*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
Life isn’t fair … never has been, probably never will be. Acknowledgement of this fact does not excuse us from acknowledging inequity and educating ourselves about the past. Knowledge is power. This blog will examine the history of African-American education, with an emphasis on the local level.
First, a brief look at some legal precedents. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified July 9, 1868. As a “follow-up” to the Emancipation Proclamation and part of Reconstruction, it stated that citizenship was granted to
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States,” thereby granting citizenship to former slaves. Another equally important provision was the statement that “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The right to due process of law and
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States,” thereby granting citizenship to former slaves. Another equally important provision was the statement that “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The right to due process of law and equal protection of the law now applied to both the Federal and state governments.” As you might expect, this amendment, like all others, is open to interpretation. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court exists, at least in part, for that very reason, to provide a reasoned, legal interpretation of statutes, laws, court cases, amendments, etc. After the passage of this amendment, there were those who argued for racial segregation, positing that separation was acceptable so long as it was equitable. The Supreme Court weighed in: “on May 18, 1896, by a seven-to-one majority (one justice did not participate), [it] advanced the controversial “separate but equal” doctrine for assessing the constitutionality of racial segregation laws. Plessy v. Ferguson was the first major inquiry into the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s (1868) equal-protection clause, which prohibits the states from denying “equal protection of the laws” to any person within their jurisdictions. Although the majority opinion did not contain the phrase “separate but equal,” it gave constitutional sanction to laws designed to achieve racial segregation by means of separate and supposedly equal public facilities and services for African Americans and whites.” The doctrine of separate but equal was therefore the law of the land for almost 60 years. And separate is rarely equal. Let’s take a look at how this played out in Evansville and the Midwest.
Trotter (pg. 33) provides these observations about educational legislation in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. “When the Ohio legislature authorized tax levies for public education in 1825, it was silent on blacks. By 1829, however, when Cincinnati established its public school system, a new state law forbade blacks from attending public schools, but exempted them from the school tax levy. In 1847, the state supreme court ruled that children who were more than half white could attend the public schools, but only persistent protests by black leaders led to the establishment of separate schools for black children, paid for by black taxpayers and governed by a black board of directors elected by blacks. Still, it took a state supreme court ruling to force Cincinnati officials to comply. Even then, the city resisted enforcement; only in 1858 did the city’s first black public school open its doors. Thus, as late as the 1850s, when nearly 72 percent of the city’s white school-age children attended school, only about 38 percent of black children were so enrolled. Custom and law also excluded blacks or relegated them to segregated and unequal access to education in Kentucky and Indiana. Although Kentucky law permitted the education of slaves and free blacks, when Louisville established public schools in the 1820s, it excluded blacks. For its part, Indiana excluded blacks from its public school laws of 1852 and 1855.” In addition to these legal barriers, African-American students faced economic ones. “Black students….rarely attended beyond the sixth grade, for a number of reasons. The poverty of most black parents, who needed income that their children could secure, was one. The lack of a tradition that schooling mattered was reinforced by the limited range of jobs available. The low quality of educational facilities and of instruction also tended to discourage a commitment to more than the most basic education.” (Bigham/Jordan’s Banks, pg. 273)
According to Bigham/Fair Trial (pg. 40), the first black school in Evansville was established in the late 1850s. Classes were held either in an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church or nearby. Although the church is not identified, it could possibly be Alexander/Alexander Chapel AME, which was founded, according to the Historic Evansville website, in 1843, although the physical structure wasn’t built until later. Circa 1867-1869, the first black school to be built, the Colored School/Upper Colored School, was erected at 422-424 Chestnut Street, on the corner with 5th Street. “In 1869, the Indiana General Assembly, led by Governor Baker, authorized the apportion of tax money for schools for Indiana’s blacks. The law was amended in 1877 to allow blacks to attend white schools if separate schools were not provided or if black students were sufficiently advanced to attend white schools, but it did not guarantee that separate schools would be equal in quality. Local option also meant that most Indiana communities—especially those on the Ohio River, would opt for segregated schools. The school trustees of Evansville began to provide formal education for black children of the city after June 6, 1869, when a committee of the board was appointed “to investigate and report upon the best way to furnish Negroes of the City and [Pigeon] Township with school privileges.” The same board also received a petition from blacks “asking that colored teachers might be appointed to teach the colored children.”” (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 42) The first black woman to head a school was Lucy Wilson, principal of Clark from 1876-1897. “The earliest extant minutes of the school board indicate that in the fall of 1871 there were four black teachers. Appointments were made on a different basis from those of whites, as black teachers were listed simply as first, second, third, and fourth colored. Salaries were also lower than those given whites. Townsend’s $700 salary, highest among the four black teachers, was equal to the amount paid the heads of the smallest white schools. The average for the other three teachers was less than $400, substantially lower than that of whites.” (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 43)
In On Jordan’s Banks, Bigham provides some further insights. Cincinnati’s black schools were generally of good quality, but as of 1874, seriously overcrowded and understaffed. There were only 20 teachers for 3 elementary schools and 1 high school, serving 1000 students! Despite this, attendance was high—95% in district schools and 98% in high school. In Louisville, Kentucky, in 1870, some 60% of black could not write, compared to only 6% of whites. Night schools for black workers were very popular here as elsewhere; Louisville workers paid 10 cents per week to attend. One night student said, “I go to help build up my race. I am educating my children and want to keep up with them and give them encouragement.” (pg. 279) Closer to home, Henderson financed a school for blacks with taxes in 1871, while Owensboro in that same year excluded blacks from schools by law. By 1874, Kentucky schools were officially segregated, with black trustees appointed by, and accountable to, white school board members and commissioners. By 1880, white students had four times more per capita spent on their education than did blacks, who also faced classrooms with up to 120 students. No black school had a library before 1900, and many black school buildings were in very poor condition. An 1883 law increased per capita funding for both black and white students, but prohibited white tax revenues from being used to repair black schools. Black teachers had morality clauses in their contracts which their white counterparts did not. Moving on to Indiana, Bigham notes that in 1883, Warrick County only had 2 black teachers—one in Boonville and the other in Newburgh. In Posey County, there was only one black school, in Mt. Vernon. Black students, the majority of whom lived in the county, had to travel as far as 10 miles to attend.
Bringing this back to Evansville, two years after the construction of the Colored School, Clark Street School, aka Lower Colored School, was built at 215 Clark Street. With a new building built in 1889, the high school was added in 1897. Around 1919 the school was renamed Frederick Douglass, honoring the famous abolitionist and orator. In the images below, on the left is the original Clark Street School in 1910, at that time used as a manual training or vocational school. (Some thought that black youth “should be trained for the vocations which are in demand in order to guarantee “the immediate uplift of the race.” Evansville needed beautiful lawns, they argued, not more black doctors or lawyers.”) (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 126) On the right is Frederick Douglass, photograph from the school’s 1928 yearbook, the Dougite. These two buildings stood next to each other; both were razed circa 1937.
In 1927 or 1928, a plan to consolidate a number of black schools was put into action by the construction of Lincoln School at 635 Lincoln Avenue. The black community, wishing to continue to honor Frederick Douglass, protested the name, but in vain.
In 1962 the high school closed and Lincoln became K-8, was an elementary school 1985-2009, and as of 2010, is once again a K-8. The school’s website provides this further information about its history: “Lincoln was the first new school built in Evansville for the black minority community. The school cost $275,000 to build. The school included twenty-two classrooms, a gymnasium, auditorium, sewing room, home economics kitchen, study hall, and manual training center. However, Lincoln didn’t have a cafeteria. The library had no books and the board refused to allocate money for that purpose. To stock the library, Mrs. Alberta K. McFarland Stevenson, Lincoln’s first librarian, went door to door collecting books and money donations. Classes were first begun in 1928. It was a K-12 school. Since Lincoln was the only black high school for miles around, black students from Mt. Vernon, Rockport, Newburgh, and Grandview were bussed to Evansville to attend Lincoln. In 1928, the enrollment was over 300.”
Clearly, Lincoln eventually got a cafeteria! Some of the members of the Lincoln High School faculty (among them, Theodore Mays [1909-1964], Amaryllis Martin [1920-2007], Marye Miller Brown [1915-2000], and Carl Lyles [Carl Chester Lyles, Sr. 1912-2005])
were seated with principal Charles Rochelle in the school cafeteria in this mid-1950s photograph.
The students include William George [William Odell (Bill) George 1930-2013], Austin Grithin, and Margie Carter.
Based on other photographs, Dr. Charles E. Rochelle (1895-1993) is believed to be 2nd from the right at the first table, facing the camera.
One of the schools that closed and incorporated into Lincoln was Oakdale School, at 1800 South Governor. Built in 1911, it was converted into a church circa 1962 and demolished around 1970.
Besides Clark St. and Oakdale, the other school closed and incorporated into Lincoln was Governor Street School, built in 1874 on the northeast corner of Governor St. and Mulberry St. and razed around 1962.
Other black schools included Independence, Twelfth Avenue, Third Avenue, Chestnut Street, Walnut Street, and at least two schools in Union Township (no. 8 and no. 9, no photos found). For a period of about 19 years black high school classes were held in a building on 7th Avenue. It is possible that black students attended classes in other schools at times over the years, too.
The two schools above are related. On the left is Chestnut-Walnut School/Walnut Street School/9th Street School/Chestnut School, at 910 Chestnut Street/216 SE 9th Street, shown here around 1910. It was built in 1867 on 9th Street and a new building went up in 1894 on Chestnut St. On the right is the new building. The original 9th Street building was torn down in 1913 to make way for a new one fronting Walnut Street, shown on the right here in 1931. Circa 1962 and 1981, respectively, Chestnut and Walnut schools were razed. It appears as though they didn’t always serve as black schools, but when the Walnut St. school closed in 1962, its students went to Lincoln.
The two schools above are related. On the left is Chestnut-Walnut School/Walnut Street School/9th St. School/Chestnut School, at 910 Chestnut St./216 SE 9th St., shown here around 1910. It was built in 1867 on 9th St. and a new building went up in 1894 on Chestnut St. It is this second building that is pictured here. The original 9th St. building was torn down in 1913 to make way for a new one fronting Walnut St., shown on the right here in 1931. Circa 1962 and 1981, respectively, Chestnut and Walnut schools were razed. It appears as though they didn’t always serve as black schools, but when the Walnut St. school closed in 1962, its students went to Lincoln.
This building, at 200 NW 7th St., was built around 1860. It served a number of different purposes over the years: Vine St. School, city library, and Evansville Public Schools superintendent office. Between approximately 1878-1897 black high school students had classes in a portion of this building until they moved to Clark Street School. This building was razed circa 1939.
Schools for African-Americans in Evansville were available, but they were in no way equal to those for white students. Student-to-teacher ratios were high. There were no black kindergartens (at least not before January 1916), and for a time, very little education beyond 6th grade was available. Expenditures ran behind those in white schools–“per capita allocations ($13.38) were half that given to white schools.” (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 45) Access itself was an issue. “Third Avenue, Independence, and Governor students wishing the eighth grade had to walk to Clark. High school education was even more a luxury for blacks than it was for whites, for most students desiring it had to travel about a mile and also faced the pressure to enter the work force immediately after grammar school. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in 1900 44.5 percent of black children aged five to twenty were in school, as compared to 57.9 percent of white children. The illiteracy rate among black residents aged ten or more was 26.6 percent. For native whites, it was 1.7 percent, and for foreign-born whites it was 9.6 percent.” (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 44-45)
Facilities were a disgrace. “None of the schools had an auditorium, and hence the black community was forced to use Evans Hall—razed by the city in the early 1930s—for school programs. Playground equipment was not provided at Governor until May 1913, but the board never got around to building a swimming pool, as it had for whites. The physical condition of these schools was revealed by the board’s capital needs inventory of June 1919: Third Avenue had no indoor toilets (only Howell, among white schools, shared that distinction); Governor needed electric lighting throughout the building; and Clark’s laboratories were unheated.” (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 127)
Salaries were also a disgrace. “The board adopted its first salary schedule in 1914, which strengthened the discriminatory compensation practices of the past. … The board set the maximum salary for teachers and the principal of Clark High School at $900 and $1,250, respectively, while placing limits of $1,600 and $3,150, respectively, on their white counterparts. In the summer of 1918 the board replaced this de facto form of discrimination with an explicitly Jim Crow form: In the future black teachers were to be paid according to the white salary schedule of the previous year. … In March 1920 the board agreed to pay black elementary teachers $1,350, on average, for the coming year, as compared with $1,500 among whites, and Principal Best was to receive $2,000. (The lowest salary for any white principal was $700 higher.) (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 127) To be clear about any question about qualifications, the Best mentioned here is Dr. William Ebenezer Best, who earned a masters degree from Indiana University and was granted an honorary doctorate from Wilberforce University. Other well-qualified African-American teachers and/or principals were George Washington Buckner (medical doctor, graduate of the Eclectic Medical College in Indianapolis), John R. Blackburn, Sr. (Dartmouth graduate), R. L. Yancey and Fannie Snow (both graduates of Fisk University), and Dr. Charles E. Rochelle (the first African American to earn a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, 1942). “Black educators remained the backbone of the black middle and upper classes and the role models for hundreds of black Evansvillians.” (Bigham/Fair Trial, pg. 129) Despite the inequities, there was also tremendous pride in black schools and their accomplishments. No less than W.E.B. DuBois spoke at the Clark High School graduation in 1909. (William Edward Burghardt DuBois, 1868-1963, was a civil rights activist, leader, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, scholar, and one of the founders of the NAACP. He was highly educated, the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, in 1895.) Having him speak at a school in Evansville had to have been an incredible coup! Lincoln High School athletes were allowed to compete only against other black schools; in 1940, they were the National Negro High School champions in basketball. Two years later, Lincoln was admitted to IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association). Interestingly, the black community contributed to the effort to bring a college to Evansville in 1918 but were denied admission.
Fortunately, separate but equal (or not) did not remain the law of the land. “By the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was working hard to challenge segregation laws in public schools, and had filed lawsuits on behalf of plaintiffs in states such as South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. In the case that would become most famous, a plaintiff named Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1951, after his daughter, Linda Brown, was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white elementary schools. In his lawsuit, Brown claimed that schools for black children were not equal to the white schools, and that segregation violated the so-called “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment, which holds that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”” Separate but equal was upheld by the U.S. District Court in Kansas. The case then came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952, which combined it with four similar cases into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. At first the justices were divided, with the then chief justice Fred M. Vinson favoring Plessy v. Ferguson. In September 1953 Vinson passed away and was replaced as chief justice by Earl Warren. Warren favored Brown and was able to broker a unanimous decision. “In the decision, issued on May 17, 1954, Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” As a result, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”
The tide may have begun to change, but inevitably there was pushback. In particular, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to allow black students to attend Central High School in Little Rock. On September 4, 1957, he called out the Arkansas National Guard to prohibit the “Little Rock Nine” from entering the school. Governor Faubus remained obdurate despite attempts to persuade him of the illegality of his actions, and finally on September 25, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kenutcky, called out by President Eisenhower and placed in charge of the National Guardsmen, escorted the nine students into the school. They may have entered the school, but that did not indicate smooth sailing ahead. The students were harassed and even had violence done to them. Family members lost jobs. The military remained at the school for the rest of the year. “In September 1958, one year after Central High was integrated, Governor Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools for the entire year, pending a public vote, to prevent African American attendance. Little Rock citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remained closed.” Watch this video entitled Who Were the Little Rock Nine? to see the students arriving at school and being escorted in.
This is the university’s mission statement: “USI is an engaged learning community advancing education and knowledge, enhancing civic and cultural awareness, and fostering partnerships through comprehensive outreach programs. We prepare individuals to live wisely in a diverse and global community.” This blog addresses one aspect of cultural awareness, of living in a diverse community. Learning about this history of African-American education may help us better understand that, indeed, black lives matter.
Bigham, Darrel E. On Jordan’s banks: emancipation and its aftermath in the Ohio River Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. UASC Regional Collection F520.6.N4 B54 2006
Bigham, Darrel E. We ask only a fair trial: a history of the Black community of Evansville, Indiana. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, c1987. F534.E9 B58 1987 (copies in the General Collection, UASC Regional Collection, University Archives
The House Joint Resolution proposing the 14th amendment to the Constitution, June 16, 1866; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1999; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.
Trotter, Joe William. River Jordan: African American urban life in the Ohio Valley. ebrary Academic Complete Online Access
- MSS 026, the Joan Marchand Collection
- MSS 129, the Olive Carruthers Collection
- MSS 157, the Schlamp-Meyer Family Collection
- MSS 181, the Darrel Bigham Collection
- MSS 184, the Brad Awe Collection
- RH 033, the Evansville Postcard Collection