Journal of Negro Education

Does the Negro need Separate Schools? Author(s): W. E. Burghardt Du Bois Source: The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 4, No. 3, The Courts and the Negro Separate School (Jul., 1935), pp. 328-335 Published by: Journal of Negro Education Stable URL: . Accessed: 09/01/2011 02:34

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Does the Negro Need Separate Schools? W. E. BURGHARDT DU BOIS

There are in the United States some four million Negroes of school age, of whom two million are in school, and of these, four-fifths are taught by forty-eight thousand Negro teachers in separate schools. Less than a half million are in mixed schools in the North, where they are taught almost exclusively by white teachers. Beside this, there are seventy-nine Negro universities and colleges with one thousand colored teachers, beside a number of private secondary schools.

The question which I am discussing is: Are these separate schools and in- stitutions needed? And the answer, to my mind, is perfectly clear. They are needed just so far as they are necessary for the proper education of the Negro race. The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and back- ground, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pu- pils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education in equipment and housing, and the pro- motion of such extra-curricular ac- tivities as will tend to induct the child into life.

If this is true, and if we recognize the present attitude of white America toward black America, then the Ne-

gro not only needs the vast majority of these schools, but it is a grave ques- tion if, in the near future, he will not need more such schools, both to take care of his natural increase, and to defend him against the growing ani- mosity of the whites. It is of course fashionable and popular to deny this; to try to deceive ourselves into think- ing that race prejudice in the United States across the Color Line is gradu- ally softening and that slowly but surely we are coming to the time when racial animosities and class lines will be so obliterated that sepa- rate schools will be anachronisms.

Certainly, I shall welcome such a time. Just as long as Negroes are taught in Negro schools and whites in white schools; the poor in the slums, and the rich in private schools; just as long as it is impracticable to welcome Negro students to Harvard, Yale and Princeton; just as long as colleges like Williams, Amherst and Wellesley tend to become the pro- perty of certain wealthy families, where Jews are not solicited; just so long we shall lack in America that sort of public education which will create the intelligent basis of a real democracy.

Much as I would like this, and hard as I have striven and shall strive to help realize it, I am no fool; and I know that race prejudice in the Uni- ted States today is such that most Negroes cannot receive proper edu-



cation in white institutions. If the public schools of Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans and Jacksonville were thrown open to all races tomorrow, the education that colored children would get in them would be worse than pitiable. It would not be educa- tion. And in the same way, there are many public school systems in the North where Negroes are admitted and tolerated, but they are not edu- cated; they are crucified. There are certain Northern universities where Negro students, no matter what their ability, desert, or accomplishment, cannot get fair recognition, either in classroom or on the campus, in din- ing halls and student activities, or in common human courtesy. It is well- known that in certain faculties of the University of Chicago, no Negro has yet received the doctorate and seldom can achieve the mastership in arts; at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Ne- groes are admitted but not welcomed; while in other institutions, like Prince- ton, they cannot even enroll.

Under such circumstances, there is no room for argument as to whether the Negro needs separate schools or not. The plain fact faces us, that either he will have separate schools or he will not be educated. There may be, and there is, considerable difference of opinion as to how far this separation in schools is today necessary. There can be argument as to what our attitude toward further separation should be. Suppose, for instance, that in Montclair, New Jersey, a city of wealth and culture, the Board of Education is deter- mined to establish separate schools for Negroes; suppose that, despite the law, separate Negro schools are

already established in Philadelphia, and pressure is being steadily brought to extend this separation at least to the junior high school; what must be our attitude toward this?

Manifestly, no general and inflexi- ble rule can be laid down. If public opinion is such in Montclair that Ne- gro children can not receive decent and sympathetic education in the white schools, and no Negro teachers can be employed, there is for us no choice. We have got to accept Negro schools. Any agitation and action aimed at compelling a rich and power- ful majority of the citizens to do what they will not do, is useless. On the other hand, we have a right and a duty to assure ourselves of the truth concerning this attitude; by careful conferences, by public meetings and by petitions, we should convince our- selves whether this demand for sepa- rate schools is merely the agitation of a prejudiced minority, or the con- sidered and final judgment of the town.

There are undoubtedly cases where a minority of leaders force their opinions upon a majority, and induce a community to establish separate schools, when as a matter of fact, there is no general demand for it; there has been no friction in the schools; and Negro children have been decently treated. In that case, a firm and intelligent appeal to public opin- ion would eventually settle the mat- ter. But the futile attempt to compel even by law a group to do what it is determined not to do, is a silly waste of money, time, and temper.

On the other hand, there are also cases where there has been no separa- tion in schools and no movement to-


ward it. And yet the treatment of Negro children in the schools, the kind of teaching and the kind of ad- vice they get, is such that they ought to demand either a thorough-going revolution in the official attitude to- ward Negro students, or absolute separation in ‘educational facilities. To endure bad schools and wrong education because the schools are “mixed” is a costly if not fatal mis- take. I have long been convinced, for instance, that the Negroes in the public schools of Harlem are not get- ting an education that is in any sense comparable in efficiency, discipline, and human development with that which Negroes are getting in the separate public schools of Washing- ton, D.C. And yet on its school situa- tion, black Harlem is dumb and complacent, if not actually laudatory.

Recognizing the fact that for the vast majority of colored students in elementary, secondary, and collegiate education, there must be today sepa- rate educational institutions because of an attitude on the part of the white people which is not going materially to change in our time, our customary attitude toward these separate schools must be absolutely and definitely changed. As it is today, American Negroes almost universally disparage their own schools. They look down upon them; they often treat the Ne- gro teachers in them with contempt; they refuse to work for their adequate support; and they refuse to join pub- lic movements to increase their effi- ciency.

The reason for this is quite clear, and may be divided into two parts: (1) the fear that any movement which implies segregation even as a tem-

porary, much less as a relatively per- manent institution, in the United States, is a fatal surrender of prin- ciple, which in the end will rebound and bring more evils on the Negro than he suffers today. (2) The other reason is at bottom an utter lack of faith on the part of Negroes that their race can do anything really well. If Negroes could conceive that Negroes could establish schools quite as good as or even superior to white schools; if Negro colleges were of equal grade in accomplishment and in scientific work with white colleges; then separation would be a passing incident and not a permanent evil; but as long as American Negroes believe that their race is constitutionally and perma- nently inferior to white people, they necessarily disbelieve in every possi- ble Negro Institution.

The first argument is more or less metaphysical and cannot be decided a priori for every case. There are times when one must stand up for principle at the cost of discomfort, harm, and death. But in the case of the education of the young, you must consider not simply yourself but the children and the relation of children to life.:It is difficult to think of any- thing more important for the develop- ment of a people than proper training for their children; and yet I have re- peatedly seen wise and loving colored parents takwe infinite pains to force their little children into schools where the white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and re- sented the dark child, made mock of it, neglected or bullied it, and literally rendered its life a living hell. Such parents want their child to “fight” this thing out,-but, dear God, at


what a cost! Sometimes, to be sure, the child triumphs and teaches the school community a lesson; but even in such cases, the cost may, be high, and the child’s whole life turned into an effort to win cheap applause at the expense of healthy individuality. In other cases, the result of the experi- ment may be complete ruin of char- acter, gift, and ability and ingrained hatred of schools and men. For the kind of battle thus indicated, most children are under no circumstances suited. It is the refinement of cruelty to require it of them. Therefore, in evaluating the advantage and disad- vantage of accepting race hatred as a brutal but real fact, or of using a little child as a battering ram upon which its nastiness can be thrust, we must give greater value and greater em- phasis to the rights of the child’s own soul. We shall get a finer, better bal- ance of spirit; an infinitely more ca- pable and rounded personality by put- ting children in schools where they are wanted, and where they are happy and inspired, than in thrusting theih into hells where they are ridiculed and hated.

Beyond this, lies the deeper, broad- er fact. If the American Negro really believed in himself; if he believed that Negro teachers can educate children according to the best standards of modern training; if he believed that Negro colleges transmit and add to science, as well as or better thau other colleges, then he would bend his ener- gies, not to escaping inescapable as- sociation with his own group, but to seeing that his group had every op- portunity for its best and highest de- velopment. He would insist that his teachers be decently paid; that his

schools were properly housed and equipped; that his colleges be supplied with scholarship and research funds; and he would be far more interested in the efficiency of these institutions of learning, than in forcing himself into other institutions where he is not wanted. . As long as the Negro student wishes to graduate from Columbia, not be- cause Columbia is an institution of learning, but because it is attended by white students; as long as a Negro student is ashamed to attend Fisk or Howard because these institutions are largely run by black folk, just so long the main problem of, Negro education will not be segregation but self-knowl- edge and self-respect.

There are not many teachers in Negro schools who would not esteem it an unparalleled honor and boast of it to their dying day, if instead of teaching black folk, they could get a chance to teach poor-whites, Irishmen, Italians or Chinese in a “white” in- stitution. This is not unnatural. This is to them a sort of acid test of their worth. It is but the logical result of the “white” propaganda which has swept civilization for the last thou- sand years, and which is- now bol- stered and defended by brave words, high wages, and monopoly of oppor- tunities. But this state of mind is suicidal and must be fought, and fought doggedly and bitterly: first, by giving Negro teachers decent wages, decent schoolhouses and equipment, and reasonable chances for advance- ment; and then by kicking out and leaving to the mercy of the white world those who do not and cannot believe in their own.

Lack of faith in Negro enterprise


leads to singular results: Negroes will fight frenziedly to prevent segregated schools; but if segregation is forced upon them by dominant white public opinion, they will suddenly lose inter- est and scarcely raise a finger to see that the resultant Negro schools get a fair share of the public funds so as to have adequate equipment and housing; to see that real teachers are appointed, and that they are paid as much as white teachers doing the same work. Today, when the ,Negro public school system gets from half to one- tenth of the amount of money spent on white schools, and is often conse- quently poorly run and poorly taught, colored people tacitly if not openly join with white people in assuming that Negroes cannot run Negro en- terprises, and cannot educate them- selves, and that the very establish- ment of a Negro school means starting an inferior school.

The N.A.A.C.P. and other Negro organizations have spent thousands of dollars to prevent the establish- ment of segregated Negro schools, but scarcely a single cent to see that the division of funds between white and Negro schools, North and South, is carried out with some faint approxi- mation of justice. There can be no doubt that if the Supreme Court were overwhelmed with cases where the blatant and’ impudent discrimination against Negro education is openly acknowledged, it would be compelled to hand down decisions which would make this discrimination impossible. We Negroes do not dare to press this point and force these decisions be- cause, forsooth, it would acknowledge the fact of separate schools, a fact that does not need to be acknowl-

edged, and will not need to be for two centuries.

Howard, Fisk, and Atlanta are naturally unable to do the type and grade of graduate work which is done at Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard; but why attribute this to a defect in the Negro race, and not to the fact that the large white colleges have from one hundred to one thousand times the funds for equipment and research that Negro colleges can com- mand? To this, it may logically be answered, all the more reason that Negroes should try to get into better-

.jiequipped schools, and who pray denies this? But the opportunity for such entrance is becoming more and more difficult, and the training offered less and less suited to the American Negro of today. Conceive a Negro teaching in a Southern school the economics which he learned at the Harvard Busi- ness School! Conceive a Negro teacher of history retailing to his black stu- dents the sort of history that is taught at the University of Chicago! Imagine the history of Reconstruction being handed by a colored professor from the lips of Columbia professors to the ears of the black belt! The results of this kind of thing are often fantastic, and call for Negro history and soci- ology, and even physical science taught by men who understand their audience, and are not afraid of the truth.

There was a time when the ability of Negro brains to do first-class work had to be proven by facts and figures, and I was a part of the movement that sought to set the accomplish- ments of Negro ability before the world. But the world before which I was setting this proof was a disbe-

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