Education and The Great Migration – Part One

English: Farm Security Administration: School ...

A picture of an elementary classroom in Alabama in the 1930’s.  If this is where white children went to school, the kind of classroom where my heroine, Delie Bledsoe had to teach in was probably similar–or worse. English: Farm Security Administration: School in Alabama. (53227(585), 00/00/1935, 27-0699a.gif) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Commencement is just the first step

Time to suit up today!

Time to suit up today!

It’s Commencement Day at the college where I teach.  This means I have to go to work on a rare Sunday. Graduations always mean work, but they also mean work for those who are in the ceremony as graduates.  Graduation means that they have completed a certain course of work and they are deserving of a credential. However, we so often forget these days that, for African Americans, graduating from college is still an unfortunate rarity.

The high school drop out rate is still too high. Not enough African American young people are preparing for the more technical work available now. Our present day transition into a technical work force reminds me of how African Americans had to transition from agricultural work in rural areas to other types of factory-based employment in the cities almost one hundred years ago.

The Great Migration meant that many African Americans understood that there was no more opportunity for them in the land and that their skills had to change over time.  Many of the young people who will walk across the stage today understand that the world is changing now.  But I worry for the ones who aren’t there.  There are approximately 70% of African Americans who are only completing high school–or less.  For too many, college seems like the impossible dream when still in today’s world, a bachelor’s degree is rapidly becoming a  basic entry level job credential.

The heroine of my story A Champion’s Heart, Delie Bledsoe, was the first one in her family to attend college. By the time she came to her schooling as the youngest child, the Bledsoes understood that even a young African American woman needed more than high school.

Today, as I watch commencement, I remain prayerful that more young people will draw on the strength of their ancestors and see education as the benefit it is. They will need to study harder, work more and continue to prepare themselves for a changing world. The lands that these new generations must migrate to now are virtual, but the landscape is vast.  They must be ready to “travel” in new and expansive ways.  Their ancestors left their homes for the unknown as part of the Great Migration. These ancestors laid the groundwork, and young people must disrupt their own comforts to continue on the path laid out for them. Commencement is just the first step.