A History of Education: The American Educational System, Common School Period (African American Education)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 33rd in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the age of Reconstruction brought with it its own difficulties. Though Blacks were now freed from slavery, the white population was not eager to educate them and elevate them out of poverty. It fell to members of the Black community to rise to the challenge of educating and elevating themselves. However, not everyone agreed on the path they should take.

Nowhere was the clash of ideas as evident as between two of the most prominent Black men of the time, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

Washington was born into slavery in 1856, the product of a Black slave and an unknown white man. He, his mother, and his siblings were freed upon the end of the Civil War. He attended the Hampton Institute, a school for formerly enslaved people in southeastern Virginia, starting in 1872. He taught there for a short time before assuming leadership in 1881 of a new school for African Americans in Alabama, The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University. Twenty years later, he also formed the National Negro Business League.

In a September 18, 1895, speech given to a majority white audience in Atlanta, Washington said he believed the way forward for African Americans was self-improvement through an attempt to “dignify and glorify common labor.” He felt Blacks should remain separate from whites rather than attempt desegregation, provided whites granted Blacks equal access to economic progress, education, and justice under US courts.[1]

W.E.B. DuBois was born in Massachusetts in 1868 and studied at the historically Black Atlanta University, where he established himself as a leading thinker on race and the African American condition. He became the first Black man to obtain a PhD degree from Harvard University, and he later went on to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Though he initially supported Washington’s views, he later challenged them, believing that Southern Blacks shouldn’t compromise their basic rights in exchange for education and legal justice. He also spoke out against abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ idea that Black Americans should integrate with white society. In an essay entitled “Strivings of the Negro People” that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1897, he said they should, instead, embrace their African heritage even while living and working in the United States.[2]

In addition, DuBois promoted the idea of the “Talented Tenth,” the top tenth of the African American population he felt should rise above being farmers and money-makers to become leaders of the race. He believed they needed a classical college education just like white leaders, and he criticized Washington for advocating manual training for African Americans so they could work their way up the economic ladder. An avowed socialist, DuBois wanted nothing less than outright equality for his people.

Many people in the Black community criticized DuBois for ignoring the small strides Washington was able to make and only concentrating on the ultimate goal of total equality. However, Washington took heavy criticism for working too closely with white leaders and thereby compromising his beliefs for small, insubstantial laws for African Americans. It was a contentious debate, and one that remains unsettled, even as new opportunities in education develop for African Americans in the 21st century.


Next week: The National Education Association


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.

To read part 31, Common School Period, Catholic vs. Protestant Education, click here.

To read part 32, Common School Period, Compulsory Education, click here.



[1] History.com Editors. (March 23, 2021). Booker T. Washington. Retrieved from


[2] NAACP. (2022). W.E.B. DuBois. Retrieved from https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/web-du-bois.


Additional source:

[3] Wright, Sarah. (June 15, 2004). “African American Education.” The History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/african.html.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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