White Philanthropy For Black (Mis)education

February 22, 2012

By Michael Barker

Ceasefire Magazine

Michael Barker looks at the central, highly ideological, role played over the past 150 years by US white philanthropists in shaping education policies for blacks, promoting the freedom of the few to exploit others, and the freedom of the many to endure it.

Black students during a class on the assembly and repair of telephones at Hampton Institute (1899)

Controlling the spread and evolution of institutionalized education has always been a foremost concern of the ruling class. Barely disguised by the humanitarian rhetoric of philanthropy, white power brokers have played a central role in ensuring that the steady extension of educational facilities across the globe serves to miseducate the bulk of its recipients: promoting the freedom to exploit others (for a few) and the freedom to endure exploitation (for the rest).

William Watkins’ book The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954 (Teachers College Press, 2001) thus provides a clear-sighted analysis of the history of black education. A historical undertaking which Manning Marable has described as “an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the complex relationships between white philanthropy and black education.”[1]

Watkins “destroys the myth that the debate between [W.E.B.] DuBois and Booker T. Washington over the character of schooling actually determined the future of educational policy toward African Americans.” Demonstrating that while the debates between such influential men may have been important, ultimately they “were minor players in the formation of black schooling and the philosophy that lay behind it.”

In this way Watkins “cuts to the very heart of the matter,” reviewing the key contributions made by the real power brokers such as General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, J.L.M. Curry, William Baldwin, Robert Ogden, Thomas Jesse Jones, Franklin Giddings, and the Rockefeller and Phelps Stokes’ family, friends and funds.[2]

Of Watkins’ architects of Black education, “none is more important than Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839-1893)” — an individual who “was an effective and farsighted social, political, and economic theorist working for the cause of a segregated and orderly South.” Having served as a missionary and solider; in 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Armstrong joined the Freedman’s Bureau, and a few years later (as their operations were wound down, owing to white opposition), he went on to found the Hampton Institute.

In this work, Armstrong sought to avoid class conflict, and aimed to reconcile the differences between racial supremacists and those seeking equality while “working for the powerful”; promoting a “version of human uplift [that] was absolutely compatible with the most despotic and oppressive political apparatus.” Appropriately he went on to serve as the mentor for Booker T. Washington, who emerged as the Hampton Institute’s “prize student.”[3]

With such influential protégés, Armstrong and his Hampton Institute’s message of racial accommodation, gradualism and moderation was spread far and wide, and “played no small role in creating a Black compradore class for the twentieth century.” The importance of this endeavour should not be underestimated.