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'Education in Black and White' explores issues from 19th century to now

By Logan Mabe on Oct 23, 2015 02:26 PM
Photo: Moonstone Arts Center

Last week, the Moonstone Arts Center held a three-day festival titled “Education in Black & White” as part of its Hidden History project with panel discussions and presentations focusing on the struggle for African American education in the city. They included a historical look at the impact of the Institute for Colored Youth and a modern-day take on the importance of Black teachers for Black students.

“What’s interesting and scary is that these are the same issues in education today as there were 150 years ago,” said Larry Robin, director of Moonstone, introducing the panel talk on the Institute for Colored Youth.

Opened in 1852 on Lombard Street, the ICY was a Quaker project that fostered “some of the best and the brightest of the city’s African American community,” according to Villanova history professor Judith Giesberg, who directed a study of the school’s 37 graduates from 1852 to 1866

Giesberg said that ICY students were the cream of the crop who studied mechanical arts and also took a rigorous academic regimen that included math, Greek, Latin, and social sciences. They learned to read the New Testament in Greek and were required to pass oral exams that were open to the public.

“These men and women were really bright and had nerves of steel,” Giesberg said.

The school, she continued, served a welcome counterpoint to the segregation, discrimination, and prejudice of the day. As an example, she said, ICY principal Caroline Le Count tried to flag down a streetcar in March 1867 because a new law had been passed banning streetcar segregation. The driver sneered at her. She showed a copy of the new law to a police officer, who arrested and fined the streetcar conductor.

“It’s not a Rosa Parks story, but they were getting on streetcars and protesting the segregation of streetcars,” Giesberg said.

“The awful part of this is a lot of the history hasn’t been written yet, which is a crime,” said Daniel Biddle, co-author of Tasting Freedom: Octavius V. Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. “I cannot get over how much of this history we were not taught. A lot of these stories remain untaught and untold.”

Biddle’s co-author, Murray Dubin, recalled how ICY opened a public library with 1,300 volumes, recognizing that “education must become a family ambition. It must become a habit.” The library worked, he said, and became the most important source for books in Philadelphia’s Black community.

The ICY rose to prominence during a time when African Americans were particularly under siege, said Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of history at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Mobs attacked Black schools, she said, and some were burned down. Educators were threatened with tar and feathering.

“And Philadelphia wasn’t immune to this violence,” she said. “But the ICY is a cultural center, a monument in the face of this climate.”

Linda Perkins, associate professor of history at Claremont Graduate University, grew up in Mobile, Ala., and said she had seen up close the struggle that African Americans face securing an education. “But they always said, education is the one thing White people can’t take from you,” Perkins said.

Black teachers for Black students

On Friday, the gathering featured a panel that talked about the philosophical and psychological importance of Black teachers for Black students, which had been a guiding principle of the ICY. Rosalind Jones-Johnson, education director for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, pointed out that while the student population nationally is becoming increasingly diverse (about 50 percent students of color), the number of teachers of color is getting smaller. And, she said, the District is losing a large number of the African American teachers it has.

“Charter schools lose about 35 percent of African American teachers each year, and public schools lose about 10 percent,” Jones-Johnson said, pointing to the PFT’s new teacher-training program as the key factor in keeping the District figure so much lower.

“Charter schools do not have strong preparation programs, but the Philadelphia public schools do just that. We work with them over the summer (before school begins) to help them build relationships with students. We follow teachers and provide support when they are struggling with Black, Latino, or low-income students.”

Jones-Johnson said that about 25 percent of the teachers in the District are African American, but she worries about recruiting new ones, because fewer minorities are choosing to major in education, especially at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Timothy Welbeck, an African American attorney, adjunct professor at Temple University and education advocate, grew up outside Atlanta attending integrated suburban schools.

“We need Black teachers in suburbia as well as urban America,” he said.

He recalled that from kindergarten to 12th grade he had five Black teachers. “I could tell their expectations of students were different [from White teachers'] almost immediately.”

Welbeck told a story about teaching a class at a private school where “the only Blacks the students saw were sweeping the floors. It was empowering for them to see a Black man teaching a class.”

That resonated with Nick Papageorge, a White economics professor at Johns Hopkins University, who co-wrote a study, “The Alarming Effect of Racial Mismatch on Teacher Expectations.” Papageorge said he attended a private school where the only African American was the school nurse.

In his studies, he said, he has become increasingly concerned not only about overt racism, “but I’m also concerned about what I term the ‘soft bigotry’ of low expectations” for Black students.


In connection with the festival, the National Museum of American Jewish History will host a screening and discussion of the film "From Swastika to Jim Crow" on Oct. 27. 

Logan Mabe is a journalist and graduate student at Temple University.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 23, 2015 10:23 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful article. It is a reminder of what it really is about.

The most rewarding time of my entire life as an educator is when I was a reading teacher at Uni, and I sat around with my students reading about the civil rights heroes. What they did and said had so much meaning to us. It was so easy to get my students to think and discuss ideas.

That is the essence of the teaching of reading.

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