LAWRENCE — Loss of life and precious resources often come to mind before education and equality when considering the outcomes of war. However, three major wars in American history have improved education and equality standards for African-Americans, a University of Kansas professor argues in recently presented research.
The Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War II all resulted in substantial gains in education for African-Americans. But predictably, racism eventually reared its head and stemmed the gains made each time, John Rury, professor of education and (by courtesy) history, wrote in a paper presented at the conference of the International Standing Committee on the History of Education in London. Rury co-authored the study with Derrick Darby, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, formerly at KU.
“There’s a curious thing about these periods of war. Conflicts in which all of society’s resources have to be mobilized to win, what we refer to as ‘total war,’ call for a heightened invocation of national ideals,” Rury said. “There are three examples in American history. In such instances of total war, the idea that African-Americans don’t deserve equal rights begins to break down.”
Before and during the Revolutionary War, slavery was becoming an entrenched institution in the United States. That directly contradicted oft-stated ideals of freedom, liberty, equality and democratic republicanism that were central to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and pamphlet literature of the time. Thousands of slaves were freed during the war, and anti-slavery societies began to appear in northern cities. One of the most notable events was an offer by the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, to grant liberty to any slave who escaped and crossed loyalist lines in 1779. Americans countered by offering freedom and land for faithful service during the war.
But it was the ideology of freedom and equality that opened to door to black education. Anti-slavery societies began establishing schools for freed slaves and African-American children right after the war. Notable among them was the New York African Free School, which became the state’s first school to receive public funding. While the schools focused on vocational education and teaching of morality initially, they shifted focus over the years.
“These schools started with a paternalistic viewpoint,” Rury said. “But they evolved into more academically focused institutions. There was a period of considerable support for African-American education that ended around the 1830s; a generation of black leaders was educated in these schools.”
Eventually, the oft-held idea that Africans were intellectually inferior to whites began to retake hold. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy when Africans were declared ill-suited to education. When provided with substandard schools and much less access to education, the results were assumed to be “proof” of mental deficiency, Rury and Darby wrote. This became a central tenet of racist ideology.
With the arrival of the Civil War, slavery and equality became national issues once again. Following the North’s victory, schools for black students were established throughout the South during Reconstruction. The period was a watershed for black literacy. While a small minority of Southern African-Americans were literate prior to the war, about 44 percent were literate by 1890.
But that improvement was dealt a severe blow in 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes removed the last Northern troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction and ushering in the Jim Crow era. With the era came the idea of “separate but equal” schools, which commonly proved far from equal.
“There were many things that preceded it, but this troubling period really came to a head with World War II,” Rury said.
One notable development during the war was African-American pressure to end Jim Crow in federal employment, leading to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s banning racial discrimination in war contracts. That contributed to migration of African-Americans to the cities, where their children were allowed to attend high schools, which were previously inaccessible. Also, national ideals were once again at the forefront of the day while the nation was fighting Nazi Germany and its doctrine of racial superiority.
Following World War II, the NAACP and other African-American civil rights groups focused on equality in education and made rapid headway. The U.S. Supreme Court ended school segregation with its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Followed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Cold War, in which the United States was vying for support from African, Asian and other nations around the globe in its struggle with the Soviet Union, equality was at the national forefront, and African-Americans made their greatest educational achievement gains in American history.
That progress has plateaued since the 1980s. It has been nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, fitting the pattern the authors outlined. While the United States has seen several armed conflicts in that time, they say it is not clear that monumental gains in education can be realized outside of large-scale war.
“In the USA such episodes created periods of openness to the advancement of social groups that historically suffered discrimination and exploitation, even if forms of oppression and exploitation emerged later after the conflict had faded to memory. In modern history, gaining greater access to educational opportunity has been among the most tangible of such benefits,” Rury and Darby wrote. “It remains to be seen if comparable progress in the struggle against racism and exploitation of African-Americans can make equally significant progress in the absence of conflict on the scale of total war.”