The Construction of Youth and the Rise of the Black High School

The following is an excerpt from A New Kind of Youth: Historically Black High Schools and Southern Student Activism, 1920–1975 by Jon N. Hale, available now wherever books are sold.

The Construction of Youth and the Rise of the Black High School

Though often overshadowed by the work of Black colleges or Black churches, southern Black high schools were an integral part of the southern freedom struggle alongside these recognized pillars of Black resistance. The Black high school followed modern constructs of youth and childhood during the first decades of the twentieth century. The conceptual origins of Black high school activism can be traced to both the promises and contradictions inherent to social constructs erected around adolescence. In particular, racialized inconsistencies within the categorization of adolescence presaged the evolution of Black high school activism.

The field of education embraced the burgeoning modern concept of youth by institutionalizing the high school as a public space devoted to the unique needs of adolescents during the early twentieth century. Both Black and White high schools were fashioned upon the affirmation of adolescence, a stage of development that was physiologically, biologically, and cognitively distinct from both early childhood and young adulthood. The cultural, social, and intellectual shift to embrace the modern construct of youth, along with professional criteria that distinguished childhood from adolescence, necessitated a brick and mortar stand-alone high school, one architecturally and intellectually distinct from elementary school and college. Secondary “high school” education and the category of adolescence provided the impetus and rationale to educate older children and young adults, or “adolescents,” in separate grades if not in distinctly autonomous buildings and institutions altogether. Investment from a multitude of levels—by the state, the middle class, professionals in the field of education, and others—yielded tangible gains and the public high school experienced considerable growth. School boards and state legislatures throughout the 1930s who passed compulsory education laws that raised the minimum age to sixteen facilitated the growth of the high school. Whereas 519,000 students enrolled in a public high school in 1900, over 6 million enrolled 40 years later. The percentage of seventeen-year-olds who graduated from high school grew to just over 50 percent by 1940 as well, marking the first time that one-half of the nation’s school age population completed a secondary education.

Though often overshadowed by the work of Black colleges or Black churches, southern Black high schools were an integral part of the southern freedom struggle alongside these recognized pillars of Black resistance.

Despite the significant shift toward protecting and defending youth rather than economically exploiting them, there was no equally shared and widely acknowledged right to adolescence. Systemic racism filtered how society conceptualized and applied the modern constructs of adolescence to young people of color. Black “adolescents,” in short, never benefited from the categories of youth constructed by White professionals and educational reformers who only crafted them with White adolescents in mind. Though cast in a concrete and essentialized space, race complicated its categorization and the lived realities of youth and adolescents in the South communicated a very different truth that challenged the universality of childhood and the prolongation of it through adolescence.

A racialized conception of youth translated into systemic and racist policy that limited access to secondary schools for Black students. After the Cumming v. School Board of Richmond County, Georgia (1899) decision, southern states were not compelled to offer public secondary education to Black pupils. As a result, Black enrollment in high school was statistically diminutive compared to that of White students. By 1940 after the “explosion” in secondary school enrollment and construction, Black students only accounted for less than 15 percent of all high school students in the country. In the South, Black enrollment was estimated to be less than one-third of that of Whites. One study found that 425 counties across the former Confederacy offered no high school at all by 1940.

States failed to fully invest in public secondary education for students of color, committing scarce resources to the basic provisions of even a rudimentary education in a region where none previously existed. They also refused to build a strong secondary system because of an unchecked and virulent racism, which determined education should, at best, prepare Black adolescents for a position of economic subservience. High school was never a privilege or a right but essentially a struggle that only a few managed to overcome.

In the South, Black enrollment was estimated to be less than one-third of that of Whites.

A lack of access to public school meant that secondary education would be largely acquired through private means as the duty fell upon the shoulders of the Black community to compensate for the deficiencies of the state. It paradoxically fueled, for some, an ideology and pathway of resistance to the subservience that Whites attempted to impose on Black high schools. Black teachers as a distinct set of political actors, as Jarvis Givens argues, practiced a “fugitive pedagogy,” a shared practice to engage in humanizing, liberatory praxis in schools shaped by anti-Black polices. In a system privatized out of necessity, some Black administrations and faculty chose to maintain a challenging college preparatory curriculum and a course of study predisposed to critical thinking and raising political consciousness. Black institutions of higher learning across the nation required a type of examination or completion of some form of secondary education and often opened high school departments on a college campus. These programs necessitated a rigorous high school or normal school curriculum or, at least, coursework in the liberal arts tradition. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, administrators at Southern University, for instance, required that students be at least fourteen years of age and satisfactorily complete examinations in English grammar, geography, history, and arithmetic. For admission into the Classics Department at Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, students were expected to have a grasp of geometry, Roman history, and Greek grammar and history. The Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, offered sociology, Greek history, and literature for students in a classical liberal arts curriculum. The curriculum affirmed an elite status, following the principles of a liberal education outlined in the “Committee of Ten” report that established a classical curriculum for high schools in 1894.

This course of study was distinct from and therefore challenged the vocational, industrial, and manual education models fashioned in the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which came to dominate educational discourse at the turn of the century when such training reigned supreme. Though dominant, even Black public high schools supported by the state and those that bear the name of Booker T. Washington—the patron saint of vocational education and a popular name bestowed upon Black high schools during the Progressive Era—included a classical curriculum that implemented college preparatory courses and the “second curriculum” of extracurriculars that sought to actualize the aspirations of a free and democratic society. Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, South Carolina, typified the breadth of courses offered at public Black high schools. Here students were offered the upper branches of math, science, history, and foreign languages including French, in addition to vocational and shop classes. Students engaged in the National Honor Society, chorus, drama, band, science clubs, Negro History Week, student council, and other extracurriculars.Grounded in a curriculum of higher ideals aimed at professional training, the Black high school developed a curriculum that cultivated critical thinking and analysis, which helped lay the foundation for activism in future decades.

Jon N. Hale is associate professor of educational history and policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.