- Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America
Like many European visitors traveling to America in the 1830s, Tocqueville was struck by America’s traditional commitment, at least in New England, to public education. He also famously pointed out in Democracy in America that prejudice based on skin color was ubiquitous in the northern states, leading to widespread racial segregation in schools, theaters, employment, housing, and virtually every aspect of social existence. 1
Many historians of American education have similarly recognized that racial inequality was a glaring contradiction in the movement to build common, tax-supported schools in the antebellum period. As Curti explained in The Social Ideas of American Educators, Horace Mann, the nation’s greatest school reformer a century before, usually avoided engaging directly with controversial subjects such as abolitionism or integration to avoid stirring up opposition to the fledgling school system.2 By the 1970s, it was an article of faith among leading historians that racism was endemic in public schools at their founding. Thus, the standard volume on the origins of the public schools by Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (New York, 1983), emphasized how dominant white assumptions about racial superiority almost guaranteed that northern schools, despite considerable black protest, were often separate and unequal.
Schooling Citizens is a worthy contribution to the study of African- American struggles for access to education and schooling in the pre- Civil War era. In a series of well-composed case studies on black educational experiences in Boston, New Haven, and Baltimore, Moss examines the contradictions between common school ideals that espoused civic, republican themes of inclusion, assimilation, and citizenship and the racially exclusionary practices of the white citizenry, rarely challenged openly by leaders such as Mann. The book rests upon abundant research, including newspapers, census records, and archival collections. Although most historians will find the general narrative of Boston’s racial [End Page 469] history familiar, Moss impressively draws upon local records to give readers an intimate view of neighborhood conflicts between whites and blacks about school integration. Like Kaestle in his general survey, as well as such other scholars as Douglas, she reminds us of the internal battles within black communities over integration.3 African-American parents and teachers rightly worried about job losses and the likely treatment of black children in white-controlled institutions.
The analysis of Baltimore and its African-American freedom struggles is particularly engaging. Given that blacks were excluded from the city’s public school system, Moss imaginatively explores the role of churches, apprenticeships, private schools, and Catholicism in providing the diverse means of uplift, enlightenment, and self-help within the African- American community. Moss is not the first historian to argue that racial considerations constituted some of the central, if not exclusive, concerns of antebellum educators and school reformers. Schooling Citizens asks us to ponder why Americans, both white and black, often believed in the democratic promise of schooling even though fair treatment and equal opportunity were so rarely realized.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville (trans. George Lawrence), Democracy in America (New York, 1969; orig. pub. 1835), 340–363.
2. Merle Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (Totowa, 1959; orig. pub. 1935), 130– 131.
3. See, for example, Davison M. Douglas, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle over Northern School Segregation, 1865–1954 (New York, 2005).