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Education Brings a New Chapter to African-American History

The education of African American people, whether free or enslaved, was discouraged during the slave era in the U.S. — it was even illegal in many Southern states — because educated slaves were seen as a threat to slaveholders’ power.

But that didn’t stop enslaved people from seeking knowledge, which often became a communal effort on plantations. After the Civil War ended, freed slaves were so starved for an education, they would often walk miles in each direction to missionary schools for freed slaves.

For decades, they had to battle the prevailing belief that black people couldn’t be educated, only “trained.” They were forced to attend segregated schools that were often just tar-paper-covered shacks with no heat, no books, no furniture.

The  U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” marked the first step toward equality in education and was an important catalyst of the civil rights movement. Today, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail commemorates numerous schools and universities that played roles in advancing the cause of equality in education.

Berea College

Berea, Kentucky

When abolitionist and minister John Fee founded Berea College in 1855, his vision was to create a “Utopian Experiment” that welcomed “all peoples of the Earth.” As a result, Berea was the first college in the South to admit both black and white students, as well as women.

Berea College and the town that grew up around it was essentially half black and half white and fully integrated for the next 50 years, but Jim Crow sentiments soon crept in. In 1904, Kentucky legislators targeted Berea with a law that banned educating black and white students in the same school — or even within 25 miles of each other.

Though the college was forced into a period of segregation, it never lost touch with its founding principles, spokesman Timothy Jordan said. Berea’s president and board paid for Berea’s black students to attend other schools while the college fought the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also split the college’s endowment and raised money to establish the Lincoln Institute for black students.

In 1950, Berea College was again able to enroll black students, and Berea students actively took up the civil rights cause in the 1960s.

Student guides lead groups on 50-minute historical walking tours that take guests into the Carter G. Woodson Center to learn about its namesake, known as the “Father of Black History,” who was a 1903 graduate of Berea. Visitors will also go inside the 1906 Phelps Stokes Chapel, which students built, and see Lincoln Hall, the school’s second-oldest permanent structure.

Dorchester Academy

Midway, Georgia

Dorchester Academy was established in the 1870s as a missionary school to educate freed slaves. It opened its doors to students of every age and “was really the first school in the area where African Americans could get a high school education,” said Bill Austin, president of the Dorchester Academy Improvement Association. Hungry for knowledge, many students walked several miles each way to attend school; one made the 17-mile trek on foot twice a day.

But the school is best known for its role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The abandoned campus became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC’s) primary site for its Citizen Education Program (CEP). The CEP was the foundation of the SCLC’s voter education project, which taught Southern blacks about their rights as citizens and prepared them to pass voter registration tests during each weeklong session. Students also learned the concepts and tactics of nonviolent direct action.

In less than two years, the SCLC trained nearly 2,000 teachers and leaders, who returned to their hometowns and, in turn, taught nearly 11,000 others. Dorchester was also the planning center for “Project C,” the SCLC’s successful March 1963 campaign to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.

At the site today, groups can schedule guided tours of the 1934 Georgian Revival-style dormitory, including the room where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed during his frequent visits, as well as the museum housed in the former school director’s two-bedroom home. Visitors can also explore the campus walking trail or tour the nearby Midway Museum.

William Frantz Elementary School

New Orleans

Ruby Bridges was only 6 years old in 1960 when she became the first African American student to attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Four federal marshals escorted Bridges and her mother to the school every day that year past furious crowds lobbing vicious slurs.

Though Bridges’ presence was meant to integrate the school, she and her teacher, Barbara Henry, spent most of the year alone while white students learned, ate and played without them and white teachers refused to talk to Bridges.

Today, a historical marker outside the school commemorates the integration, and a statue of Bridges stands in the school’s courtyard. Room 2306 serves as the “Ruby Bridges Room,” which has been restored with 1960 period furnishings and decor. The building now houses Akili Academy, a charter school, and is not open for public tours.

Though Bridges gets much of the attention, three other African American girls integrated McDonogh No. 19 school that same year. One of them, Leona Tate, founded the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, which is working to preserve and repurpose the school as a museum and education center.

Louisiana is also working to create its own state civil rights trail that will connect to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. State officials recently accepted site nominations for the trail, which could include physical markers at each site as well as “digital” markers online.

Fisk University

Nashville, Tennessee

Barely six months after the end of the American Civil War, three men founded the Fisk School in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, to educate freed slaves of all ages. The school was incorporated as Fisk University in 1867 to train teachers to go back out into the communities and educate the freed slaves.

In 1930, the university was the first African American college to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

From the Reconstruction era through present day, Fisk alumni form a roster of notable names, from Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist, abolitionist and suffragist who led an anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s, to current U.S. congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

“If you go through each decade, you can see Fisk graduates playing important roles in the direction of this country and the direction of civil rights,” said Fisk University provost Vann Newkirk.

Guided campus tours are available for groups. Jubilee Hall, the crown jewel of the campus, was built with proceeds from the Jubilee Singers’ 1871 U.S. tour and 1873 tour of Great Britain and Europe, which included a performance for Queen Victoria. The Fisk Jubilee Singers still perform worldwide, and groups might be able to arrange a performance with enough advance scheduling.

Visitors can also tour the 1892 Fisk Memorial Chapel and the main administration building, a Works Progress Administration-commissioned “architectural gem.” Guests can visit Fisk’s three on-campus art galleries and see the painting of the Jubilee Singers commissioned by Queen Victoria.

Tuskegee University

Tuskegee, Alabama

Tuskegee University was founded July 4, 1881, as the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, and 25-year-old Booker T. Washington was hired as the school’s first principal.

The following year, Washington bought a former plantation with about 100 acres that became the core of the university campus, which today is also a designated national park, the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.

Renowned botanist, inventor and scientist George Washington Carver was a professor at the university from 1896 until his death in 1943.

In 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps established a program at Tuskegee to train black aviators using Moton Field. The graduates became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, or Red Tails, the first African American military fighter and bomber pilots in the U.S. armed forces.

Guided group tours of the campus include Washington’s home, called the Oaks; the George Washington Carver Museum; the men’s gravesites in the campus cemetery; and the Legacy Museum, as well as other historic buildings. Groups can also visit the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field, about four miles from campus.

University archivist and associate professor Dana Chandler can also provide access and custom tours of the archives, which contain “lots of surprises.” Among the trove of artifacts are Carver’s notebooks, a 22-pound meteorite and singer Lionel Richie’s uniform. The Commodores all attended Tuskegee, but Richie was the only member to graduate, Chandler said.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.