Biden Has a Unique Opportunity to Undo Years of Education Inequality


President Biden has pledged to combat racial inequality and to expand access and lower costs for higher education. These proposed education policies signal a federal commitment to eradicating barriers that hinder people from reaching their highest academic potential. They are also a reminder of the link between racial discrimination and unequal opportunity in education. Public higher education in the United States was legally segregated on the basis of race from Emancipation until the mid- to late 1950s.

Although many states, on paper, had dual systems of higher education, in reality, these states had well-endowed non-Black flagship institutions (many of these schools admitted non-White students) and poorly funded Blacks-only institutions. The inequity was most extreme at the post-baccalaureate level, as public Black graduate and professional school programs were nonexistent until the eve of World War II. This severely limited the production of Black physicians, lawyers and pharmacists, and stymied the creation of a Black middle class.

Before 1936, there were only seven schools, primarily in the South — all private institutions — where African Americans could pursue graduate or professional studies: Howard University, Hampton Institute, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, Gammon Theological Seminary, Atlanta University and Xavier University. Graduate offerings at these institutions were limited. For example, graduate work at Hampton was possible only in education, and the courses were offered during the summer session only. Most Southern and border states denied African Americans access to public professional school education until the 1950s, forcing them to go out of state for anything beyond a bachelor’s degree.

How did this work? Consider the case of Missouri.

The state had one institution of higher education for African Americans: Lincoln Institute. Located in Jefferson City, Lincoln began as a private institution in 1866 established at the initiative of Black Civil War veterans and became a state normal institution in 1879. And yet, Lincoln was not the Black counterpart to the University of Missouri.

Lincoln did not offer serious study in the liberal arts and had no graduate offerings. Mizzou, as the University of Missouri is often called, had robust undergraduate and graduate programs in a variety of disciplines. This violated the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in which justices decreed that racial segregation was legal but prohibited discrimination on the basis of race or color. Thus, when a state provided certain educational opportunities for one race of people, it had a legal obligation to provide those same educational opportunities to another race of people.

On Jan. 25, 1921, Walthall Moore, the first African American elected to Missouri’s state legislature, introduced a bill seeking $1 million to improve higher education for African American residents of his state and rectify this educational disparity. His bill reorganized Lincoln as a four-year college and created what I call a “segregation scholarship program” that used tax money to pay the full tuition costs for Black residents to attend universities in states adjacent to Missouri pending Lincoln’s full development. Missouri paid for Black students to pursue study out of state that was available to White residents in-state at the University of Missouri. The legislature authorized the segregation scholarships in 1921 but did not fund the program until 1929 because of bureaucratic haggling about whether the money should be drawn against the state’s school fund or its general revenue fund. During the unfunded period, Black newspapers said that Missouri had given its Black citizens a “gold brick.” Even after the state began exiling aspiring Black students, Lincoln remained a university in name only. As late as 1938, the institution did not have a single graduate program.

By the post-World War II era, 15 other border and Southern states had joined Missouri in forcing Black citizens to leave home for graduate and professional school. All of the states required potential students to complete an application, with some states also requesting transcripts and letters of recommendation. No state’s process was as cumbersome as Maryland’s, which required applicants to submit an application, official transcript, recommendation letters, a health certificate and a recent photograph, as well as participate in an interview.

Usually, the segregation scholarship covered the differential between the cost of pursuing a course of study offered at the state’s White institution and the cost of pursuing the same program out of state. Some states also paid travel expenses. Maryland, Texas and Virginia made some provision for living expenses. Most students receiving money studied at Midwestern flagships or private universities in the Northeast.

The program did give educational opportunities to Black Southerners — notably the renowned historian John Hope Franklin, who received funding from Oklahoma to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1941, and medicine trailblazer Frances Jones Bonner, who received funding from North Carolina to obtain a medical degree from Boston University Medical School in 1942. In fact, Southern archives are chock full of segregation scholarship receipts that attest to Black aspiration during the era of legal segregation. Missouri native Almeta Virginia Crockett Lathen matriculated at Lincoln University in 1932 and graduated as valedictorian four years later. Going to Mizzou was out of the question, so she turned her sights northward, and received a segregation scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in home economics at Columbia.

All too often, those who learn about segregation scholarships suggest that the arrangement was “not that bad,” because recipients studied at some of the best research institutions in the country, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago and Columbia University.

Such a view, however, overlooks the many downsides of sending Black scholars out of state. First, states doled out checks arbitrarily and never allocated enough money to accommodate every eligible applicant who sought funding. Second, the legislative decision to send Black graduate students out of state rather than create graduate opportunities at public Black colleges limited the curricular offerings of those institutions and hindered those schools’ ability to achieve regional and national accreditation. Finally, the emotional and psychological costs of being forced to leave the only land one knew to obtain an education made an already cumbersome process that much more dismal. Traveling to or from the Jim Crow South was an arduous trek and often an experience in public humiliation for Black passengers as bus drivers, train conductors and White passengers degraded African Americans.

It was also illegal. States operated segregation scholarship programs in defiance of the historic 6-to-2 decision in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), when the United States Supreme Court ruled that states had a responsibility to offer White and Black citizens the same education within their borders. The Court gave border and Southern states three options to meet this constitutional obligation: discontinuing programs at White schools, desegregating White institutions or establishing separate Black programs.

The Gaines decision ultimately paved the way for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In response to Gaines, many states established a few underfunded graduate and professional school programs at public Black colleges. Missouri went so far as to discontinue a storied graduate journalism program at its flagship institution rather than desegregate. And most egregiously, nine states established segregation scholarship programs after Gaines.

Southern recalcitrance in the educational arena proved how hollow victories in court were absent enforcement of judicial decrees. In fact, most states continued their segregation scholarship programs until the 1960s, ignoring Gaines with confidence that elected officials would not demand compliance.

The myriad consequences of this policy are still being uncovered today. The racial disparities in health care and health outcomes because of the dearth of Black physicians can be linked to the limited opportunities African Americans had to study medicine. Flagship medical schools in Southern and border states barred Black students, leaving Meharry Medical College in Nashville and Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. — the only two Black medical schools in the country after 1918 — with the yeoman’s task of educating the overwhelming majority of Black physicians.

With respect to the landscape of higher education today, another consequence of the long use of segregation scholarships is the slow expansion of academic programs at historically Black colleges and universities. For example, in 1974, the University of North Carolina (UNC) system established a College of Veterinary Medicine at the historically White North Carolina State University rather than at the historically Black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The move was a continuation of the lack of state support for Black institutions and was a missed opportunity to promote desegregation and enhance the curricular offerings at the Black university.

It is imperative that the Biden administration improve access to higher education and increase funding to minority-serving institutions. Such measures would help to address racial inequality and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn, expand their skills and pursue their academic dreams in the United States.

**This piece is reprinted in collaboration with The Washington Post’s ‘Made by History.’

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Crystal R. Sanders

Crystal R. Sanders is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, and the director of the Africana Research Center at Penn State. She is a 20th-century historian with a special interest in African-American history, Southern U.S. history, and the history of black education. She is the author of the award-winning book 'A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle' (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @profcsanders.