Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

Segregated America
The Battleground
  • The Educated Citizen
  • Quest for Education
  • Pursuit of Equality
Legal Campaign
Five Communities Change a Nation
The Decision
The Freedmen's spelling book opened to title page

The Quest for Education

Before the 1860s most of the South had only a rudimentary public school system. After the Civil War, southern states ultimately created a dual educational system based on race. These separate schools were anything but equal.

Yet, the commitment of African American teachers and parents to education never faltered. They established a tradition of educational self-help and were among the first southerners to campaign for universal public education. They welcomed the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau, white charities, and missionary societies. Black communities, many desperately poor, also dug deep into their own resources to build and maintain schools that met their needs and reflected their values.

“ We went every day about nine o’clock, with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them...After school we left the same way we entered, one by one, when we would go to the square about a block from school, and wait for each other. ”
—Susie King, who attended a secret school in Savannah, Georgia
Freedmen's Bureau spelling book and handbill

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 to aid formerly enslaved African Americans. Its limited resources never met the tremendous demand for education from African Americans across the South.

This fundraising handbill shows the Freedmen’s School in St. Helena, South Carolina. It was founded in 1862, following the Union occupation of the area.

(Book lent by Collection of Historical Textbooks, Monroe C. Gutman Library Special Collections, Harvard Graduate School of Education; handbill courtesy of Library of Congress; )

The Freedmen’s spelling book opened to title page (left), Freedmen’s Fundraising Handbill (right)

Rosenwald school in South Carolina

Rosenwald school in South Carolina

To meet the enormous desire for education among African Americans, northern charities helped black communities start thousands of new schools in the South. One of the largest programs was the Julius Rosenwald Fund, established in 1914 by a Sears, Roebuck, and Company executive.

The fund required matching contributions from local communities. Even in the poorest rural areas, black men and women held fundraisers, donated land, and built schools with their own hands.

Photo album of missionary school

Photo album of missionary school

Northern missionary societies founded some of the first schools for southern blacks after the Civil War. Missionary schools continued to provide education well into the 20th century. This photograph album belonged to Fred and Mary Vandivier, teachers at the Southern Christian Institute outside Edwards, Mississippi, about 1917.
(Lent by a descendant of Fred and Mary Vandivier)
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