While African American women in the antebellum period were far from being treated as equal citizens in the American Republic, they have made great strides in education ever since the end of the Civil War. More women were able to receive an education, although they often confronted hostility and taunt in their attempts. From 1619 through 1862, enslaved population could only have access to education through various religious organizations, slave owners, and other individuals/groups with private funds. As of 1865, only 10% of the African American communities were able to read and write. By 1900, the illiteracy rate of African Americans decreased to 43% from 85% in 1870. At the beginning of the twentieth century, African American children born from 1910 to 1940 started to close the gap between the years of schooling between themselves and white children. By 1940, 8 % of the African American population, age 25 and over, had at least a high school diploma. By 1967, 30% of the African American population, age 25 and over, had at least a high school diploma. As of 2007, 19% of the African American population, age 25 and over, had completed 4 years or more of college.1
Here is an interactive timeline for Milestones in African American Education from 1600s to the year of 2008
To provide the background information for a collaborated project: Information Wanted Ads from the Christian Recorder, this article focuses on the history of African American Women’s education before and after antebellum America. As Diane S. Pollard in “Gender, Achievement, and African-American Students’ Perceptions of Their School Experience” points out, for many years, research on African American ignored the within-group differences, especially with respect to educational attainment. In other words, studies of gender differences in the academic performance of African-American students often treat disparate groups as if they were members of similar, labeling exclusive groups as merely “minorities” or “women”. To acknowledge African American women’s contribution to the cause of education, this article provides a review of the history of African American women’s education before and after the antebellum period.
- 1700s: Colonial Education for African-Americans
The level of women’s education in colonial America((1492-1763) largely depended on race, class, and location. Although Caucasian girls from affluent families had the privilege to be taught by a governess or sent to a convent school, the primary concern for educating a woman at that time was to make her skillful at household duties and a desirable “product” in the marriage market as well. However, slaves, both men and women, were banned from receiving any level of education. In 1740, North Carolina and other states passed the first laws to prohibit slave education. It was a crime punishable by death. Many blacks, if they were allowed to read, were only permitted to read the Bible. During this period, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), a black slave, was marked as the most prominent example of an educated African American woman. Wheatley is the first published African American woman. In 1770, she published her first poem; In 1773, 39 of Wheatley’s pomes were published in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley’s education was extremely rare for colonial America. Her owner taught her to read English, Greek, and Latin and even helped her to study astronomy and geography.
- 1800s: African American Women’s Education Made Great Strides
Through the nineteenth century, higher education became more widely available to women. For a brief review of educational reform in antebellum America, see this video:
However, opening a school for African American students was still condemned as an unacceptable stigma. For instance, in 1833, Prudence Crandall (1803-1890), a schoolteacher raised as a Quaker, was arrested and jailed for teaching African American girls. Although Crandall later won the case on appeal, she ended up closing her school for fear that the outrageous attacks on the school would put her students’ lives into peril.
Oberlin College, founded in 1833 by Presbyterian ministers, is the oldest continuously operating coeducational institution and the first college in the United States to regularly admit African-American students, beginning in 1835. Oberlin College ranked as a National Historic Landmark in 1965, for its seminal significance in admitting African Americans and women.In 1837, Oberlin College began to admit African-American girls. Between 1835 to 1865, more than 140 African-American women attended Oberlin College, many of whom were former slaves. Most took only a few classes to acquire basic literate skills. Among them, 12 graduated from the Ladies’ Course, which was not as rigorous as the bachelor degree program (for example, it did not include the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew courses requird by the full Collegiate degree). 2
Mary Jane Patterson (1840 -1894) graduated in 1862 as the first Afro-American woman to earn a B.A. degree. Patterson worked her way up to become the principal of a high school for African American students in Washington, D.C.
One of the few African American women teachers during antebellum America was Henriette Delille (1813–1862). A freeborn black in New Orleans, Delille cofounded a biracial mission to inculcate knowledge to free and enslaved blacks. In 1842, Delille also established a girls’ academy under the support of Sisters of the Holy Family to help New Orleans impoverished African Americans. With the help of other women, Delille continued to set up school, hospitals, and retirement communities in California, Louisianan, Texas, Washington. D.C. and Belize.3
Ever since 1862, African American women have strived to ask for more legitimate rights of education. One of the widely cited example was Maria Stewart (1803-1879). Stewart is an African American journalist, lecturer, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist. In an 1832 speech in Boston’s Franklin Hall, she declared: “ Oh, do not say you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try. Perhaps you will say that you cannot send them to high schools and academies. You can have them taught in the first rudiments of useful knowledge, and then you can have private teachers, who will instruct them in the higher branches .” For more information about Maria Stewart, please check out the video made by Abolition News Network:
- The Establishment of Segregation
At the end of the Civil War, African Americans’ education remained a highly controversial issue in Southern states. For example, in 1869 Indiana became the first state to explicitly establish a separate set of segregated schools for its Afro-American population; in 1896 the Supreme Court officially established the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the case of Plessy V. Ferguson.
- 1900s: A Great Leap Forward
During the middle of the twentieth century, several major Supreme Court decisions and legislation provided substantial opportunities for African Americans. In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the findings of Plessy V. Ferguson with its landmark Brown V. Board of Education, concluding that the doctrine of “separate but equal” is inherently unequal and unethical in that it violated “the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment”.4
At the same time two divided opinions about what kind of education African Americans should obtain emerged. W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) believed that African Americans were entitled to take the same courses and curriculum as White People in order to enhance the educational quality. Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915), in contrast, advocated for practical vocational training designed for African Americans. In line with Washington’s theory, African American girls should learn essential skills such as cooking, washing, and sewing, which were beneficial for them to find jobs available to them.
Following Washington’s theory, Mary McLeod Bethune ((1875 – 1955) founded Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Afro-American girls in 1904. The girls were taught basic academics and also learned how to do laundry, clean houses, make brooms and raise chickens. Besides teaching academics and technical skills, Bethune also instilled in her students a sense of self-respect and confidence––she believed that girls were able to be excel at everything they did in life. Over time, Bethune’s school was expanded to a high school, junior college, and finally to a college that was renamed Bethune-Cookman University, and still exists today.
At the same time, Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879–1961) started a similar school called the National Training School for Girls and Women in Washington D.C. However, Burroughs stirred intense controversy in that she required her students to take a course in African American History in order to reinforce racism.
It should be noted that in this period, Zora Neale Hurston(1891–1960), an eminent female writer in African-American literature, is the first African American woman to be admitted to Barnard college in 1925. Hurston was closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance and has influenced writers such as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Gade Bambara.
- 2000s: African American Women Gradually Outperform African American Men in Education Achievement
After the Affirmative action took place in the 1972, more positive steps adopted to strengthen the representation of women and minorities employment, education, and culture, where they have been historically excluded. In 2014 a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S Census Bureau Data shows that females outpace males in college enrollment, in particular with Hispanics and African Americans.
Further Readings about African American Women’s Education After the Year of 2000
1 Data obtained from “A Timeline For The Education Of African Americans In the United States: 1600-2007”
2 Data obtained from “Women in Antebellum America”
3 Information extracted from “1800’s: The Education of African American Women”
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
Websites to Visit