Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
“Education is the quintessential way in which people move beyond the circumstances of one’s birth,” Isabel Sawhill.
Ms. Sawhill is absolutely correct. For too many years we have been ignoring this fact. Booker T. Washington understood it and preached it throughout the South until his untimely and mysterious death in 1915. He not only stressed that education was essential to our future, but that entrepreneurship is another key to our social success and freedom. He built Tuskegee University from “scratch” and formed the National Negro Business League with 39 chapters. Somehow we have gotten away from his example.
For the last 24 years my wife and I have been advocating from the entrepreneurial side of the equation. Now, I have come to realize what Mr. Washington was really talking about. You cannot have one without the other. We live in a competitive and capitalistic nation. Education and entrepreneurship, as a people, will make us succeed. We must be vigilant that the powers that be do not put our educational standards second class to theirs. It is historical how the “powers” kept us handicapped in regards to education. As long as we were uneducated as a people we had no possibility of success and real freedom.
My parents grew up in rural Louisiana. Schools were limited for Blacks. In the rural areas they had no transportation other than by foot to travel to the “local” school. There was no high school and grade levels went from 1st grade to 8th grade. A school year was only three months long. December, January and February were the assigned months (winter). The other months were spent working the fields and helping your family subsist the best way they could. This system was throughout the rural south. High school was so elusive that my father’s parents sent his sisters to Shreveport to board and go to the high school. With the high school diploma they were given teacher licenses and started teaching. Teachers with no more than a high school education teaching Black kids by the masses. That was no blue print for success. That’s what the white power structure knew and desired.
After the Great Depression of the 1930s and with a high demand for labor to support our military during World War II in the early 1940s, things greatly changed. Blacks flocked to the cities for job opportunities. The Great Migration had created Black neighborhoods in virtually every medium to large size city throughout America. In these towns and cities the white power structure was threatened. The solution? Depress the educational performance of Black students.
I started seeing this at an early age. When my grandmother Fannie died my father’s side of our family journeyed from California, Illinois, Missouri and other places where the Migration took us to Bossier Parish, Louisiana for the huge funeral. Grandma Fannie’s eight children and dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren assembled for the big send off. The thing I remember most was my mother encouraging me to go with my cousin Clarence and attend class with him as we prepared for the funeral. So here we are, Clarence and I, sitting in his classroom in Princeton, Louisiana.
For the first time in my life I recognized governmental oppression via education manipulation. Clarence was two grades ahead of me but yet they were using math and reading books one year behind my class. A three year difference! The school board, run totally by whites, were slowing these students down and that would affect them throughout their entire lives. Black teachers, their students and parents had no say in this whatsoever. At that time, any protest would mean a jail sentence or even a lynching.
There was one way out of this. My relatives stuck in rural Louisiana and Arkansas began sending their children to California to enroll in our local schools while living with us. They would study hard to catch up; receive their diploma and head back down South. After a while heading back to the South out of high school was no longer a pattern. They would stay in California, enter into a community college, get a two year degree and then head for a major HBCU somewhere in the South.
It amazed me why they wanted to come to Oxnard, California and go to school (anything was better than Jim Crow). There was plenty of discrimination in the Oxnard public school system. I started feeling it in the fifth grade. As I reflect, it was targeted to Black boys. If you haven’t read Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu’s book, “The Conspiracy to Kill Black Boys” please do. Going to school where Blacks accounted for less than 5% of the enrollment and the school district may have 3 or 4 Black teachers at any one time was a recipe for abuse. Yes, the “arrows” of bigotry were starting to point my way.
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected]