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A History to Remember

In spite of the Codes, some slaves like Frederick Douglass
secretly learned to read and write better than their slave masters

by Rose Sanders
Selma, Alabama

It was against the law for black children to read during slavery. Today, we hear a lot of talk about law and order. Well, back then, the slave Codes were the law and slavery was the order. The Codes required blacks to be punished like criminals for being likely to rebel against the order of slavery. A slave who could not read or write was less likely to run away or think for himself or her self. In spite of the Codes, some slaves like Frederick Douglass secretly learned to read and write better than their slave masters. For the most part, however, most slave children were legally deprived of an education of any kind. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution said slavery should end and so should the badges of slavery. A brutal badge of slavery was the widespread belief and practice of treating black people as inferior. To justify slavery, those who benefited from slavery told everyone that black people were not smart enough to learn to read or write or to be treated like white people. The notion that black people were inferior was widely believed by most whites, including President Abraham Lincoln, and whites who opposed slavery (Abolitionists). After a while, most slaves began to think they were inferior to whites also.

Slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Most former slaves remained chained to the idea that they were not as smart as white people. Nearly every institution and government, including the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court, supported this idea. Consequently, the schools for blacks were separate from whites because white people in power benefited from promoting the belief that black children were not smart or good enough to be in the same schools with white children. This idea was made the law of the land when the Supreme Court, in 1896, declared the separate and "unequal" doctrine constitutional in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson.

It Was Not So Long Ago ...

When schools were segregated, most "colored children" in the South went to school together and they also went to the same classes and took the same courses. Everything was done together. They received an education far unequal to that of most of their white counterparts. However, they were among themselves. Even in one room, black schools, every child was expected to learn everything. Rarely did teachers separate children into smart groups or slow groups, college groups and vocational groups or special education and gifted groups. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided to end segregated schools in America. The decision is known as the Brown decision. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American Supreme Court Justice, successfully argued to the Court that giving black children a separate and unequal education was not fair or democratic. It not only robbed most black children of a quality education, but it made them feel and act inferior or less smart than white children. To help prove his case, Thurgood Marshall told the Court about a black psychologist's experiment with black and white dolls. When given a choice, all of the black children chose the white dolls. This was a good sign that the black children thought the white dolls were better and smarter. The black dolls looked like them and they did not believe they were pretty and smart. That's why they rejected the black dolls. When children have low-esteem, they don't feel good about themselves, they usually don't do their best. The Supreme Court recognized that this system of giving children a separate and unequal education was bad for black children and said it was unconstitutional.

Segregation was also bad for white children because it made them feel better and smarter than black children. Consequently, Black History and achievements were not taught or recognized in the white-only schools. Even black schools failed to remind black children of their rich African heritage before they were forced to be slaves.

In the North, schools also developed along segregated lines. The vast differences between urban and suburban schools is a product of discrimination in housing, jobs and in the general society. In all parts of the nation, however, black children received an education that was vastly unequal from most of their white peers.

Out of sight out of mind was sometimes beneficial. Since black kids were separated from whites in schools, black kids were not daily reminded that the white children were smarter and deserving of better education. Consequently, the self-esteem of black children did not receive daily blows because white kids were out of sight. Black teachers made the most out of what they had to teach black children. Moreover, teachers could not aspire to teach at a white school or to be the token black. The color line decided that black teachers had to teach only black children in most places. Therefore, black teachers put a lot of energy into teaching black children and many believed that black students could learn at high levels. Very few schools in the South separated or tracked students into levels or "ability groups" during the days of legal segregation. Some children were considered smarter than other but all were smart enough to master the subject matter.

The world was far from perfect during the days of legal segregation but the problem of drugs, crime and violence were not overwhelming. When integration was forced upon the white community in the late '60s, segregation and inequality appeared to disappear. However, it only changed it's ugly form, and reappeared under a new name: Ability grouping. We call it tracking.

Also by Rose Sanders:

Rose Sanders

  • Rose Sanders is a civil rights attorney, education activist, songwriter, and playwright living in Selma, Alabama. She is the mother of three children.
  • She is president and co-founder of the 21st Century Leadership project for youth across the South. 21st Century uses the L.A.C.E. (Leadership - Academics - Culture - Economics) philosophy.
  • Rose Sanders was Alabama's first African American woman judge.
  • Rose Sanders has also co-founded CARE (Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education). In response to CARE's recommendation, Rose Sanders was appointed by the Governor of Alabama to co-chair the state Commission of Standards, Performance and Accountability which is drawing up a blueprint for education reform in Alabama.
  • Rose Sanders co-founded McRae Learning Center where children learn to read at age 3 and 4.
  • Also, she has co-founded the National Summit Against Tracking and the Miseducation of Children which convened at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fall of 1996.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 12, 1998.