Frederick Douglass on school segregation

Valentine’s Day marks the observed birthday of Frederick Douglass, who was born in Maryland in 1818. Like many people born in slavery, he did not know his actual birth date, but settled upon Valentine’s Day because of a memory of his mother traveling more than 20 miles overnight from a nearby plantation to surprise him with a heart-shaped cake. He was a child, and never saw her again.

Douglass features prominently in the story of school desegregation in Rochester in the 19th century. But even beyond his lifetime, his words, as always, carry an important message for us in the 21st century.

A good question to ask, then, is: what did Frederick Douglass think of segregated education?

As you’ll see from this collection of quotations and anecdotes, he opposed it absolutely, even in cases where other Black leaders supported segregation as a way to protect their children from white bigotry.

Frederick Douglass

As he wrote in the April 7, 1848 North Star: “Let colored children be educated and grow up side by side with white children, come up friends from unsophisticated and generous childhood together, and it will require a powerful agent to convert them into enemies, and lead them to prey on each other’s rights and liberties.”

He and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, followed this principle in the education of their own children. They refused to send them to the specific Black public schools in Rochester and instead protested to gain admission to the general schools. When the trustees of AME Memorial Zion Church agreed to lease their basement for the Black-only school, he slammed them as “stupid creatures . . . servile tools of their own proscription and degradation.”

Douglass’ most expansive statement on the issue, as far as I have found, came in the Aug. 17, 1849 North Star. Again, it came in the context of the battle for desegregation in Rochester’s public schools. Here it is, at length:

“It is very clear to us that the only way to remove prejudice, and to command the respect of our fellow white citizens, is to repudiate, in every form, the idea of our inferiority, by maintaining our right to civil, social and political equality with them. … We are resolved to battle against all complexional distinctions among men. They are unnatural, and work nought but mischief and oppression in any community where they may exist; and nowhere may their injurious effects be seen more clearly that in the condition of our colored children. They find themselves excluded from white schools, and clearly learn that their complexion is the cause of their exclusion. The consequence is, they are induced to undervalue themselves, and to look upon white children as their oppressors. From this source may be traced hatred, combats, insults and numerous other vices, which serve to keep up a perpetual enmity between the white and black members of the community. There is no reason, nor can there be a reason why a colored child should not be taught in the same schools with white children. The fact that one is black, and that the other is white, makes no difference as to the office of education. …

“But we put this question on another ground. It is evident that colored people will continue to form a party of this community; and that their influence in it, for good or for evil, will be considerable. They may either contribute to its prosperity, virtue and happiness, or they may become a serious drawback upon all these. To elevate and improve the colored people, is but contributing to the general good of the whole community; and as it is evident that colored children will be in a much better position for improvement by sharing the advantages of the whites in the common schools, than they can be in a separate and proscribed establishment, no appeals to prejudice and pride should induce the Committee to reject the Report in favor of admitting colored children into the district schools. The abolition of the colored school on Washington street, and the admission of colored children on equal terms with the whites into the district schools, would be a noble example of justice and liberality worthy of the city of Rochester.”

North Star Aug. 17, 1849

Douglass made the same point more concisely 23 years later in May 7, 1872 edition of the New National Era, a publication aimed at people emancipated from slavery: “We want mixed schools not because our colored schools are inferior to white schools – not because colored instructors are inferior to white instructors, but because we want to do away with a system that exalts one class and debases another.”

I find this argument particularly interesting because it foreshadows the key reasoning of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. There, the unanimous Supreme Court concluded: “To separate (Black children) from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

This rationale has become controversial, with some arguing that the ruling (and Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the Black social scientists whose work Chief Justice Earl Warren relied upon) wrongly equated Blackness and inferiority. Douglass, though, recognized the persisting and pernicious effect of anti-Black racism in America and concluded that even the most valiant efforts to educate Black children in a segregated setting would fall short — perhaps in academic attainment, but most certainly in creating a sense of positive self-worth.

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