African American Schools

Freedom through Knowledge

Knowledge lights the path to freedom. In Orange County, as well as in other locales throughout the United States, historically disenfranchised and marginalized people have persisted in their quest for an education, and in so doing, they have persisted in their dream of liberation for themselves and for all humanity.

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved and freed African Americans were eager to learn to read and write. Between 1865 and 1877–i.e., the Reconstruction era–the Freedman’s Bureau, missionary societies, and philanthropic organizations established more than 4,000 schools throughout the south.  “Day” schools, night schools, “Sunday” schools, normal schools, and colleges were created during and after the Reconstruction period. 

In 1896, the United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” rule for public accommodations and schools. The result was a despicable wall—segregation in America, sanctioned and mandated by the highest court. Social discrimination, economic inequity and political disenfranchisement continued to permeate American society, as had been the situation since the founding of the United States.

PLESSY V. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

Decided May 18, 1896

“The first section of the statute enacts that all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations…”

By the 1920s, the education of African Americans as a centerpiece of achieving full equality as Americans was fully entrenched.  Efforts by dozens of organizations, philanthropic and otherwise, yet most importantly, black women and men, through their own industry and agency, emerged to educate black children and adults. Numerous small one- and two-room schoolhouses, Rosenwald schools and training schools were in operation, separate from “white schools.”

Then, in 1954, the United States Supreme Court, in its opinion of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, stated: “We conclude that in the field of pubic education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” With this statement began another phase in a multi-generational, multi-dimensional struggle to shatter the walls of segregation in American society.


Decided May 17, 1954

“We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The “separate but equal” doctrine, however, remained in place in many southern cities, counties and states even though the Brown v. Board decision reversed the law. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools chose to ignore the decision.


Decided May 17, 1954

“Racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional, 347 U. S. 483, 347 U. S. 497, and all provisions of federal, state or local law requiring or permitting such discrimination must yield to this principle. P. 349 U. S. 298.”

Then emerged the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in an era of protests, boycotts, sit-ins and demands for humanity, equality and justice. This was an Act “…to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education…”

In 1966, the wall of segregation in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools crumbled, and in 1968, segregation in Orange County Schools ended. Thus began a period of transition to a desegregated society, as people from both sides walked across the historical divide, making progress toward obliterating senseless racism.