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The Early History of ‘Segronomics’

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In part two, Noliwe Rooks says wealthy philanthropists first influenced public education for African Americans in the post-reconstruction South

JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to go into the history of what you call segrenomics, the history of apartheid schooling. You talk about how wealthy philanthropists just as they are today so invested in public education, they were 150 years ago during reconstruction in the South. And you sort of chart this history. Let’s start there. What was their involvement? Why were they so interested in the education of African-Americans?

NOLIWE ROOKS: Well, first of all, one thing I always want to mark around education and reconstruction because it’s under-taught in schools, there was … Okay. I’ll tell you a funny little story. I was doing a talk at a college here in Maryland. I asked before I started talking about the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, “Does everybody know what reconstruction is?” We were all clear and everybody was nodding heads, yes, yes, reconstruction, know all about it.

So I asked, “Does anyone want to instruct the rest of the auditorium? Be brave, step up.” And so one young man was vigorous in his desire to tell me what reconstruction was and he raised his hand and waved it around. “So sir, tell us, tell us what is.” And he said reconstruction is the period of time when the government decided to build freeways all from cities out into the suburbs, and there was this guy during reconstruction who thought that that would be good to help businesses grow. And so reconstruction is when they paved things.

That has taught me to always, like, stop and make sure that people really understand that this was this eight, 10-year period where around education and around voting in particular–and I believe that education and voting rights, education rights and education, justice and voting rights and justice really do go hand in hand–for that eight-year period you had poor white people and Black people, newly freed slaves, actually being educated. You had literacy rates going through the roof. You had schools being built. You had educational opportunities expanding. But what it took to achieve that were federal troops, keeping-

JAISAL NOOR: Armed occupation.

NOLIWE ROOKS: It was literal, literally, you had to have people with guns outside schoolhouses and roaming the streets to make sure that the folks who were opposed to this kind of equality would not reimpose it. As soon as–I won’t go into the history of how it happened–but as soon as those troops left … for that eight, 10-year period you got elected officials, you got people reading. You got schools, people were like, yes, freedom has come, it’s real and it means that education is here for us.

As soon as they left, state legislatures start to dismantle all of it. They make it illegal for Black and white kids to sit in the same room. They make it illegal, they start saying things like, “You can’t use white tax dollars to educate Black children. We have got to segregate the ways the dollars [are used] and how we’re keeping track of it.” But Black tax dollars can be used to educate white students. And make it illegal to build schools, they make it illegal, they make clear that there’s to be no more education for those who had been formerly enslaved or that the education they would have would be substandard.

Now, we all know that the literal expansion of the country, the economic engine of the country was based on having unpaid slave labor. That’s an advantage and it is creating the wealth all over the country. It’s making it possible for businesses even in the North and as we’re expanding west to do so because you don’t have to pay these people much. What starts happening is philanthropists from the North as well as business folks, corporate folks, philanthropists, have always been very friendly with corporate America. They’re from the same class. They often grow up in the same ways with the same views, they just kind of veer off into different directions.

They start to say, well, what is going to happen to the economic future of America now that we no longer have enslaved people and now that they’ve gotten a little taste of the same education that we have, where there are these conversations about things like democracy, about freedom, where it’s not just, we’re not just teaching them skills, we’re teaching them ideas.

So, the folks, the philanthropists from the North get together with people in the South, with the white supremacists in the South who are busy taking back educational rights, and they say you’ve got to give them some kind of education or our businesses won’t grow. Your economic health is dependent on an educated class but they need to be educated into subservience. And that is the thing and to the value of hard work and into their place in society. And they need skills that will make them fitting entry-level workers and we can have then whites be a step above them always. We have to teach them something or they’ll leave and then who will keep things going. But we don’t want to teach them too much.

So philanthropists come in and say, we have a solution to this. Like you’ve got white people who are saying, “No, we don’t want them to have any education, that money for their education needs to be going to educate white people.” They come in and they say, “But what if we make it vocational? What if the kind of education that we give them equips them for what you and we both understand to be the most advantageous space for them to occupy. So we teach them how to help pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” This is a big one, which is always, it’s perplexing to me because they were enslaved and now they’re mostly sharecroppers working sunup to sundown for no money, and you’re going to teach them about hard work. They’re doing the work that you don’t have to do, they’re not getting paid for it, but what we need now is to teach them how to value hard work. And we need to teach them how to take care of themselves so they’re not asking us to give them shoes or teach them how to make shoes. They’re not asking us to give them clothes, we’ll teach them how to make their own clothes.

So the kind of education that’s born after reconstruction–after this wonderful, hopeful, democratic period where it looked like all the promises, all the ideals that we talk about regularly around citizenship and what that means, that it was going to happen–is followed by this brutal backlash where they’re like, yes, but the education for you is going to make clear that you are inferior to whites, that you need to still be a part of this economic engine and that “It’s this or nothing.” So your options are, do this, do what we’re telling you. Don’t worry about why you can’t get educated beyond the fifth or sixth grade. Why you’re only having education for three to four months out the year versus nine months because we need you in the field. So your school year can’t be more than four months because the rest of the time we need you. Like don’t worry about any of that, you’re getting some education and you should be happy about it.

JAISAL NOOR: I know in Maryland and in Baltimore there was a fight for decades to even get one high school that would serve African-Americans, that’s Frederick Douglass High. That only existed, you know, it was one high school serving Black students until the 1940s. That took decades and decades to even get that much.

NOLIWE ROOKS: That’s a really common story. The fight for Black, what we would call high schools, what was huge because that was a bridge too far. People were willing, because they figure by the time you were high school age, which is what, 14, 15 or so, basically you need to be joining the workforce if you’re Black. Basically that mindset was still very much in place, which was we want to educate them only so much because we’re trying to educate them into a certain space in the society. And again, if you educate them the same way you do rich white people they might start asking questions, they might start getting ideas.

That story about the fight for high schools and the one school for all Black people in the South, further South than this, it would have been like a one-room schoolhouse. Like literally one room with a pot-bellied stove and one teacher teaching everyone. Elsewhere, you might have something a little more robust than that, but it was always what is the least amount, from the earliest days, what is the least amount we can give you educationally? What’s the least amount of money we can spend that you will accept and the least amount of knowledge that we can give you that you will accept?