Black education among slaves was illegal, period. Slave holders could not risk slaves discovering documents like the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. For most slave holders, even allowing slaves to learn to read the bible seemed too risky to allow. Can you imagine? Brilliant black minds trapped for nearly 300 years by laws and attitudes that considered them subhuman and too feeble-minded to learn anyway.
By the time slavery ended in 1865, black people were desperate for education. They wanted to learn from anyone they could. John Hope Franklin gives an excellent account of this in his book, From Slavery to Freedom. Makeshift schools sprang up, taught by anyone who had even the most rudimentary levels of reading and writing. Classes were jam packed with former slaves of all ages.
Most of the four million former slaves remained in the South on the same plantations where they had been slaves. Without land, shelter, food, extra clothing, education or even a general sense of where they were in the county or parish, for most, staying put seemed the intelligent thing to do, especially with white vigilante groups looking for loose blacks to kill out of spite for having lost the war. It is easy to see that in this environment even a makeshift school was dangerous. Being a black teacher at one of these schools, for many, was fatal.
Beginning in 1865, for nearly three years, the federal government did assist former slaves after the war through the Freedmen’s Bureau. By 1868, however, federal funding for the bureau was stripped to its barest minimum, struggling along until 1872 when it ended. According to Dr. John Hope Franklin, “By 1870, when educational work of the bureau stopped, there were 247,333 pupils in 4,329 schools.” The Bureau had spent nearly $5 million on educating former slaves, establishing institutions like Howard University and Fisk University, but this was not nearly enough. Former slaves were left to educate themselves the best way they could under extremely harsh conditions. The Compromise of 1877, in order to settle the dispute over the U.S. presidency, allowed for the governmental withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South in exchange for officially electing Rutherford B. Hayes as president. The troops had helped to protect former slaves from vengeful whites. Without the troops, segregation laws and fiendish practices of law enforcement quickly spread throughout the South.
Despite the threats of violence, blacks continued to risk their lives to become educated. Most black communities had no funding, meaning they were free to create their own curricula. Quite often this included oral histories passed down throughout slavery from memories of Africa. Yet, we must not forget the power of self-hatred that nearly 300 years of slavery had taught. Nor should we forget the power of the forbidden — books. The only book that most blacks had was the bible and it was sacred. For them, did this mean that all books were sacred regardless of what was in them, including words that proclaimed their African memories as lies?
In order to establish legitimate facilities for educating black people, funding had to come from somewhere and with it came a curriculum already in place, bleached of African contributions to civilization. From that point on, a systematized, Western curriculum, dominated by white interpreters, became the standard for black education as it remains today.