It’s back to school time. Over the next few columns, I am going to discuss how education was another reason for why migrants were motivated to leave the agricultural South for the unknown cold North. One thing that the migrants knew about “up North”, besides that it was cold, was that there were more chances for their children to go to school more steadily, and beyond the eighth grade. Truly, it doesn’t take much of a generational reach back in time to find optional high school attendance. My mother-in-law (MIL), the migrant who moved twice from Alabama, once to Washington D.C. and then on to Pittsburgh, was proud of her high school diploma. Beyond proud.
When I tell this to my students who sit comfortably privileged in a private college classroom, they are shocked. But in MIL’s time in the South, people were expected to go to the eighth grade and then get a job. Even with a learning disability, my MIL was proud to have beaten this expectation. She knew that in Alabama any kind of high school education in the late 1950’s was a rare and recent phenomenon.
When high schools were first built in the early part of the twentieth century, they were not paid for by the tax base of the community, but were tuition-paid. And the initial public high schools built were for the white students in the community. The work of creating a secondary education experience for Negroes was left to private schools. Many HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) started out as secondary schools and only branched into college education much later. This was the case for Spelman College where I teach. Spelman did not become a college until some thirty plus years after its founding in 1887.
Some rural communities in the south did not have high schools of any kind for Negroes to attend until the 1930’s. Only until employers began to see the benefits of a more educated work force were public high schools built and they began to require teenaged youth to attend. The Great Depression meant fewer jobs and high school kept cheap, young labor out of the workforce for four years, another plus. Still, for my MIL, public high school had only existed for a generation, and she was glad to go, even if it meant she had to study in a different way and work harder than a number of other students. Indeed, signs of a learning disability typically meant those students were pulled out of school and brought into the work force even sooner. No wonder she was so proud.
By contrast, my parents, both born and raised “up North” went to Pittsburgh public high schools and there were no questions about their attendance. My mother skipped a grade and my father skipped two. He graduated from high school just a month and a half shy of his sixteenth birthday. I always wonder if he would have had that same unquestioned opportunity in the South if he had not been a migrant “in utero” to Pittsburgh.