Frames of “Freedom”: Education as the Great Equalizer?

By Diana Wilson

Carter G. Woodson once said, “The so-called modern education . . . does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples.”[1] In the slavery era, Blacks were barred from education. Thus, they developed covert acquisition of knowledge as a form of infrapolitics to the repressive racist system. Infrapolitics are the acts, gestures, and thoughts that are not quite political but not explicit enough to be perceived as such.[2] With the passing of the 13th amendment, newly freed slaves coupled autonomy with the establishment of learning consortiums. These consortiums fostered the desire for establishing schools for Black people. Soon schools were as much a part of the social fabric of life as they were for Whites. White people simultaneously desired to define freedom for Blacks, and established a system of public education that was premised on White control. By funding rural schools through a public-private partnership,[3] Whites excluded Blacks from being involved in their own development. Specifically, for Black girls, the interlocking systems of subjugation on the axis of age, gender, and race sequestered them to an evanescent childhood that reproduced the White view of their adeptness.

Some of the most prominent public-private partnerships that created the structure of Black education during the 20th century were philanthropic foundations. One of the most salient was the General Education Board, which helped develop Black education in the South from the beginning of the 20th century up until the 1960’s through generous donations. For example, the Hempstead County Training School in Hope, Arkansas, a majority Black school, required renovations of which the General Education Board contributed more than half.[4] However, within their donation records, the GEB repeatedly rejected grant requests from self-directed Black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization thus upheld paradigms of White-sponsored social mobility for Blacks, rather than ideals of Black self-determination.

One of the forerunners of White control over Black education, was Jackson Davis, a Virginia school superintendent and descendant of that state’s aristocracy, who became the first agent in 1910.[5] As a director of the General Education Board, he helped define the purpose of their giving to Black education and their expected outcomes. Davis and other board members did believe in facilitating Black advancement, but not without the system of White male authority. Mr. Davis was also one of the lead proponents in implementing the total exclusion of Blacks in administrative positions at school. For instance, when considering hiring a Black man as a supervisor he stated “this move would lessen the dignity of the position in the eyes of the southern White people and would make more difficult our cooperation in southern states which have not yet shown a desire for the work.”[6]

As an amateur photographer, Davis deliberately fabricated his photos to reassure Whites of their hegemony. As the lead state agent for the General Education Board, he wanted to prove that industrial education was the best mode of advancement for Black children. Instead of teaching math, science, or physics in a theoretical frame, industrial education used premises within these disciplines to teach methodologies that could be actualized in manual labor. Davis himself was in charge of providing reports to the board on the progress of Black schools under the supervision of the GEB. Thus, I speculate that Davis worked diligently to make the oppressed look free.[7]

In his portfolio, you see many Black girls wearing nice dresses, joyfully playing games and smiling with fruit baskets. The photo that I chose is the perfect depiction of the juxtaposition between perceived justice and actualized freedom of choice for Black girls. I imagine Davis and Nettie E. Dolly, a teacher, instructing this young Black girl to pose with innocence and joy.[8] They posed her clothed in a beautiful matching dress and bonnet, which she may not have owned. The way Davis and Dolly staged the photo was intended to represent an enclave of social mobility and advancement for Black girls through education. However, the girl herself decided to pose in a dismal fashion. Her expression portrays the environment of injustice, discrimination and the system of White superiority that limits her to capability to be in the field. Her defiance against the social stratification that impedes her freedom is subtle yet brilliant. I imagine that as the camera flashed and she fixed her faced in a melancholy disposition, that she created a petite degree of freedom for herself. Even her placement in the field is inherently paradoxical. In these southern schools, only Black boys labored to cultivate produce like cabbage, potatoes, corn, onions and etc.[9] As a Black child, she cannot exercise her freedom to be a child in her daily life. I believe that this image is important in the process of contextualizing Black girlhood because it displays defiance. She shows that Black girls have aspirations, aptitudes and life outside of whatever dress and bonnet they are fixed under. In this photograph, I surmise that she is confronting the expectations and hindrances of being in industrial schooling, being Black, being a child and being a girl.[10]

[1] Woodson, Carter Godwin. 1998. The mis-education of the Negro (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1933).

[2] James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985), 183.

[3] Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss Jr., Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education 1902-1930 (University of Missouri Press, 1999), 9.

[4] Jackson Davis, Building a Rural Civilization: Some Educational Results Among Southern Negroes, Southern Workman (Hampton: Hampton Institute, 1915), 504.

[5] Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. “Jackson Davis and the Lost World of Jim Crow Education.” Accessed November 29,2016.

http://small.library.virginia.edu/collections/featured/jackson-davis-collection-of-african-american-educational-photographs/related-resources/jackson-davis-and-the-lost-world-of-jim-crow-education/

[6] Sarah Caroline Thuesen, Greater than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[7] Gardens. House. Negro Girls, 1911, Jackson Davis Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:329313

[8] Jackson Davis, Building a Rural Civilization: Some Educational Results Among Southern Negroes, Southern Workman (Hampton: Hampton Institute, 1915), 454.

[9] Jackson Davis, Building a Rural Civilization: Some Educational Results Among Southern Negroes, Southern Workman (Hampton: Hampton Institute, 1915), 507.

[10] Gardens. House. Negro Girls, 1911, Jackson Davis Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:329313