Black Teachers and Liberation: A CBFS Interview

Howard High School Teachers, 1904 (NYPL)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “Education for Liberation,” scheduled for December 1st, we are highlighting the scholarship of three of the guests.

Kabria Baumgartner is a historian of African American life and culture in the nineteenth-century United States. She is the Dean’s Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Northeastern University, where she also serves as Associate Director of Public History.

She is the author of the award-winning book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America (New York University Press, 2019). In addition, professor Baumgartner has published eleven peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on Black Studies and student activism, African American education, and the abolition movement. Her research has been supported by the Spencer Foundation; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the American Antiquarian Society, where she is an elected member and a 2022-23 NEH Fellow; and the Peabody Essex Museum/Phillips Library.

Michael Hines is an Assistant Professor and historian of American education. Before coming to Stanford Dr. Hines was a Minority Postdoctoral Fellow in History and Education at Teachers College Columbia University. He earned his B.A. in History from Washington University in St. Louis, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Cultural and Educational Policy Studies from Loyola University Chicago. Currently his research focuses on how African Americans in the early twentieth century created new curricular discourses around race and historical representation. He has been quoted in stories from EdWeek and CNN, and his work has been published in TIME, the Washington Post, the Journal of African American History, the History of Education Quarterly and the Journal of the History Childhood and Youth. His first book, A Worthy Piece of Work, from Beacon Press, was recently published.

Brian P. Jones is an American educator, scholar, activist, and actor. He is the inaugural director of the Center for Educators and Schools of The New York Public Library, and formerly the Associate Director of Education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he was also a scholar in residence. Jones earned a PhD in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center and has contributed to several books on issues of racism, inequality, and Black education history, most recently to Black Lives Matter At School: An Uprising for Educational Justice. He is the author of The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History (NYU Press Black Power Series).

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies: What is the central argument of your book? How does it build upon previous scholarship in Black intellectual history, Black freedom movement history, and the history of education? 

Dr. Kabria Baumgartner: A central question that frames my book, In Pursuit of Knowledge, is when African Americans faced significant educational discrimination and exclusion in the nineteenth-century Northeast, what did African American girls and women do to advance schooling and teaching opportunities for themselves and others? From this question (and subsequent research) emerged an interconnected story of brave African American girls and women who strategized, organized, wrote, protested, and petitioned for equal school rights—not just for themselves, but for all. By narrating the educational experiences, goals, and challenges of young African American women, In Pursuit of Knowledge restores them to the broader history of U.S. education while also showing how both race and gender shaped the struggle for educational equality.

Dr. Michael Hines: A Worthy Piece of Work contains a few overarching arguments. One is that while the stories of Black women educators have often been neglected in the history of education, their intellectual contributions are vital to understanding movements for social justice in education, both in the past and present. A second theme is how interest convergence can move white policymakers toward embracing social justice-oriented education in moments of national crisis, and how this commitment often proves to be a fleeting one.

The book builds off of previous scholarship in several ways. This book draws from a growing literature on the early movement for Black history in public schools, including amazing work by scholars like Pero G. Dagbovie, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, Jarvis Givens, Alana Murray, LaGarrett King, Anthony L. Brown, and others. At the same time, it acknowledges that much of the existing historiography concentrates on male figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson. A Worthy Piece of Work tells another aspect of this story by centering the largely female educators working at the K-12 level whose contributions are less often brought to light. In that regard the book is in conversation with previous and current scholarship on Black women in education, from Gloria Ladson-Billings and Vanessa Siddle Walker, to Sonya Ramsey, Karen Johnson, Kabria Baumgartner, and so many more. Lastly, A Worthy Piece of Work highlights the role of Black teacher activism in the long civil rights movement from authors like Tondra Loder-Jackson, Elizabeth Todd-Breland, and Patrice Preston-Grimes among others.

Dr. Brian Jones: The main argument of The Tuskegee Student Uprising is that the 1960s student movement at Tuskegee Institute was so explosive because activists skillfully married their classmates’ individual and collective ambitions in the slogans “Black Power” and “Black University.” Tuskegee students wanted their school upgraded sufficiently to realize the promise of their career ambitions, and they simultaneously wanted to contribute to a moment of worldwide social transformation. When the students stepped off-campus to join the movement in the surrounding Black Belt counties, “Black Power” came to effectively mean the struggle for democracy. Off-campus Tuskegee students successfully campaigned for the first Black sheriff elected in the U.S. South since Reconstruction. On campus, they won an impressive list of reforms, but not before they took the board of trustees hostage and survived a campus invasion by the Alabama National Guard. This book builds on previous scholarship on Black people’s uninterrupted struggle for learning and liberation, and research that demonstrates that the Hampton-Tuskegee educational model was supported by elite white people who hoped to contain those aspirations. It also builds on scholarship on the southern roots of the Black Power movement, highlighting Tuskegee Institute’s stature as a nationally-recognized center of that movement. Thus, when two of the movement’s leading lights, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton sat down to write a definitive book on the subject (Black Power: The Politics of Liberation), they devoted an entire chapter to the prospects for Tuskegee, Alabama, as a movement center.

CBFS: Is there an individual, organization, or institution in your book that you could discuss briefly?

Baumgartner: The equal school rights movement began in the late 1830s and continued through the 1860s in states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The movement’s key principle was that all children had a right to quality education on an equal basis, regardless of race. African American activists articulated this principle in petitions to state legislatures, editorials published in abolitionist newspapers, and school committee meetings.

These activists pursued various strategies and tactics, from boycotting so-called “caste schools” to filing lawsuits. For example, in 1845, Eunice Ross, a young Black woman from Nantucket, Massachusetts, petitioned the Massachusetts state legislature, proclaiming herself “amply qualified” to attend Nantucket High School. She had passed the entrance exam and completed the necessary coursework, but the school committee denied her admission because she was African American. Ross was asking the state to “protect all children in their equal right to the schools.” After receiving this petition (and others supporting it), Nantucket integrated its public schools in the late 1840s.

African American girls and women like Eunice Ross were catalysts for the equal school rights movement. They ensured that petitions circulated, that meetings were organized, and that fundraising happened. This was arguably the first Black educational movement in the nineteenth-century U.S., and Black girls took a leading role.

Hines: The book revolves around Madeline Morgan (later Madeline Stratton Morris), a Black educator activist who taught in Chicago from the 1930s to the 1960s. Morgan’s dedication to seeing Black history accorded its proper place in the schools led her to create and champion what ultimately became the first Black history curriculum adopted by the city during the 1940s. Her work was used in 353 K-12 schools in Chicago and became a national and international sensation requested by civic and religious groups, individual teachers, parents, and students, even soldiers fighting on the front lines of the Second World War.

Jones: Gwendolyn Patton was the first Black woman elected Tuskegee student body president. She was a leading organizer of the Tuskegee student movement in its early to mid-1960s phase, helping to found their own civil rights organization, the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League, which fought segregation in the town of Tuskegee, Alabama, and became a launchpad for several other Tuskegee student activists. When one of those activists, Sammy Young Jr, was murdered by a white man in an off-campus incident, Gwen Patton was suddenly the leader of a rapidly escalating student movement. After graduation, she became a full-time organizer of the national student anti-war movement and seems to have connections to nearly every part of Black radicalism for the next several decades. From the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County to the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit, Gwen Patton was there. More than perhaps any other Tuskegee student activist, she also leaves behind an extensive literary legacy. In addition to being a sought-after speaker and interview subject, she published contributions to several anthologies of Black women activist anthologies, and her memoir, My Race to Freedom, was published posthumously. By coincidence, it was flipping through that memoir and recognizing a young woman in one of Gwen Patton’s photos of herself in high school that I learned that my Aunt was a cheerleader with her at Inkster High School!

CBFS: How can learning about histories of Black educational organizing help us to get free today?

Baumgartner: Sarah Mapps Douglass, a nineteenth-century African American educator and activist from Philadelphia, often spoke about the power of education, writing: “Our enemies know that education will elevate us to an equality with themselves. We also know, that it is of more importance to us than gold.” African American activists framed the argument for educational opportunity and access as a matter of equality and rights. Education was a force multiplier. So, for them, fighting together for inclusive schools and teaching opportunities (through Black educational organizing) could dramatically accelerate the fight for winning Black civil rights, racial equality, and full citizenship and freedom. These activists set us on the road to achieving equal school rights. Exploring this history spotlights the long struggle for Black educational justice while reminding us of our collective obligation to continue the work of democratizing U.S. public education.

Hines: One aspect of Morgan’s story that stood out to me was the power of networks of Black educators in the early twentieth century. Morgan was part of a range of local and national groups, including the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the National Urban League, Phi Delta Kappa (a teachers’ sorority), and the NAACP. In addition, she was connected to the George Cleveland Hall public library and its incredible staff, including librarians Vivian Harsh and Charlemae Rollins. These networks gave her spaces where she could exchange philosophies, pedagogies, and practices with others, and hone her skills as an educator. I am interested in how we foster and add to similar spaces today for Black teachers.

Jones: The Tuskegee Student Uprising is a story of Black students challenging a racist power structure, but in doing so, they sometimes also had to challenge caring and dedicated Black educators and administrators on their campus. In the course of their movement, students also reckoned with the legacy of the Tuskegee Institute’s founder, Booker T. Washington. The “we were all more united back then” nostalgia is powerful but ultimately disarming for organizers today, struggling to figure out why unity seems so hard to come by. In this book I’m telling a story of Black people who are trying to get free, but disagreeing quite a bit about how to do so. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they clash, and sometimes they do a bit of both. Looking back, because of its conservative reputation, Tuskegee Institute seems like an unlikely place for such an explosive social movement to emerge. I hope that this story helps us see how schools are not just pure reflections of the intentions of their founders or funders but are contested spaces where many people, students included, invest time and energy to realize their personal and social ambitions. By consistently challenging their schools to rise to the level of their aspirations, Black students have long been a force for democracy on and off campus, continuing the long legacy of linking learning with liberation.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.