The African-American Educational Experience: Exposing the False Assumptions of Progressive-Era School Reform, Part II

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 8, 2022

Progressive Era education reformers tended to have ideological assumptions that made them nearly blind to the existence of—let alone the serious conflict between—the two educational traditions in America: Northern and Southern.

Most of them reached adulthood after the end of Reconstruction and post-war Republican Party dominance, when it was possible for the first time to imagine governing the entirety of the country, and everyone in it, in a top-down, bipartisan, standardized manner, according to a modern vision of social organization. Everyone born in America was now considered a federal citizen, regardless of race or sex, and every region now had some openness to industrialization and the exciting developments promised by modernity.

But regional cultures and structural asymmetries still existed under the surface, missed by those who dismissed “traditional methods” as an undifferentiated whole.

As one can see in Part I of this series, Booker T. Washington could not afford to be ignorant of the differences between the antebellum and the postbellum south, or between the south and the north, or between the antebellum and postbellum economic structure. He had a more accurate view of the historical and political situation than many of those who shared his ideological assumptions.[1] While those assumptions led him to a particular interpretation of those circumstances, his writings are full of overlooked “hints” that shed light on the true nature of certain recurring conflicts in American education. A great example is Washington’s 1903 remark (emphases added):

“It ought to be stated frankly here that at first, and for several years after the introduction of industrial training at such educational centers as Hampton and Tuskegee, there was opposition from colored people and from portions of those Northern white people engaged in education and missionary work among the colored people in the South.Most of those who manifested such opposition were, I believe, actuated by the highest and most honest motives. From the first the rank and field of the blacks were quick to see the advantages of industrial training, as is shown by the fact that industrial schools have always been overcrowded. Opposition to industrial training was based largely on the old and narrow ground that it was something that the Southern white people favored, and therefore must be against the interests of the Negro. Again, others opposed it because they feared that it meant the abandonment of all political privileges, and the higher or classical education of the race. They feared that the final outcome would be the “materialization” of the Negro and the smothering of his spiritual and aesthetic nature. Others felt that industrial education had for its object the limitation of the Negro’s development, and the branding him for all time as a special hand-working class.”[2]

Washington here describes Americans, black and white, who subscribed to the Northern tradition of education and at least some of its political and cultural assumptions. For obvious reasons, this group disproportionately included black Americans and northern-born white Americans, particularly Reconstruction-era reformers, regardless of where they lived.[3] Washington’s comment that they feared industrial training would “brand” black Americans as members of a fixed working class makes sense in light of Lincoln’s remarks on the matter which was the dominant American view a half-century before. Knowledge of the “spiritual and aesthetic concerns” that resonated with such people likely explain why Washington insisted that the sole value of industrial education was to “[lift] labor up out of toil and drudgery into the plane of the dignified and the beautiful.”[4]

However, at the philosophical level, the conflict between progressive ideologies and the northern tradition was too deep to be overcome. The latter aimed to cultivate citizenship and self-government. It aimed at the full realization of America’s potential through principled action and leadership by individuals raised to defend American ideals as historically defined by “Yankee” culture. The former aimed to elevate the conditions of certain classes, develop skills and moral or intellectual enlightenment, and/or create a fundamentally “new” or more “efficient” society. These ideologies reflected different ways of orienting oneself to the world, corresponding to different views of how people gained knowledge and developed character.

As a result, this cultural divide regarding American education persisted and played a far greater role than most scholars have indicated. This is most notable when one looks at the African American educational experience in the first half of the 20th century.

Washington’s view of things seems to have been less persuasive than the views held by people like African American pastor Dr. D. A. Holmes. In 1906, he wrote that “industrial education has long since ceased to be a theory...but what is [it?]”[5]

“The following are some of the answers given by persons who ought to know better: ‘To teach the negro how to work hard,’ to teach the negro how to be a good servant...how to undervalue his manhood rights…”[6]

Holmes found this unsatisfying because he felt that under the contemporary economic conditions in America, no one of any race could be sure of success, even if they possessed “the highest skill, the most persistent industry, [and] the broadest intelligence.”[7] Everywhere he looked, “the ominous and depressing social fact" was that is “the earnings of labor are not secured to the earners.” Like Dewey, he focused on the fact that America was now a land of “vast fortunes, inconceivable in amount and more closely concentrated in a few hands than at any previous period in history.”[8 ]These concerns shaped Holmes’ objections to industrial education:

“Were one to ask if industrial education accounted for such phenomenal acquisitions, he would be greeted with derisive laughter. The genesis of them all was the power to appropriate the earnings of others…If industrial education led directly to independence of thought and character, is it to be supposed that the men who hold white supremacy to be the vital necessity of the South would so heartily encourage colored manual schools? Absurd...Educated hands, unthinking heads a dream, of course, but when were tyrants other than dreams? The negro question is not one of skilled labor, it is that of equal rights and opportunities. The robbery of the suffrage cannot be atoned for by any number of negro manual labor schools...Of what avail is skill in labor when the laborer has no voice in making the laws under which he lives? … No people ever were or ever will be fitted for self-government which also implies self-protection, while denied the right to vote, regardless of ignorance, mistakes or failure.”

Some of Holmes’ remarks are similar to those made by Abraham Lincoln at an 1859 agricultural fair, shortly before being nominated for president.

“By the ‘mud-sill’ theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be—all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly.According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all

But Free Labor says "no!" Free Labor argues that, as the Author of man makes every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that heads and hands should cooperate as friends; and that that particular head, should direct and control that particular pair of hands. As each man has one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that particular mouth—that each head is the natural guardian, director, and protector of the hands and mouth inseparably connected with it; and that being so, every head should be cultivated, and improved, by whatever will add to its capacity for performing its charge. In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.”[9]

(As I noted in this piece, “Lincoln went on to say that he supposed he would “not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education,” and spoke, much like Booker T. Washington later did, of “the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought.”)

Holmes concluded with references that also indicated he strongly identified with the northern tradition’s view of education:

“I put enfranchisement before schooling because of its being the strongest personal safeguard in a democracy. In education it is more important that the spirit of liberty should be instilled into the minds of men than that they should be industrially servile taught to produce for masters[x]…To be content with the primitive forms of work is to give assurance that the present evil conditions shall have a longer lease; for nothing is more evident than that this cry against suffrage and the higher education for the negro emanates from the recrudescent spirit of slavery, which seeks again to hold in subjection in an industrial form the men and women ransomed by Lincoln's pen. What is demanded should be instinctively refused. There always comes the prior demand of justice without which learning is futile and labor a badge of oppression. The negro should hold most precious the motto which [abolitionist] Wendell Phillips was so fond of quoting, ‘Before everything, Liberty.’”[11]

The northern tradition, as articulated by Republicans in the Civil War era, seems to have retained a stronghold in public schools attended primarily by African-American children during the first half of the 20th century, where, due to de jure or de facto segregation, their educational needs were often separated out and neglected, insulated from the wave of progressive reforms.[12] Washington may not have been aware of the extent to which his arguments echoed the “mud-sill theory” Lincoln and his admirers associated with advocates of slavery. In 1904, he remarked that:

“The general impression which prevailed among a large number of colored people, especially those who lived in cities in the North and who had received some advantages of education, was that industrial education was something which was meant to retain the Negro in a kind of slavery…The Southern white people as a rule approved of industrial education. This made the colored people all the more suspicious of its value and object...[13]

What Washington saw as foolish and reflexive polarization—opposing whatever it was that influential white southerners seemed to favor, especially if one identified with the northern intellectual culture—actually had a long and significant history, rooted in differing experiences and values. Washington attempted to deal with this by emphasizing the recent interest of influential white northerners in industrial education. But this change was not due to a belief that they had been wrong about the nature of industrial education. Rather, amid all the changes of the era, many white northerners were drifting away from their ancestors’ tradition and its values. Knowing that industrial education had always been most popular with white southerners, Washington assumed that as it spread north and became something other than a “theory,” northerners would develop a similar appreciation for its “merits.” But the south’s scorning of a democratic classical concept of education in favor of a specialized and technical one was precisely what the northern tradition rejected and feared. [14]

In Part III, we will look at how these differing cultural and ideological assumptions affected the development of progressive education reform in America.

1. Some of these assumptions about education and politics are addressed in Part I; another was viewing the Civil War in terms of class conflict; another was viewing social justice as a matter of material or practical advancement rather than moral principle. See, for example, Kelly Miller, Radicals and Conservatives: And Other Essays on the Negro in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 25-26 (“[Frederick] Douglass lived in the day of moral giants; [Booker T.] Washington lives in the era of merchant princes. The contemporaries of Douglass emphasized the rights of man; those of Washington, his productive capacity... Douglass insisted upon rights; Washington insists upon duty...Douglass spoke what he thought the world should hear; Washington speaks only what he feels it is disposed to listen to. Douglass’s conduct was actuated by principle; Washington’s by prudence.”)

2. Booker T. Washington, “The Fruits of Industrial Training,” October 1903, via Teaching American History, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/the-fruits-of-industrial-training/.

3. Undoubtedly, some southern-born white Americans also subscribed to it, but they were the least likely to do so, for obvious reasons.

4. See my earlier piece, “The African-American Educational Experience: Exposing the False Assumptions of Progressive-Era School Reform, Part I,” https://montessorium.com/blog/the-african-american-educational-experience-exposing-the-false-assumptions-of-progressive-era, n2.

5. Paper by Dr. D. A. Holmes, quoted in Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), January 24, 1906.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid. Holmes followed this by saying “This truth is illustrated by the current social white problems, everywhere baffling the efforts of philanthropy and the multifarious devices of government. The colored people of this country are not differentiated from the whites in the industrial field as far as conditions go. That the prevailing prejudice against color handicaps the negro in certain avenues of employment is undeniable, but I hope this is incidental and transitory.”

8. Ibid.

9. Abraham Lincoln, “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society,” September 30, 1859, via Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/fair.htm.

10. The way Holmes uses ”schooling” here suggests that he is talking about the industrial kind, focused on technical training rather than citizenship, not all forms of formal or informal education.

11. Paper by Dr. D. A. Holmes, quoted in Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), January 24, 1906.

12. See, for example, the differences between the Roosevelt School and the Emerson School, and pre-and post-1955 education, as described by the interviewees in David J. Hoff, “A Blueprint for Change,” Education Week, April 21, 1999, https://www.edweek.org/education/a-blueprint-for-change/1999/04. Consider them in light of this: “Emerson was originally an all-white school, but due to overcrowding in the 1920s, black students attended white schools for the first time. To alleviate overcrowding, Wirt approved the transfer of black students to Emerson; six black students attended Emerson in 1926 and another eighteen followed in 1927. The white community did not stand for it with the white student body staging a walk-out which eventually culminated into a strike. Over 1,300 protestors, students, and parents stood outside Emerson refusing to go back inside or disperse under the black students were transferred out. Wirt made the decision to establish a new school for black students, Theodore Roosevelt High School, and transferred the students out of Emerson… In 1946, the Gary school board adopted a desegregation policy, but discrimination continued as Emerson’s white student body staged a second walkout in protest. It wasn’t until 1949 that Indiana state law desegregated public schools.”) “Bullet,” “Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture (blog), May 28, 2020, https://autopsyofarchitecture.com/emerson-high-school/;

13. Quoted in Boston Evening Transcript, August 24, 1904.

14. See Washington, “The Fruits of Industrial Training” (“I have met no Southern white educators who have not been generous in their praise of the Negro schools for taking the initiative in hand training. This fact has again served to create in matters relating to education a bond of sympathy between the two races in the South. Referring again to the influence of industrial training for the Negro in education, in the Northern States, I find, while writing this article, the following announcement in the advertisement of what is perhaps the most high-priced and exclusive girls’ seminary in Massachusetts: — ‘In planning a system of education for young ladies with the view of fitting them for the greatest usefulness in life, the idea was conceived of supplementing the purely intellectual work by practical training in the art of home management and its related subjects.’ It was the first school of high literary grade to introduce courses in Domestic Science into the regular curriculum…A dozen years ago I do not believe that any such announcement would have been made.”)

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.

Related Reads