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date: 25 February 2021

From the “New Negro” to Civil Rights: African American Education, 1919–1945

Abstract and Keywords

In the 1920s, African Americans returned from World War I with a renewed fervor for egalitarian education. The New Negro of the 1920s more aggressively agitated for equal rights, exalted African American culture, and demanded self-determination. Such sentiment evidenced itself in both attitude and organization through Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Harlem Renaissance, the growth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Carter G. Woodson's Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. As a result of this new attitude, the issue of how and to what end African Americans should be educated came to a head in the 1920s. Black college student enrollment increased six-fold from 2,132 in 1917 to 13,580 in 1927. This influx of students demanded an education that would allow them to make the democracy for which many had fought abroad a domestic reality. Their actions posed a vigorous new challenge to industrial education and second-class citizenship for African Americans.

Keywords: African American education, student enrollment, civil rights, egalitarian education, New Negro, self-determination

The New Negro: 1919–1930

In the 1920s, African Americans returned from World War I with a renewed fervor for egalitarian education. The New Negro of the 1920s more aggressively agitated for equal rights, exalted African American culture, and demanded self-determination. Such sentiment evidenced itself in both attitude and organization through Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Harlem Renaissance, the growth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Carter G. Woodson's Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

As a result of this new attitude, the issue of how and to what end African Americans should be educated came to a head in the 1920s. Black college student enrollment increased six-fold from 2,132 in 1917 to 13,580 in 1927 (Enrollment in Negro Universities and Colleges 1928, cited in Wolters 1975). This influx of students demanded an education that would allow them to make the democracy for which many had fought abroad a domestic reality. Their actions posed a vigorous new challenge to industrial education and second-class citizenship for African Americans.

(p. 611) In many cases students themselves took the reins of the struggle for equal rights and a proper education. Fisk University provides a particularly vivid case in point. Located in Nashville, Tennessee, and established after the Civil War, Fisk was considered the premier liberal arts institution for African Americans. Budget problems forced the institution to seek out white industrial philanthropy, which supported vocational training rather than the classical liberal arts curriculum. In order to solicit funds, Fisk's white president endeavored to prove that Fisk did not stray too far from the vocational model of education, and that its students “were not radical egalitarians but young men and women who had learned to make peace with the reality of the caste system” (Wolters 1975: 34). He also invited Booker T. Washington to sit on the Board of Trustees. This infuriated students and alumni, including W. E. B. Du Bois, whose daughter attended Fisk at the time. In protest, Du Bois collected depositions from alumni regarding how the shifted mission of the institution sought to undermine initiative and self-respect and persuade elite black youth to forget egalitarian principles and adjust to the racial hierarchy. At the 1908 Fisk graduation ceremony, Du Bois warned against the lure of money:

When a man offers …education for a bribe, then must the watchman on the outer wall cry, “Halt—In the King's name!” And you graduates of Fisk University, are the watchmen on the outer wall. …The personality of an institution is a peculiar thing. The apparently isolated—almost unconscious movements of individuals, guided by the outside pressure of powerful interests, easily bring that to pass of which they themselves had not dreamed. And so today this venerable institution stands before its problem of future development, with the bribe of Public Opinion and Private Wealth dangling before us. (Du Bois 1908, quoted in Aptheker 1973: 27)

In 1924, students took matters into their own hands by staging a demonstration against the president and issuing a list of demands including reinstatement of the newspaper, track, football, and the student council. In February 1925, the conflict came to a head. Approximately one hundred black male students defied the lights out curfew and instead yelled, sang, smashed windows, and chanted “Du Bois! Du Bois!” The president called in the local (white) police to arrest the students. Protesting the arrests, the student body went on strike for ten weeks. By April, the president submitted his resignation, and later that year the new administration met many of the students’ demands (Wolters 1975; Anderson 1988).

Such actions would have been considered unthinkable twenty years earlier, but the pervasive New Negro sentiment of the early twentieth century meant that African Americans more aggressively confronted power holders and forced change. Other campuses jettisoned their industrial programs, and even Hampton and Tuskegee adopted liberal arts curricula in the 1920s. For their part, black students fought against paternalism and industrial education and demanded more control over their own institutions. They left a mark on undergraduate education and paved the way for future generations of black college students to access a college curriculum that prepared them to pursue political, civic, and economic equality for themselves and the black community in general.

(p. 612) Like their counterparts at black institutions, black students at white northern colleges brought with them the spirit of the New Negro in the 1920s. Black students aggressively protested racism on campus and demanded changes in a way that their predecessors had not. In the words of a freshman at New York University in 1927, “If New York University knows that for every offense there is a strong organization ready to ‘strike back’ she will not be so inconsiderate in her actions. She is fully capable of paying the price each time, it is true, but she will not be willing to pay if she knows that it will be exacted every time” (Young 1927, cited in Wolters 1975: 315). Students across the country rallied against voluntary cafeteria segregation policies, racist treatment in classrooms and dormitories, and segregation in local campus-towns that prevented them from enjoying the same services as white students (Mays 1971; Wolters 1975). Sometimes they were joined by sympathetic whites like in the University of Michigan's Negro-Caucasian Club's sit-in protest of segregated restaurants in Ann Arbor (Wolters 1975). Gradually it became harder to preserve the assumptions that segregated, low-level education for second-class citizenship was the only appropriate education for blacks.

The spirit of the New Negro extended to K–12 education as well. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, members of the Rosenwald Fund intended to build an industrial arts school in 1928. Black leaders protested and demanded an academic and college preparatory curriculum. W. A. Booker, a local black attorney wrote, “Our people here have been waiting patiently over a span of years for a real high school, one that would not be a subterfuge; one that would give a thorough educational training and literary background, and a curriculum upon which a college education could be well predicated” (Booker to Arthur, 1928, cited in Anderson 1988: 210). Booker and his allies were successful, and the school opened as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 1929. The curriculum included academic and industrial pursuits, but students crowded into the academic courses despite the intention of white philanthropists (Arthur 1928, cited in Anderson 1988; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Files, Library of Congress, cited in Wolters 1975; Jones 1982).

Advances in the scientific community and challenges to the eugenics movement, which pointed to black intellectual inferiority and genetic weakness, bolstered black demands for access to a liberal arts curriculum. The use of standardized testing, which became a popular tool for tracking students into different curricula in the early 1900s, began to be questioned in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The rationales for tracking—like those for using scores to set immigration quotas into the United States—often were motivated by racial and ethnic politics. Just as Henry Goddard “proved” with his testing experiments in 1912 that 83 percent of Jews, 80 percent of Hungarians, 79 percent of Italians, and 87 percent of Russians were feeble-minded (Kamin 1974), so did Lewis Terman “prove” in the early 1900s that “Indians, Mexicans, and negroes …should be segregated in special classes. …They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers” (Terman, quoted in Oakes 1985: 36). The use of these tests reinforced the notion that black schooling should be minimal and oriented to manual labor and sorted students into such courses of study in “modern” school systems.

(p. 613) Social scientists who believed that environment was the cause of lower test scores, not innate lack of capability, set out to prove their beliefs with empirical data. They posed questions regarding the data that consistently “proved” the intellectual inferiority of the black race: How did one account for black intellects of the time? And was it fair to expect test scores to be equal for whites and blacks when black schools were so obviously inferior to white schools in terms of funding and resources?

The results of one 1930 study of black and white college students of similar socioeconomic background showed little difference in academic performance or IQ test scores. A 1934 study of black “gifted” Chicago South Side youth, some of whom tested near 200 on IQ tests, resulted in the observation that “improved opportunities for educational and cultural development” were the reasons for the superior academic performances from the black children in the study (Witting and Martin 1934, quoted in Maskin 1973: 24).

Robert Park and Otto Klineberg two social scientists, introduced additional complexity into the discussion of black intellect. Park's 1931 study refuted the “mulatto hypothesis,” a common theory of the time that explained “outlier” black intellects as the result of having white blood in the black genetic makeup. This hypothesis was formed on the observation that about 20 percent of racially mixed blacks made up approximately 85 percent “of the race's cultural advance guard” (Maskin 1973: 24). Park found that it was not a case of white heritage that increased black intellect, but greater social, educational, and economic opportunity. Lighter-skinned blacks had more access to a variety of opportunities than did darker-skinned African Americans.

Klineberg research focused on a reconceptualization of intelligence. He identified five determinants of intellect: (1) cultural status of the home; (2) sanitary conditions of the community; (3) earliness of exposure to formal schooling; (4) efficiency and extent of schooling; and (5) nutrition and general health. As these elements approached parity between whites and blacks in his study, differences in intelligence test scores diminished significantly. Klineberg also made the important observation that blacks who scored the lowest on IQ tests were those who migrated from the South where schools were underfunded, underresourced, and run for shorter terms than schools in the North. This finding was reinforced by other studies of U.S. military data that found higher IQ scores for northern blacks than for whites or blacks from the South (Bond 1934; Dearborn 1928; Tyack 1974).

These studies refuting the myth of black intellectual inferiority became important ammunition in the battle for more ambitious education and for equitable treatment of black students. So, too, did they encourage equitable treatment for black teachers, since the same presumptions of inferiority had been used to justify poorer education and compensation for black teachers. By the end of the 1920s, the number of black teachers had grown substantially. In 1930, approximately 47,000 black teachers taught in fifteen southern states, but many of them did not have teaching certificates and had minimal education. These teachers often were hired because schools paid them a cheaper salary than a more highly qualified teacher (p. 614) (Morgan 1995). Teacher salaries in general were blatantly unequal. Across the nation, black teachers consistently received lower salaries than did white teachers. In 1929, legislation in West Virginia began to rectify this inequity. A West Virginia state law declared: “Salaries of Negro teachers shall be the same as the salaries of other teachers in the same district, independent district, city or town, with the same training and experience, and holding similar credentials” (West 1972: 163). This was the beginning of the end of the separate salary schedules erected for black and white teachers across the country and an important linchpin in equalizing school resources.

The Great Depression and World War II: 1931–1945

The advances seen in the 1920s were not easily maintained. The onslaught of the Great Depression hit blacks and poor Southerners first and affected them the hardest. It also took them the longest to recover. Prior to the Depression, the South already struggled educationally. Local property taxes were not sufficient to keep schools running with the decline in real estate during the Depression. The inequity between urban and rural schools was starkly highlighted during this time. According to Tyack, “educational opportunity increasingly became a function the pupil's place of residence” (1974: 29). Blacks in the South were doubly hit because they primarily attended already underfunded rural schools that were starved even further. Over 50 percent of schools were one-room structures with no modern facilities. Other schools were housed in churches, abandoned buildings, or lodge halls (Ashmore 1954). Black schools in the South often received the “cast-offs” of white schools: used books and materials that were outdated and barely useable.

African Americans continued to prioritize education, even during the national economic crisis, by making personal donations and raising funds for southern schools. During the 1930–31 academic year, blacks from fourteen southern states (including Texas), raised almost $91,000 for school improvement, a staggering amount considering the abject poverty that most black Southerners experienced during this time period. A 1934 study reported an average yearly income of $105.43 for black families (Ashmore 1954). Free labor that African Americans rendered to schools was another manifestation of self-reliance and philanthropy as important as monetary donations. As the Depression progressed, however, it became virtually impossible for African Americans to continue to give at the same level that they had traditionally donated to schools.

Construction budgets in the South peaked before the economic crisis of the 1930s. After this crisis, a steady decline in educational spending began. The effects of budget cuts were much more tragic for southern black schools than for white schools because a larger percentage of their budgets went toward teacher salaries than in (p. 615) white schools. In white schools extracurricular activities and “luxuries” were the first to be cut, while underfunded black schools operated on the bare essentials and lacked the cushion these “extras” provided. As a result, budget cuts quickly impacted teacher salaries and hiring. In many places, black schools were forced to close.

In spite of these odds, the same spirit of black self-reliance and perseverance produced gains in school attendance even during the Great Depression. Three factors contributed to hard-won gains in black education during the 1930s and early 1940s: a new federal role in education stimulated by the New Deal, ongoing black organizing and litigation against educational inequalities, and the G.I. Bill that followed World War II.

As a result of these forces, school terms lengthened between 1930 and 1940. Black teachers’ salaries grew prior to the Depression, and the gap between white salaries and black salaries diminished during the Depression, though it did not disappear. Additionally, black Southerners stayed in school longer, and black high-school attendance grew by over 400 percent from 1920 to 1940 (Ashmore 1954). By 1940, blacks attended schools at the same rate as whites—though black schools remained underfunded and staffed and were sometimes of poor quality. Seventy-eight percent of black children and 79 percent of white children between the age of 5 and 14 attended school. Their rising enrollment rates challenged the notion that blacks did not value education and represented progress in the quest for equality and educational opportunity.

A New Deal

The shifts in understandings of intelligence precipitated by the scientific community—from describing intellect as a fixed, inherent characteristic to intelligence as influenced by outside factors—powerfully affected government intervention in education during the Depression years. Growing belief in the intellectual potential of blacks supported “the creation of an intellectual atmosphere conducive to a nationwide assault by the federal government on the problem of unequal opportunity” (Maskin 1973: 31).

With President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the federal government took a more active role in the social concerns of the nation. In spite of the fact that Roosevelt advocated state and local control of schools, his administration did respond with federal aid during the hardest of the Depression years. It was, in part, the responsiveness to those in need that began to shift black support from the Republican Party to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. Specifically, New Deal programs made provisions for African Americans, particularly through educational projects administered by the Federal Emergency Relief Program (FERP). The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) administered the projects. The WPA made provisions for African Americans with attention (p. 616) to school construction, adult education, and student aid. The WPA had a reputation as being racially equitable, with the exception of teacher salaries. The NYA shared a similar reputation for fairness in distributing funds. In fact, in 1936, the NYA created a special fund to support students attending black colleges.

The federal appointment of a specialist in “Negro education” dramatized this attention to black educational needs in 1930. The Office of Education chose Dr. Ambrose Caliver as the first person to hold this position. Caliver completed his Ph.D. at Teachers College, Columbia University with a major in College Administration and Instruction, and a minor in Educational Personnel Research. He was the first black Ph.D. in his chosen field. His primary function appeared to be research on issues of black education across the country with particular attention to the South (West 1972).

With this much needed attention and support, black education at all levels continued to grow. The WPA adult education programs in the South served 26 percent of the general population, of whom 38 percent were black. Though a general need for literacy existed across the South, the need was deemed greater in the black community. As a result, nearly one-third of the teachers in the program were African American. The federal government also funded nursery schools for black children in fourteen southern states. In 1935, 54 emergency nursery schools received federal funding; by 1937, 160 operated with such funds. The increase of approximately 150 percent in just two years was due in part to the fact that a black administrative assistant was hired to oversee the allocation of resources benefiting black children (Morgan 1995).

The Ongoing Fight for Equity

Black citizens organized to combat the segregated and often underfunded schools during this era. In Philadelphia, black activists formed the Educational Equality League in 1932. The League took on a variety of educational issues of concern. First, it targeted the state-mandated textbooks for their racist content and successfully persuaded the school board to adopt a different text in subsequent years. They next targeted the segregated school system. The League supported a parent-organized boycott and lawsuit against two school districts adjacent to Philadelphia. The litigation dragged, and the boycott lasted almost two years. City officials attempted to intimidate parents into a compromise by arresting those educating their children in makeshift classrooms and accused them of violating the compulsory school law. The charges were dropped, but the act gave sustenance to black community school activists. By spring 1934, the districts acquiesced under threat of a court order. By 1937, the League also succeeded in purging separate teacher eligibility and appointment lists, getting an African American elected to the Philadelphia Board of Public Education, and desegregating the Philadelphia public schools (Franklin 1979).

(p. 617) The NAACP inaugurated its coordinated legal strategy against white supremacy and school segregation during this era. It focused its efforts on southern white institutions and graduate/professional level education. Although black colleges and universities began to replace industrial and vocational curricula with academic courses in the 1920s, they struggled financially, and federal fiscal support did not lessen the gap in funding between white and black institutions of higher education (Franklin 1979). Black colleges and universities also did not have the same course availability as white college and graduate schools. This lack of adequate courses of study gave ammunition to the court battles pivotal to the progress of African American educational opportunity.

Many of the educational legal battles in the 1930s and 1940s focused on gaining equal access to educational opportunity. The most significant court case since Plessy v. Ferguson was the 1935 Murray v. Maryland case in which Donald Murray, a black Amherst College graduate, applied to the University of Maryland School of Law and was refused admission because of Maryland's segregation laws. The first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, Charles Houston, and the first black justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, filed an injunction in local courts. Their argument focused on the fact that the state of Maryland had no school of law for African Americans. In an attempt to comply with the Plessy ruling, Maryland granted fifty scholarships to blacks to be used for attendance to schools outside of the state. These fifty scholarships, Murray stated, were insufficient to ensure that every qualified black student who applied for one received the funding. The court agreed with their argument since the scholarships only covered tuition which meant students forced to attend school in another state were economically disadvantaged.

The Court could not order the state to establish a black law school because none of Maryland's officials were authorized to create a separate law school. Therefore, the only way to ensure equal treatment for Murray was to allow him entry to the University of Maryland's law school. Maryland's lower court and the Court of Appeals ordered that the university grant Murray admission. Although the case did not make its way to the United States Supreme Court, it “opened up important new avenues of relief when it specified non-segregation as a remedy when no other was readily available” (Ashmore 1954: 32). Murray went on to graduate twelfth in a class of thirty-seven in 1938.

In a similar case, Lloyd Gaines, a graduate of Missouri's (all-black) Lincoln University, applied for admission to the University of Missouri School of Law and was denied. Gaines v. Canada, which ultimately broadened the Murray ruling, reached the Supreme Court in 1938 as “the first significant application of Plessy in the field of higher education” (Ashmore 1954: 32). Gaines argued that no provisions were made for African Americans to attend law school within the state. According to the Murray decision, the out-of-state scholarships did not comply with separate but equal qualifications. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes stated in the Gaines ruling that a legal education equal in quality to that available to whites must be provided for black students. The ruling also emphasized the personal rights of the individual. The Court did not order the admission of Gaines into the University of (p. 618) Missouri (this would have overturned the Plessy precedent), but instead the Court required that equal educational opportunity within the state be granted to Gaines. Missouri officials established a law school at Lincoln University to satisfy the ruling (Ashmore 1954; Golf 1976).

Questioning School Desegregation

While the battle for access to education often pressed for admission to white schools, questions about whether desegregated schools were better for black students began to arise. Segregated schools were the norm in both the North and the South, reinforced by housing policies, as well as legislation and administrative assignments. In larger cities with more liberal viewpoints, some African Americans sent their children to schools with white children, but this was unusual. In 1935, about 80 percent of black students attended segregated schools. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed mortgage loans that explicitly supported housing segregation, reinforcing this trend.

In the relatively few desegregated schools, school personnel increasingly created internal segregation systems. As the eugenics movement made its way into education, it provided justification for tracking schemes that created different kinds of education for the children of different races and classes. The new IQ movement (tested and perfected on black and white soldiers in World War I) provided a way to rationalize this tracking and very different opportunities to different students, thus institutionalizing first- and second-class citizenship within the same school. The relationship between desegregation and school quality grew much more complex, as desegregation often replaced black teachers committed to their students’ learning with white teachers who held racial prejudices and doubted their students’ intellectual and genetic capacity.

In 1935, Du Bois addressed the desegregation issue in his article “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Although he pushed for desegregation previously, in this essay, Du Bois argued that desegregation did not necessarily produce high-quality education for blacks, by which he meant an academic and culturally relevant curriculum taught by teachers who cared for and believed in their students. He began with this observation:

There are in the United States some four million Negroes of school age, of whom two million are in school, and of these, four-fifths are taught by forty-eight thousand Negro teachers in separate schools. Less than a half million are in mixed schools in the North, where they are taught almost exclusively by white teachers. (Du Bois 1935)

While acknowledging the potential benefits of desegregation, Du Bois worried that white teachers might not adequately teach black children because of the prevailing attitude that black Americans were intellectually inferior. He also argued that black (p. 619) teachers could better understand black children and treat them more equitably. Du Bois observed, “The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group” (1935: 328).

The ability of high-quality black schools like the African Free School in New York City and Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. reinforced the view that well-educated and sympathetic black teachers could produce African American leaders in extraordinary proportions. At the same time, the United Negro Improvement Association collected data in northern schools that confirmed discriminatory practices on the part of white teachers, concluding that “the Negro child developed a minority complex before he or she could develop a defense psychology against prejudicial treatment” (Maskin 1973: 34).

Separatists believed that placing black children into these hostile desegregated environments would cause harmful psychological damage. For a number of black leaders, “the prime question was not whether the Negro needed a good education, but whether or not he was willing to trust the white man to give it to him” (Maskin 1973: 32). Although most of the criticism of white-controlled schools during the New Deal was focused on schools in the South, distrust of northern integrated schools was also evident. Many southern blacks, who migrated northward for better opportunity, including educational opportunities, were disillusioned by white-controlled schools. They asked: “Could a black child receive a decent education from a white teacher, working in a white-controlled institution, and using a curriculum designed for the white child?” (Maskin 1973: 33). For many the answer was “no.”

Many African Americans believed that a voluntary separation of schooling for blacks benefitted not only black children but the black community as a whole—much more so than either a forced segregation or integration of the races. They argued that separate schools meant more black teachers and a strengthening of the black middle class. In addition to the importance of black teachers, these educational leaders highlighted that black schools were able to control curriculum, text choices, and resources to which black students were exposed.

Although Du Bois and others made a case for separate but equal schooling for black children, the majority of black intellectuals during the period disagreed with this stance. Fisk University sociologist Charles Johnson was among them. He argued that, given that black youth would not live in an all-black world, imposing separatist education at an early age would neglect the integrative function at precisely the period when it would be most effective. He and others argued that “it would create in the nonwhite mind intense feelings of ‘disillusionment, frustration, loss of ambition, bitterness, anti-social impulses, [and] a deep sense of inadequacy’” (Maskin 1973: 40).

By the late 1930s, a number of black organizations took strong integration stances. The NAACP the leading black organization at the time, officially launched an antisegregation campaign in 1935. The general black populace supported the NAACP in their stance:

(p. 620) Most black Americans, irrespective of social, economic or educational status, were opposed, in principle, to the maintenance or extension of school segregation in the South as well as the North. In the North, the prevalent attitude seemed to be one of optimistic resignation: integrated schools were a permanent fixture of the educational system, and it was crucial for the race to make the best out of a promising, although admittedly hostile, environment. (Maskin 1973: 37)

Pro-desegregation blacks focused their arguments on the fact that desegregated schools represented substantial improvements over black schools in the South despite the fact they might have been hostile environments for black children. When faced with the undeniable racist practices found in the northern schools, however, pro-desegregation leaders often excused these behaviors as a result of the reluctance of blacks to air their private grievances in a public forum.

Both separatists and integrationists agreed, however, that northern urban schools did not adequately prepare black graduates for the future. The 1935 Conference on Vocational Guidance and Education for Negroes outlined two major problems with northern schools: (1) either they prepared black youth for professions closed to blacks; and (2) or they prepared black youth for jobs that continued to perpetuate the economic and racial stratification (Maskin 1973). Some black educational leaders faulted white counselors for this lack of strategic professional counseling and accused the school counselors of ignorance about the vocations that African Americans desired or into which they were able to integrate. Others attributed it to whites deliberately sabotaging the future prospects of black youth.

Discriminatory course offerings were repeated in different iterations in northern schools. One integrated Boston school held a school assembly only for black students, which highlighted the benefits of manual training and “negro schools.” In New York City, the Board of Education attempted to restrict courses offered in Harlem vocational schools to those that were more menial and lower paying, cutting courses like electrical training from the program. Local school boards on the West Coast banned black students from taking specific vocational courses unless they could produce a letter from an employer who would guarantee them a position after high school (Maskin 1973).

Such practices affected the morale of many African American youth, creating a sense that education was worthless if the only professions open to graduates were those for which they needed little to no education. An organized group of progressive counselors—both black and white—attempted to change this attitude. They attempted to remove the stigma associated with vocational education, urging students to be trained in well-paid professions in case the opportunity arose to move into those highly skilled fields. Simultaneously, they publicly denounced workers’ unions that blocked the hiring of blacks and businesses with racist hiring practices. They also criticized teachers and traditional guidance counselors who continued to perpetuate the myth that blacks were intellectually inferior or unable to move into the mainstream of American society (Maskin 1973). However, these views were hard to change among educators, as well as the general populace. In a 1939 national survey of white Americans, 71 percent of the respondents felt that blacks were (p. 621) intellectually inferior to whites and 31 percent believed that because blacks were intellectually inferior, social mobility through education was not possible for the race (Maskin 1973).

Despite white attitudes regarding black intelligence and white resistance to blacks as first-class citizens, black education improved by the 1940s. Vocational education for manual labor, particularly in black colleges, became rare. Black students and educators demanded liberal arts education, and black colleges began to resemble their white counterparts in important ways. Course offerings expanded, high school offerings disappeared, students gained power on campus, and more black colleges received accreditation from regional associations. The NAACP successfully initiated a strategy that would end segregation in graduate/professional schools, blacks in the South continued to create, fund, and patronize their own schools, and blacks in the North continued to press for desegregation and a high-quality education. These and other gains were slow and often painful, and blacks typically met opposition in their quest. By the end of the 1940s, however, black World War II veterans, emboldened by a fight for democracy abroad, forced more rapid changes and improvements in black education that rippled through to the civil rights era.


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