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These Separate Schools: Black Politics and Education in Washington, D.C., 1900-1930

  • Author(s): Bernard, Rachel Deborah
  • Advisor(s): Martin, Waldo E.
  • et al.
Abstract

"These Separate Schools: Black Politics and Education in Washington, D.C., 1900-1930," chronicles the efforts of black Washingtonians to achieve equitable public funding and administrative autonomy in their public schools and at Howard University. This project argues that over the course of the early twentieth century, black Washingtonians came to understand their two-pronged goals of administrative autonomy and equitable allocation of resources in both their public schools and at Howard in terms of civil rights. At the turn of the twentieth century, many African Americans in Washington defended their educational institutions as venues for individually demonstrating their own good citizenship and respectability, in other words as means to social and economic uplift. By the 1910s and 1920s, however, they spoke about equal educational opportunity as a civil right, guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution. Also, while these struggles for educational equality began in the public schools, they were soon taken up by leaders at Howard University and its law school.

In addition to educational equality, administrative autonomy was another key part of black Washingtonians' rights agenda. Black Washingtonians were able to carve out a nearly autonomous space first in the segregated public schools in the 1900s and 1910s and then at Howard University in the 1920s, and they considered this degree of independence critical to improving and maintaining the quality of their schools. Although they fully acknowledged and abhorred the fact that racial segregation was intended to subjugate their race, by persistently pressing for autonomy, black Washingtonians imbued the institution of racial separation in Washington's black schools and black university with new meaning. Rather than solely symbolizing oppression, through their efforts racial separation became a marker of leadership and power. Taken together, the battle for equalizing primary, secondary, and higher education was a critical component of the black civil rights agenda in this period, even within the context of racial segregation.

"These Separate Schools" challenges the notion that the battle for educational equality began in the 1930s and 1940s in the courtroom and demonstrates instead that it began in the early twentieth century with the activism of ordinary black citizens in Washington, D.C., which in this period was governed by Congress. Contrary to typical portrayals of African-American political participation during the Jim Crow Era, this project shows that black Washingtonians were deeply involved in early twentieth-century political life on multiple levels. Locally, they were instrumental in the District's unique educational politics; nationally, they shaped federal government race policy and Congressional legislation; and, ideologically, they were leaders in a national conversation about civil rights, black advancement, and the role of education in American democracy.

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