Black History,  Civil War Era,  North Carolina History,  Revolutionary Era

A Brief History of Education in Pre-Brown North Carolina

The 41st section of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution declared that “a School or Schools shall be established by the legislature for the convenient instruction of youth.” However, as John E. Batchelor noted in his book, Race and Education in North Carolina: From Segregation to Desegregation, the governement failed to appropriate funding for such schools for more than fifty years. Although financial allocations did eventually begin to flow into the coffers of public education, it was clear these funds were meant solely for white children in white schools. In fact, the North Carolina General Assembly, in 1830, enacted a law stating that “any free person, who shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any slave within this State to read or write, . . . shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State.”

Following the Civil War, North Carolina drafted a new Constitution, which included an article dedicated solely to education. The 1868 document stated that “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.” The Constitution provided for taxation to fund “a general and uniform system of Public Schools” and established the means to form a State Board of Education. Although initially absent from the 1868 Constitution, the General Assembly soon passed an act demanding the establishment of “a separate school or separate schools for the instruction of children and youth of each race resident within” the state. In 1877, legislation officially amended the North Carolina Constitution to reflect these changes. All schools were intended to be separate and equal. However, as Batchelor pointed out, white Tar Heel schools made little progress throughout the remainder of the 19th century, and black education fared even worse, if it was available at all. 

Governor Charles B. Aycock, after assuming the office in 1901, pushed education and literacy to the forefront of his policies. According to Batchelor, although the governor had campaigned on a platform of white supremacy, illiteracy rates among black North Carolinians dropped by more than 15% during Aycock’s time in the Executive Mansion. This, however, was no indication of equal educational opportunites. As the numbers provided by Batchelor show, from 1900 to about 1940, school attendance by black students fell far below that of white students. In 1920, of the nearly 215,000 black students enrolled, only about 64% attended school. Comparatively, just over 72% of the almost 500,000 enrolled white students attended school.

The real disparities though can be seen in the schools themselves. In 1930, the average value of a black school was estimated at $5,091. The average estimated value of a white school was $30,536. By 1950, four years before Brown, the inequality gap had grown astronomically. The average white school was valued at $121,761, while the average black school was valued at just $30,747. In North Carolina, the need for Brown was clear.  

[Excerpt from the exhibit “This Period of Grave Crisis”: North Carolinians Respond to Brown, 1954-1974]

* Image of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution (North Carolina Digital Collections, State Archives of North Carolina)