My Great-Grandmother Ida B. Wells Left a Legacy of Activism in Education


As it hones its agenda, the new Biden administration would be wise to focus on racial and economic educational inequality. Although the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, many low-income students, who are disproportionately people of color, do not have access to high-quality educational resources and opportunities. The neglect of students on the basis of race and income is long-standing and only addressing it will maximize latent talent, thereby benefiting all Americans.

Ninety percent of American students attend public schools, and the crux of educational inequality is in how those schools are funded — primarily by property taxes. Lower-income neighborhoods where there are high levels of renters or lower home values simply have less money to work with than areas that have higher incomes and higher priced homes (which therefore generate higher property taxes). So, in a country that has a long history of housing and income inequality, the majority of students live in neighborhoods where over 50 percent of the population looks like them. A study by EdBuild estimated a funding gap of $23 billion between predominantly White schools and those dominated by children of color.

This isn’t surprising. Over the past four centuries, barriers have consistently and deliberately been erected to limit African Americans’ access to high-quality education — or even any education at all.

During the 246 years of enslavement, it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read. After the Civil War, there was a brief flurry of school-building in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau with the aim of quickly educating almost 4 million formerly enslaved people. Many schools were created in churches because obtaining funding to build separate structures was difficult. The schools taught all ages, many times with children during the day and adults at night. The demand for teachers was so high that many were recruited from the North to meet the need. However, the progress of Black people was sometimes met with backlash from enraged vigilante White people, who burned Black schools and attacked teachers.

Despite these challenges, there was a clamor for education. More than 90 percent of the formerly enslaved were illiterate, and education was seen as a source of power and independence, and as a tool for having control over their own lives. My great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, who was 3 years old when the Civil War ended, was fortunate to attend Shaw University (Rust College), which was established in 1866 in her hometown of Holly Springs, Miss. Knowing how to read helped Black people have equal footing with White people. It enabled them to decipher contracts, build businesses, engage in politics and influence social issues that affected their lives. As a child, Wells read the newspaper to her father and his friends who were eager to vote and take advantage of opportunities as full citizens. The desire for self-determination also spilled over to Black people wanting to educate their own communities and become professionals in other areas.

In fact, Wells, best known as a pioneering investigative journalist, civil rights activist, suffragist and founder of several organizations, started her career as a teacher. After losing both parents to yellow fever in 1878, she started teaching at age 16 in a rural Mississippi school to provide for her five younger siblings. She wrote in her autobiography that the racially segregated schools were vastly different. The Black schools were overcrowded, often with more than 70 students in a classroom. Buildings and supplies were inadequate, and the teachers were paid less than their White counterparts.

The disparities were no less prevalent once Wells moved on to teaching in Memphis in the 1880s. Her frustration with racial differences between schools led her to write an article in 1891 in the Memphis Free Speech, which she co-owned, exposing the inequality. She said in her autobiography that she wrote the article to “protest the few and utterly inadequate buildings for colored children. I also spoke of the poor teachers given us, whose mental and moral character was not of the best.” As a consequence of the article, she lost her job.

Adding to her disappointment was how some Black parents chastised her for speaking up instead of supporting her for putting her neck on the line. She recounted that someone said, “Miss Ida, you ought not to have done it; you might have known that they would fire you.” Despite her loss of income, she wrote, “I thought it was right to strike a blow against a glaring evil and I did not regret it.” The loss of her job propelled her to focus full-time on writing and expanding her newspaper, which led her to become a civil rights leader and more.

Despite the enthusiasm and effort of African Americans to become educated and compete on an equal footing with White people, as Wells experienced and protested, there has been a consistent effort to thwart access to resources, supplies and opportunities. Shortly after the Civil War, predominantly White institutions of higher learning received funding from government land grants made possible by the federal Morrill Act of 1862. However, the institutions for Black students mostly required private funding through mission societies, religious philanthropy and other sources. Working around these barriers, formerly enslaved people built colleges that addressed their needs — thus the development of what are now known as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), more than 100 of which still stand today.

Yet, despite the resolve and resourcefulness of Black people to build their own institutions, there have been never-ending challenges to securing funding equal to that of predominantly White institutions.

The challenges of racially separate and unequal schools persisted to the point where a lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The court barred racial segregation in public schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

But even that victory has proved largely hollow: In the almost seven decades since Brown, the majority of the nation’s schools have doggedly remained segregated. To skirt the ban on legal segregation, many White Americans have resorted to crafty methods of keeping children racially separate and unequal. These have included building private schools, which are exempt from anti-segregation laws, dominating enrollment for public schools with selective enrollment and White flight into suburban neighborhoods with much larger property tax bases and therefore better-funded schools.

More than 150 years have passed since the Civil War, and Black people, many of them descendants of the enslaved, are still fighting to obtain equal access to the quality of education that their White counterparts enjoy. Schools that have high numbers of students of color suffer chronic underfunding and less support across the country. From the 2013 closing of 50 schools mainly attended by students of color in Chicago, to segregation in Memphis, where over 50 percent of Black children attend underfunded all-Black schools, to the dearth of Black students at the elite public schools of New York City, there is systemic racial exclusion and inequality.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the racial disparities between schools more plainly into sight, even though it was never a secret. Too many students of color do not have the same access to home computers, high-speed Internet, private spaces to study and more that is needed for remote learning. Additionally, many inner-city school buildings have poor ventilation and other physical constraints that make reopening them harder. In addition to the lack of tools to do schoolwork, many students suffer from specific challenges inherent in lower-income communities, including higher levels of food insecurity, polluted environments and exposure to trauma — all factors that compromise their ability to learn.

Ida B. Wells raised an alarm over a century ago, and as a nation, we are still wrestling with the resistance to providing students of color the same chance at success that is afforded the majority of White students. The Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to make high-quality education accessible and available to all children in the United States — something with the potential to lift up Americans across the board.

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

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Michelle Duster

Michelle Duster is an educator, public historian and author of several books including "Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells" (Atria/One Signal Publishers). Follow her on Twitter @MichelleDuster.