Lesson 3: The Impact of the Jim Crow Era on Education, 1877-1930s

Historical Background

In 1877, white southerners moved with great speed to erect a system of segregation and black disenfranchisement and in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court aided white supremacists by striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, an act that had banned racial segregation in public transportation and accommodations.  In 1887, Florida passed a law requiring segregation in public facilities.  The rest of the former Confederate states soon followed.  These Jim Crow laws – named for a character in a minstrel show – soon became the norm in all southern states and applied to everything from segregated seating on trains to separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, and graveyards. Whites worked to keep blacks in separate spaces from birth to death, and the differences later proved unjust by every measure. 

In the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court validated southern legislation, ruling that segregation was not discriminatory in intrastate railroads, provided that accommodations for blacks equaled those for whites.  Jim Crow laws, according to the majority, did not violate black civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Since legal ratification of segregation was not enough to keep blacks in subservient roles, southerners resorted to extra-legal action in the form of public humiliations, race riots, convict labor, and lynchings.

Race relations disintegrated in Fairfax County, too.  In the 1870s, black landowner William West described “relations between the races in Vienna as 'very good'; a black could go into any white store, and none was prevented from buying land.”  In 1873, the town had 632 registered voters, 232 of whom were black.  By the 1880s, however, relations between the races had deteriorated significantly and many privileges, including voting rights that William Jasper and Thornton Gray had enjoyed immediately after the Civil War, were denied. 

Black disenfranchisement and increased segregation came about in many ways.  In Falls Church, whites used gerrymandering to improve their situation.  Other places relied on fear to intimidate black voters.  Some used the press to counter black ambitions to hold public office.  In 1889 the Fairfax Herald, expressing anxiety over a possible nomination of a black for constable in the Providence district, wrote, “[I]t is the suicidal and pernicious policy of electing negroes to office to the injury and detriment of our county, to which we wish to call the attention of the people.”  Statutory acts, court rulings, and constitutional amendments provided the legal apparatus to solidify white rule. 

Following other southern states, Virginia made black disenfranchisement legal at its Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902.  Delegates traveled to Richmond with the chief intent of stripping blacks of their right to vote.  In education, delegates rewrote sections of the education clause to legalize racial discrimination in the school system.  They did so by approving a substantial loophole in school funding that enabled districts to withhold funds from black schools.  Depriving black fathers of the vote and black children of the schoolbook was the intent of the convention and its result. 

In 1915, discrimination against blacks could be clearly seen in counties across Virginia.  For every dollar spent on educating a black child in Amelia County, $12.37 went to a white child’s education.  Educational discrimination was worst in areas with the greatest number of blacks.  While African Americans continued their lessons in inadequate one-room buildings -- one of which was commonly referred to as “our shoebox” by its students and teachers because it was so tiny -- white children often enjoyed much larger schools.  Some of them were two stories tall, and some were brick. 

Despite these added obstacles, black schools stayed open, and children continued to learn.  Black education advanced as the state made more of an effort to improve education generally.  School reformers, including northern philanthropists, campaigned for longer terms for both black and white children, improved teacher training, school consolidation and transportation, school libraries, better organization, and local school improvement leagues.  Though improvements in education moved at a slower pace for blacks than whites, blacks nevertheless held to their strong values in education. 

Black communities realized the power of literacy.  As historian James Anderson has noted, “The short-range purpose of black schooling was to provide the masses of ex-slaves with basic literacy skills plus the rudiments of citizenship training for participation in a democratic society.  The long-range purpose was the intellectual and moral development of a responsible leadership class that would organize the masses and lead them to freedom and equality.”  As discrimination increased, blacks did not alter their education strategy. 

Support from the black community for education was crucial.  Black community investment in education remained a constant.  Examples of community and teacher support are many.  These include reports of parents and neighbors providing firewood for the schools, dinner and lodging for teachers, and donating services to warm schoolrooms on cold days, and build a baseball field for the children.  Generation after generation, from 1886 to 1932, the Laurel Grove School community supported its little school.