History of Teaching in African American Culture

Many of the early African American teachers had no formal schooling. Prior to the Civil War, African American slaves were forbidden by law to learn how to read and write. Instruction was often the one-to-one. Henry Tanner, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa. and one of the greatest African American painters, captured the essence of what it means to be a teacher in his famous painting entitled, The Banjo Lesson.

The Banjo Lesson
Courtesy Hampton University Museum Collection, Hampton University, Hampton, VA

The next photograph illustrates a typical African American one-room school that was found throughout the South immediately after the Civil War and into the early 60s. The school house was often in a deplorable condition with inadequate lighting, poor heating, too little ventilation, and scarce educational supplies. African American teachers, however,  helped to improve educational conditions by joining educational organizations that advocated advancing African American education. African American males and females often qualified for teaching positions by passing a County Teaching Examination and by attending 2-year and 4-year teacher colleges. African American teachers often went “the extra mile” to help children succeed in school. They had high expectations for their students and expected their children to perform.  

A Typical African American One-Room School  1870-1960s

Several years ago, a 97 year old African American one-room school teacher reflected on her teaching experience.  Here, in part, is what she said:

My first assignment was in a little one-room log cabin with a dirt floor and one small chalkboard. Some of the kids were as old as I was, but there was always a youngster who knew a little more than many of the students  that could help you. So that student became my assistant. We never had enough books and supplies for the children: half the time, the Blacks got used books. I retired before integration because I didn’t want to be in that situation.

One of the things emerging from interviews with African American one-room school teachers is that integration often brought their teaching careers to an abrupt end.  In some instances, Black teachers and principals were arbitrarily fired from their positions and replaced with White teachers and principals.