment to the education of black Americans continued and manifested itself in several ways: 1) Through little governmental assistance to provide education; 2) Through sub-standard education for Blacks utilizing the system of segregation; and 3) Through ghettoization which has led to overwhelming student density with little resources devoted to the most failing schools, particularly in inner-city America. These stories and connections are explicitly made in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. The history of our country holds to the belief that the education of some children simply matters less than others — a belief that still persists.
The landmark case of Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954 was an important step forward, though it did not solve everything. For more on this see The Unfinished Promise of Brown v. Board of Education where the author states that “over the last 40 years, the Supreme Court has failed to advance equal education and unfortunately has frustrated it.”
Reflect and Respond
Massive systems like the one to provide education to America’s children can be hard and slow to change. Many are called to speak up about this, some are called to work on this. All of us, though, can be attentive and proactive to enhance the education of those who have not been the beneficiaries of the best education that can be provided for them. We can do this through tutoring through a school system or making ourselves available to students we are aware of who are struggling. How would you seek to address the injustice of inequitable education opportunities, even in the life of just one boy or girl?
Written by Bill Haley