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by Allison Horrocks

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has recently hailed historically black colleges as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice[.]” According to DeVos, such institutions “are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.” The backlash against these comments has been swift, with academics and journalists decrying this gross simplification of the histories of race and education in the U.S.

Instead of grappling with the ways that HBCUs have served as bulwarks against Jim Crowism, DeVos has put them in a lineage with “school choice,” phrasing more closely tied to the long fight to keep schools segregated. Those who trumpet Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as a landmark case in American history do so with great standing. But the underlying issues leading to intense segregation by race and class have scarcely disappeared since the 1950s. What has changed is the way we talk about segregation and integration. Instead of explicitly discussing race, those who have favored segregation might choose more coded language. In the wake of Brown v. Board, for instance, some white urban parents spoke out in favor of the “freedom to associate”–essentially the freedom to keep (better funded) schools predominantly white. [For more on this issue and particularly the rise of suburban “white flight,” to avoid integration, see Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors or Kevin Kruse,White Flight]

When thinking of this issue in the abstract, the notion that one should be able to choose where to go to school (in an ostensibly free country) might seem to be a neutral good. Yet when more affluent parents or neoliberal politicians talk about choice, they are not operating within an idealistic or colorblind vacuum. The concept of choice cannot, in fact, be discussed apart from other factors, especially race and socioeconomic privilege. So what are they really talking about when they talk about choice? Politicians promoting a choice framework are advocating that more opportunities be created for some students in society (i.e. promoting vouchers that will more likely benefit those who are already in the middle class). They are also signaling that all people must do to be successful is to choose it. But all choosers have not been treated equally under the law.

Looking back over the past two centuries, the story of expanding access to higher education is hardly an even, inspiring arc of triumph. There have been periods of ferocious attempts to exclude minority groups (the 1957 integration of Little Rock) and periods of forced assimilation and inclusion (Indian boarding at the The Carlisle Indian Industrial School). The recent spike in activity among white supremacists groups should make us ponder if the notion that separate is not equal will even persist as a truism. To put a sharper point on this issue, historians of education would all likely agree that very few people in the history of the US have felt empowered by the notion of choice. DeVos’s comments have struck a nerve precisely because of her disingenuous use of the concept. To note “that there was an absence of opportunity” for African Americans is to elide, with the swiftest ease, the history of legal segregation, of denying choice to so many in this nation.

Such an uninformed comment on the origins of HBCUs also minimizes the tremendous courage required to found such institutions. Take Hampton Institute in Hampton, VA. The first students taught by the teachers who became faculty at Hampton–and this occurred as the Civil War still raged–were not sitting comfortably in a classroom of their choosing. They were formerly enslaved persons who had been labeled “contraband of war”–individuals who had liberated themselves and fled, on foot, to Fort Munroe. What they learned was considered precious and perhaps even sacred. The success they earned had to be carefully claimed, perhaps even taken from a society that until it erupted in war, had legally restricted their access to print and all forms of education. Lest we forget: that act of forbidding education had been a choice, too.

There is perhaps one more element of this that we might find striking. DeVos is in a fairly small class of individuals in this nation. She is a billionaire; this is not a tangential fact. With this in mind, it is worth investigating what other individuals in this nation of comparable wealth have done to further expand the portals to higher education in this country. While the philanthropic efforts of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are certainly better known, another figure who is among DeVos’s financial peers might deserve to loom larger in the history of black education. For many years after making his fortune with Sears, Julius Rosenwald strenuously advocated for the expansion of public schooling for African Americans in the South. From the Rosenwald Fund, communities were able to build over five thousands schools and other buildings, including homes. Many of these educational structures no longer stand today; within a few decades, many became outdated and then, anachronistic due to legally mandated moves for integration. Where these structures do still exist, they serve as reminders as to what had to be done a century ago to make educational opportunities available for historically disenfranchised groups. Local communities had to rally together to actually build these schools, and much of the funding that went into these projects came from within the segregated communities–not just from one financier. So, while Rosenwald might be given some credit, this story of “his” schools is in many ways a reminder of how often public funds did not create a truly public education. The Rosenwald schools are also monuments to the importance of learning and local resistance.

Systems of public education have long been important microcosms for race relations within the U.S. The truth of how and why HBCUs came into being is more important than ever. Myths and convenient truths about choice should not suffice.

For more information, consider one of these studies of the history of HBCUs:

James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.

Dwayne Ashley and Juan Williams, I’ll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Noliwe M. Rooks, White Money, Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education.

Alternatively, pick up a volume–whether it be thick or slender–on an individual college or university. Learn about the individuals who made these institutions. If you have not been on the campus of a HBCU, make that a priority. From Hampton University in Virginia to Tuskegee University in Alabama or even Bennett College in North Carolina, there is much to be learned by visiting these spaces. I have written elsewhere that these are places heavy with the weight of history. Many HBCUs feature prominent markers and waysides that offer showcases for telling the story of the school. These signs are pervasive; they can usually be found throughout hand-laid brick paths and even in more modern academic spaces. It is an incomparable learning experience to pause and take care to absorb something of the significance of these places.

It was not a choice, per se, but the lack of access to existing structures that pushed black thinkers, industrialists, and most of all, students to construct these institutions. It is possible today to honor and commemorate what has happened in these places without ignoring that they largely came into being because so many other doors were closed.

Allison Horrocks is a public historian who studies 20th century concepts of race, domesticity, and politics through the history of Home Economics. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at her website.

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