On Education and African American Intellectual History

*This post is part of our online forum titled “What is African American Intellectual History?

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, ca. 1901, (Library of Congress)

As a scholar in African American education and intellectual history, I’m often asked what one has to do with the other. In some ways, this question baffles me, because I see both ideas and history as the foundation of the educational enterprise, particularly as they relate to curricula, pedagogy, and educational reform. Nevertheless, I understand the basis for the question. Ideas seem abstract, whereas education and schooling seem real and concrete. Yet, this is an artificial divide, failing to recognize how ideas of the past influence the problems of today—and highlighting a frequent misperception of a discipline where historians forthrightly study ideas. Over the past two decades, I have sought a definitive answer to this question, focusing my research on the ideas and thought of African American educators and the education of Black people, influenced on this journey by old and new generations of historians in this area.1 And as a result of my intellectual travails, I have honed in on three areas of African American intellectual and educational history that can help bridge the gap between abstract ideas and concrete education policies. 

African American Women and Education

When studying African American intellectual and educational history, we often resort to the central debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois on the uplift of Black people during the early 20th century. Yet, I often come back to Linda Perkins’s 1982 essay “Heed Life’s Demands: The Educational Philosophy of Fanny Jackson Coppin” and her 1987 monograph on Fanny Jackson Coppin, a revolutionary educator and thinker whose ideas promoted the uplift of African American women and girls as early as the mid-19th century.

Karen Johnson’s 2000 text, Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs, represents another step forward in African American intellectual history. Drawing on both archival sources and speeches given by Cooper and Burroughs, Johnson weaves together a powerful narrative of Black women’s efforts to broaden access to education. Instead of relegating Cooper and Burroughs to the status of subordinates amid Washington and Du Bois’s educational debates, Johnson recognizes both women as educational thinkers in their own right and advocates of Black women as leaders of the race. The views of these women were extraordinary given the patriarchal beliefs that dominated the early 20th century—and the framing of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois as the two principal leaders in shaping African American thought.

For example, Traki Taylor’s 2002 article, “‘Womanhood Glorified’: Nannie Helen Burroughs and the National Training School for Women and Girls, Inc., 1909-1961,” framed Burroughs both as a teacher and a thinker, promulgating ideas that served the cause of Black women’s uplift. Stephanie Evans’s 2007 book, Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History, situates the education of African American women within the larger discourse of African American women’s intellectual history via biographical narratives of women’s engagement in college. These are just a few of these studies that not only seek to decenter the Washington vs. Du Bois narrative in African American educational history, but also illuminate Black women’s use of ideas and ideology as a means of combating concrete notions of racism and patriarchy.

African American Educational Biography

In addition to the burgeoning work on African American women and education, several historians have used African American educational biography to surface ideas that can inform concrete policy. V. P. Franklin’s 1990 article, “‘They Rose and Fell Together’: African American Educators and Community Leadership, 1795-1954,” offers a sweeping historical narrative of Black educational thought through the biographies of both well-known and lesser-known Black educators. And he goes one step further in his 1995 work, Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition, assessing the utility of African American biography in intellectual history.

In 2003, Jacqueline Moore returns to Washington and Du Bois’s prominent role in Black thought, using Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift to offer a comparative biographical analysis of Washington’s and Du Bois’s ideas in education. Moore argues for a more complex understanding of Washington and Du Bois, situating their educational thought within the milieu of other Black educators. A decade later, Ronald Chennault builds on this notion in his 2013 essay “Pragmatism and Progressivism in the Educational Thought and Practices of Booker T. Washington,” placing Washington in the context of broader social and educational movements, such as the Black freedom struggle and progressive education. In doing so, Chennault demonstrated that while Black educators were undoubtedly influenced by the prevailing thought of their times, they were also instrumental in influencing broader ideas in American education.

Consider Michael West’s 2006 work, The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations, which provides a novel interpretation of how Washington—and his philosophy—serves as a framework for maintaining segregation. Although West does not center Washington’s views on schooling, he discusses Washington’s educational ideas as integral to a social thought on the racial subjugation of Blacks. Works such as these, and Audrey McCluskey’s A Forgotten Sisterhood: Pioneering Black Women Educators and Activists in the Jim Crow South, demonstrate how biographical sketches can help historians convey ideas across space and time.

For example, in Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Civil Rights Movement, Tondra Loder-Jackson illustrates how biographies of teachers can bolster our understanding of how “intellectual activism” informed their work in the classroom—and paints a powerful picture of educators as intellectuals. Likewise, Vanessa Siddle Walker’s The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools places local educators like Tate in the broader intellectual discourse with figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Collectively, this scholarship has helped lay the groundwork for oral history projects such as the Teachers in the Movement initiative, which further explores the roles of teachers as intellectuals and activists during the civil rights era.

African Americans and Educational Reform

In addition to analyzing ideas in the context of biography and the voices of Black women, historians have written extensively about how ideas shaped educational policies for African Americans. James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, published in the midst of the culture wars amid questions about Black academic achievement, reveals how white planters and other members of the elite instituted educational policies designed to benefit themselves. At the same time, Anderson poignantly recounts the long history of African Americans’ demand for a high quality and culturally relevant curriculum, placing the contemporary struggles of Black education into historical context.

At the same time, Ronald Butchart published the most comprehensive historiography of African American education to date, “‘Outthinking and Outflanking the Owners of the World’: A Historiography of the African American Struggle for Education,” which spans a variety of 20th-century movements and reforms for Black education. For example, we learn that during the first three decades of the 20th century, William Dunning and his acolytes’ attempts to present Reconstruction as a northern conspiracy to meddle in the educational affairs of the South codified racist views of Blacks. We also learn how historians like Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Horace Mann Bond countered such views and offered deeply contextualized understandings of Black education. In this way, Butchart’s historiography provides an exemplary intellectual history of both Black and white historians’ thinking on Black education. Joy Williamson-Lott and Stefan Bradley have also published important studies that underscore the power of ideas in shaping higher education, forthrightly addressing Black students’ ideas and strategies for expressing Black agency and resisting white supremacy in education and society.2

Other recent books that demonstrate how ideas influence African American education and schooling include Dionne Danns’s Desegregating Chicago’s Public Schools: Policy Implementation, Politics, and Protest, 1965-1985; Crystal Sanders’s A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle; Russell Rickford’s We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination; Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s; and Michelle Purdy’s Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools. These meticulously researched books collectively illuminate how ideas of racial uplift, self-determination, and freedom through education have shaped—and continue to shape—concrete policy.

Conclusion

Over the past three years, Black Perspectives has played a critical role in illuminating the value of African American intellectual history as a lens into the education of Black people, soliciting the perspectives of Lindsey Jones, Jon Hale, Jarvis Givens, Lavelle Porter, and Richard Benson. In these challenging times, the education of Black people will surely continue to be a contentious subject. And so, amid contemporary ideological battles, African American intellectual historians’ perspectives are essential in demonstrating how ideas can support the education, empowerment, and advancement of Black people.

  1. See Derrick P. Alridge, “The Dilemmas, Challenges, and Dualities of an African American Educational Historian,” Education Researcher Vol. 32, No. 9, (December 2003): 25-34.
  2. See Joy Ann Williamson, Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008); Joy Ann Williamson Lott, Jim Crow Campus: Higher Education and the Struggle for a New Southern Social Order (New York; Teachers College Press, 2018) and Stefan Bradley, Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Derrick P. Alridge

Derrick P. Alridge, Professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, is a U.S. educational and intellectual historian whose work examines African American education and the civil rights movement. He is the author of 'The Educational Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois: An Intellectual History' (2008) and co-editor of 'Message in the Music: Hip-Hop, History, and Pedagogy' (2011). He is currently writing 'The Hip Hop Mind: Ideas, History, and Social Consciousness' (University of Wisconsin Press) and co-editing of 'The Black Intellectual Tradition in the United States in the Twentieth Century' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @DerrickPAlridge.

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