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March 2, 2017

Black Education: Event looks at past, examines present, envisions the future

Composite image of education doodles


The future of black education is personal for Roderick Carey, postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Education’s Center for Urban Education — because so is the history.

Carey’s great grandfather, William James, founded the Statesboro High and Industrial School in Georgia in 1907 to serve black students shut out of local white schools. It was an era when African-American institutions sometimes were set on fire by white citizens who objected to their very existence. After experiencing such a catastrophe, students and faculty at Statesboro funded the rebuilding of their school by farming a cotton field on the school property, Carey said.

Carey gave the keynote address for “Engaging the Past, Enacting the Present and Envisioning the Future of Black Education” on Feb. 15, sponsored by Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The event, billed as “a discussion of the history of systemic inequity in educational opportunities” for black students, also included a panel featuring local educators.

“Black people have historically, do now and will always value education,” Carey told the capacity crowd in the O’Hara Student Center. “Black people have, do and probably always will view education as a project not solely for individual gain” but for collective improvement.

Being educated also is a counterforce to racism and racist power, he noted — something slave owners, and the white society among which free blacks later lived, have long realized.

For those reasons, black people historically have invested in their own education, Carey said. But since black people became part of an officially integrated, if still de facto segregated, public school system nationwide with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, the history and future of black education can’t be separated from our public school system’s fate. And there has been “a public disinvestment in education generally,” and in education for black people specifically, he said.


Schoolboy thinking with his hand on his headBlack education was not only viewed as incendiary by segments of the white U.S. population, during and after slavery, it was punishable by law in the South until emancipation. Slaves risked their lives to learn how to read and write, sometimes enlisting white slaveholders’ children to teach them, Carey said.

When African Americans were freed, “they ran, not walked, to start schools,” Carey said.

The country’s 100-plus historically black colleges and universities got their start in former slave states, except for six established earlier in Northern states.

By 1862 in Louisiana, for instance, blacks had established a network of small schools. Union forces took over these 95 institutions in 1863. At the end of the war, the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau took control of the schools, which were funded by federal contributions and property taxes.

Just a few years later, however, in a money-saving move, the state closed all its black schools.

Schooling in Northern states shifted after the Civil War as well, with a changing population that included an influx of new immigrants.

During 1900-14, two million European immigrants came to Pennsylvania, and “Pittsburgh received thousands of black immigrants,” Carey noted. The black population of the city grew from 25,000 in 1900 to 54,000 by 1914. There were about 700 African-American ironworkers here in 1900, for instance; by 1914, there were nearly 3,000.

Child reading in classMost new black residents of Pittsburgh settled in the Hill District. They soon were joined by a new wave of black migration to industrial jobs vacated here during World War I, when five million white men left to fight.

Legal school segregation had been banned in Pennsylvania in 1881, “but de facto segregation was quite prevalent,” Carey said. However, the present-day “crisis” in education, he said, started around 1930, “as urban industry struggled to recover from the Depression, [and] suburbs began to grow,” with whites moving out of the city and school funding decreasing.

With neighborhood schools now segregated due to these population shifts, predominantly black schools began to suffer from overcrowding while predominantly white schools, with empty seats in classrooms, resisted taking in black kids.

“All contributed to racist policies” that tracked black kids into lower-level classes and industrial training “for jobs that just weren’t there anymore,” he added.

By the 1960s, black kids were being blamed “for a school system that failed them,” he said.

It certainly did not help that there were few black leaders or teachers in the school district. Through the 1950s, only 5.3 percent of Pittsburgh Public Schools employees were black. The district’s first black principal was hired in 1955, its first black school counselor in 1960.

Pittsburgh has tried busing to integrate its schools and college scholarship programs to aid black students, but city schools, with 54 percent black and 33 percent white students, remain largely segregated today.

Carey points to current reading and math disparities between the races: For instance, only 21 percent of the district’s black students are enrolled in calculus, versus 64 percent of white students. This handicaps black students’ pursuit of college and careers in high tech, he noted. Similarly, graduation rates are 89 percent for whites and 68 percent for blacks.

“We see grossly disproportional amounts of black students receiving in-school and out-of-school suspensions,” he added: 73 percent of all out-of-school suspensions are given to the city’s black students currently.

The solution to “the perceived crisis in public education,” he posited, is for African Americans to “reinvest in public education and fight against systems that have been known to oppress them.”


The panel discussion was moderated by School of Social Work faculty member Keith Caldwell and featured:

• Angela Allie, executive director of the office of equity in Pittsburgh Public Schools;

• Linda Williams-Moore, associate dean of students and director of student life in Pitt’s Office of Student Affairs;

• Gail Edwards, chief academic officer of Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School;

• Darryl T. Wiley, CEO of the Fund for the Advancement of Minorities Through Education, or FAME, which gives scholarships to private schools; and

• Saleem Ghubril, head of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program for city school graduates.

The panelists elaborated on Carey’s sentiments.

“This is a fight,” said FAME’s Wiley. “There’s nothing subtle about it. Our children are not in this position by accident. I don’t think there’s one way of addressing this goal.

“The big piece for us is being active,” he added. “You either are moving toward progress or you’re not. It’s [about] engaging children, finding out where the particular gaps are and addressing the gaps … we want to provide resources and give them the tools.”

Williams-Moore also is the program director for RISE, a Pitt mentoring program focusing on increasing retention and graduation rates. “We realized that students who were coming to the University of Pittsburgh were not living in the city of Pittsburgh,” she said: “We want to dispel the myth” that Pitt is too hard for Pittsburgh Public Schools students. “We have mechanisms to help them persist here, but we have to get them here,” she said. Pitt now is sending RISE participants into city schools to tutor students and to show them that getting into Pitt is an attainable goal.

Ghubril, of the Pittsburgh Promise, said, “The Promise does not believe that everybody has to have a four-year degree.” But, he added, “a high school diploma is not enough. Some education after high school is absolutely critical.” Since the 2008 recession, he noted, 9 million jobs have been created, but 8.4 million of them went to people who had at least a two-year degree.

Allie, head of the city schools’ equity office, asked: “In what ways are we the issue?” She studies systemic racial equity issues and tries to solve them for black students, she noted. “Think about how many times we have this conversation about them,” she said, “and profess to do things for them, without them.”

The purpose of education for black people remains true to the past, she concluded: “The purpose of education for underserved populations is freedom.”

—Marty Levine

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