How did school segregation work in rural areas of the South where few Black families lived?

A question from Reddit: Like let’s say out in west Texas, your county only had one black family. Were they given an education? Did they have to go to school in a larger town? Or was home education considered good enough?

Answer

While there are few absolutes about American public education history, we can safely make the claim that between the end of Reconstruction and 1954’s Brown v. Board ruling, Black families were basically on their own when it came to educating their children. While white families had virtually unencumbered access to public education, this wasn’t the case for Black families anywhere in the country. (The exception for white parents was generally related to having a child with a disability or soft segregation related to a family’s ethnicity or country of origin.)

In Northern and Western states, Black families often found their housing options were limited due to redlining and similar policies, which meant their schooling decisions were limited, especially following World War I as schools were consolidated into districts and boundaries locked into place. Most Northern and Western states had some degree of universal compulsory education which meant Black families who were able to overcome the hurdles put in their way could enroll their child in a mostly white district and face limited pushback from the district. This isn’t to say white parents, teachers, and students were always welcoming to Black families, but rather, the interference in a Black family’s decision (unless the child had a disability) typically came from social pressure, more so than legal or policy pressure at the school level.

Black Southern families on the other hand, often faced legal, political, and social hurdles as they sought to educate their children. In many communities, Black parents pooled their funds to supplement the meager tax dollars that were set aside for Black schools. In others, they worked with philanthropists to create and support schools that rivaled white schools in terms of quality and construction. The most well-known of these were the Rosenwald schools, primarily built in the 1920s and 30s – and many of them were closed shortly after the Brown ruling in 1954. They weren’t built out of respect of “separate but equal” but because Black parents and educators, as well as white benefactors, were frustrated with the poorly-resourced and dilapidated buildings Black children were often required to attend.

The project was spearheaded by Booker T. Washington, who was connected with businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald. From a retrospective on the program:

At the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had produced 4,977 schools, 217 teachers’ homes, and 163 shop buildings that served 663,625 students in 15 states. Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund contributed more than $4.3 million, and African American communities raised more than $4.7 million.

The design blueprints used for the Rosenwald schools were state of the art for the time and reflective a major jump forward in school architecture – the design attended to airflow on warm days and heating systems on cold days, natural light, lots of space for playgrounds and games, a kitchen, and a library. As another example of the lengths white-led school districts went, the project shared the blueprints with every interested district and some school leaders used the blueprints to design white schools with the explicit goal of making sure the Black schools remained of a lower quality than the white schools.

The Rosenwald project built 464 (or 466, counts vary) schools across the state of Texas. Most of the schools were located in Black communities – urban and rural – that experienced difficulty obtaining schooling for their children, including places where Black schools had been vandalized. Which is to say, the program didn’t find an empty spot of land and build a school for the sake of building a school. Schools were built because there was an identified need for a school that would serve Black children.

That said, few Rosenwald schools were built in Western Texas, which suggests, as you say in your question, there were few Black families in the region. This meant a Black family without a community had a limited number of options. White school leaders and policymakers in Texas, to put it bluntly, went to incredible lengths to keep white children away from children of color and to keep children of color from accessing resources available to white children. United States v. State of Texas (1971) and Plyler v. Doe (1982) are two examples of cases where the state took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.

This context is important as it helps us understand the Black parents in your example faced the question, “Do we send our children to a possibly dangerous school or do we educate them ourselves?” The answer to that question lies in the second part of your question and what they deemed “good enough.” Without getting too far into speculation, it is entirely reasonable that the parents in your question were illiterate and elected to send their children to school so they would have someone who could read legal documents. Likewise, it’s entirely possible the parents didn’t see academic literacy as something their children needed to live healthy, happy lives. Or, they were comfortable educating their children themselves and saw no need for formal schooling. Finally, they could have made the choice to build a school – or appeal to the Rosenwald project – with the goal of attracting more Black families to where they settled. In effect, it’s all going to come down to what the parents’ hopes and dreams were for their children.


A quick note on single Black children attending white schools: In most cases where a lone Black child was enrolled at a white school, that child and their family were typically supported by a network of adults who offered financial, emotional, and spiritual support. This isn’t to say that every time a Black family enrolled their child in a white school they were doing it with the goal of desegregating schools, sometimes a family moved into a neighborhood and the children had to negotiate the consequences of being the only child of color in a white school. Rather, the legal team at the NAACP was incredibly purposeful in terms of where they put pressure on the system. Most, if not, all of the cases that would later be bundled together in Brown happened because a family deliberately enrolled their child in white school or district. It’s difficult to stress the toll this could take on the Black children who often faced outright hostility and racism from their classmates and teachers. In effect, it was a risk to the child and their family, so the reward had to be worth it. Vanessa Siddle Walker’s The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools is a fascinating look at the network that supported Black children, both those who were enrolled in white-only schools and those who remained in Black only schools.

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