This year’s Black History Month theme “Crisis in Education,” set by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), examines the role that education has played in the history of African Americans from times of slavery, through the Civil War, to present day. History is full of examples of people overcoming arbitrary boundaries imposed on them. Below are a just a handful of many African-Americans who, despite slavery, institutional racism, and a lack of resources, went on to become some of the most important and influential writers and politicians in American history.
Starting with the pre-Civil War era in the United States, watch “Slavery and Freedom” from American Passages to learn about the powerful slave narratives of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Douglass received his first literacy lessons illegally from the white mistress of a slave owner, and he later taught himself to read and write. In America’s History in the Making, “Antebellum Reform,” learn about Douglass’s varied reform efforts before, during, and after the Civil War. Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman who was taught to read, escaped from a plantation and eventually fled to the North. She wrote about her own experiences of exploitation and escape in order to bring awareness to the mistreatment of enslaved women. Read about her in “Slavery and Freedom.”
After the Civil War, segregation continued to restrict educational opportunities for blacks in America. Author Richard Wright grew up poor in the segregated South and had to drop out of school in order to make ends meet. He learned his “lessons” while working various jobs and credits his awakening as a writer to Baltimore essayist H.L. Mencken’s attacks on the South’s failings.
Activist Fannie Lou Hamer briefly attended school as a child while picking cotton with her family on a plantation. She later became an activist with the Freedom Democrats, challenging President Lyndon B. Johnson’s lack of commitment to civil rights. Watch A Biography of America, “The Sixties.”