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What’s Wrong with Southern Education?

Can the South’s History Save American Education? (Part I Of A Series)

When fingers point to the South, they tend to point in the same direction: backwards.

Not only did the South fight to maintain slavery—the most powerful economic institution this country has ever benefited from—but the South continues to function—and often flounder—in the shadow of the Civil War. But if Southerners study the lessons of history, the South will, indeed, rise again. This article is an introduction to a series that will explore education, state by state, across the South. Each article will explore a state’s educational history as well as the current status of its educational systems including private and public, charter, homeschooling and other educational entities. Understanding the history of education in the South could reshape, even save, education across America.


“Going back to the beginning days of the United States, it was illegal to educate slaves. Slavers and their backers correctly recognized that slaves with education would be even more discontented, therefore more dangerous and more rebellious slaves.”
—Charles Cobb Jr., “Freedom’s Struggle and Freedom Schools” (2011)

“Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (ll. 141 – 142)

Like anywhere else in the United States, the South is a widely varied and complicated slice of society. Yet, unlike the rest of the country, the South’s history particularly defines the region’s people and priorities. Slavery and race remain heavy burdens in the minds and lives of Southerners. But just like the roots of American music are embedded deeply in the American South, so might the roots of a renaissance in American education find new genesis in the rich soil of Southern history.

In “Freedom’s Struggle & Freedom Schools,” Charles Cobb notes that “Before Reconstruction, there were no tax-supported public education systems anywhere in the South. It was the black presence in the Reconstruction legislatures of the South that drove the creation of tax-supported public schools.” He further follows the establishing of public education as it marched in step with civil rights progress and backslides.

During Reconstruction and under federal protection, freedmen began establishing schools using their own meager resources and funds. As the federal government began to withdraw and Southern Reconstruction gave way to “Southern Redemption,” however, black political representation and  the already tenuous public education system in the South began to be ripped apart by whites who were hostile to the very idea of a well-educated populace in general, put particularly against a well-educated black populace.

Schoolhouses built with the physical and financial investments of former slaves were frequently burned down. Resources former slaves had put toward building schools literally went up in flames, hindering both the economic and educational advancement of African-Americans and the South at large. Not only would educated slaves or former slaves be more capable of self-determination, but if poor whites were also better educated yet another source of cheap labor would become difficult to control.

Political and social leaders, influenced by economic interests and an assumption of divine responsibility, fought to maintain this economically important social stratification by stoking racial differences. But the only difference between the freed slaves and poor whites was the desire to be educated. Even when whites-only private academies began opening, poor whites couldn’t afford tuition; in addition, when tuition was paid for by a “scholarship” money collection, whites refused what they considered “charity.” Besides, no money was to be made attending school, and crops had to be tended and families cared for.

Schools remained “separate and unequal” for decades after Reconstruction. Voting districts and laws were altered to limit (or eradicate) African-American political representation and participation. Wasting away underneath the oppressiveness of Jim Crow laws, public education remained under-supported for many years.

Tracing the impact desegregation had on Mississippi’s public education in particular, Cobb draws the picture of newly constructed school buildings with “poorly stocked libraries, underpaid teachers kept on tight leashes” as well as “the practice of shutting down schools to send black school kids to the fields to pick or chop cotton.” He then draws a direct line from these 1960s schools to public policy and economic interests: “Mississippi’s power structure recognized, as did state governments all across the South … that an educated population, a population raised from unconsciousness to consciousness, is a dangerous population. A whole way of life can become unraveled when people begin thinking for themselves.” No one who thought for himself—black or white—was very welcome in the South of the 1960s.

Even after “separate and unequal” was ruled against in 1954, public education in the South continued to be split among the haves and have nots. As integration became a way of life, private schools morphed from a way to maintain white hegemony into a viable education option for just about any student fortunate enough to afford private school tuition.

Debate about the future of education continues across the country. Are private schools better at providing a valuable education than public schools? How about homeschooling? Perhaps charter schools or magnet schools are the answer to achievement gaps, gainful employment, overcoming poverty and so forth. For centuries, southern education has been hindered by stoicism on the part of people living relatively prosperous lives.

In addition to the drag on the educations and incomes of African-Americans throughout the South, the ongoing battles to keep African-American citizens out of power has held back all Southerners. A spark for inspired education can be found in the shared history of African-Americans and their allies who have attempted, time and again, to raise the South from the ashes of the Civil War.


“The region not only grew during the last half of the 20th century, but the educational progress across the South increasingly mirrored the rest of the nation.”
—Clarence L. Mohr, Education (2011)

“But something held Old Phoenix very still. The deep lines in her face went into a fierce and different radiation.”
—Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

Since the Civil War and Reconstruction, southern states have suffered from notorious poverty, which has impacted education. Research shows that children who grow up in poverty—particularly in generational poverty versus temporary, circumstantial poverty—fall behind middle class and wealthy students. Likewise, the more education parents have (especially mothers) positively impacts learning outcomes for children.

In 2011, the Center on Children and Families reported a significant correlation between household income and childhood learning, estimating that “an additional $1,000 of average income throughout early childhood would result in “higher reading and math scores for children in low-income families.” Additionally, the study found that the better educated a child’s mother, the more “school-ready” the child. The connection between income and education is difficult to ignore when discussing educational outcomes for students in an historically impoverished region of the country.

According to the 2010 United States Census, the Southeast is the fastest growing region of the United States. In addition to a growing population, the South’s business climate is strengthening and, in fact, of the thirteen top states for doing business in 2013, twelve are southern according to an average of business studies. Southern populations and business are growing at a faster rate than other parts of the country. In a recent study of migration patterns, Matthew O. Hunt observes that whites relocating to southern states from non-southern states are typically:

*Older, beginning retirement;
*Originally from and returning to the South

By contrast, African-Americans who relocate to the South are typically:
*Married with children
*Not of Southern origin

Retirees are relocating to Southern states with higher average incomes and costs of living and African-American families are bringing advanced degrees and higher incomes into Deep South states with lower costs of living. A child’s school achievement continues to rise with every degree a mother earns and women are earning college degrees at rates much higher than men. This news suggest positive educational and economic outcomes for states with increasing populations of African-American families.

People migrate to the South for both economic and personal reasons, but their dispersal among the states differs according to race. White retirees seem to be returning to states of familial origins, particularly to states that have majority white populations. Conversely, African-American families are moving into the Deep South where African-American populations are more dense. These migrants—and the industries and employers they are following or creating—will no doubt demand high quality educational opportunities for their children and grandchildren.

Southern states seeing an increase in white populations:

  1. Arkansas
  2. Florida
  3. Kentucky
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Tennessee
  6. Texas
  7. West Virginia

Southern states seeing an increase in African-American populations:

  1. Alabama
  2. Georgia
  3. Louisiana
  4. Mississippi
  5. North Carolina
  6. South Carolina
  7. Virginia


If looking at the history of progress in the South can inspire change in modern education, what might those changes look like?

Many American school systems reflect an outdated system established multiple generations ago. Schools are now compelled to find ways to best prepare students for a more advanced, around-the-clock, around-the-world American future. New ways of thinking and new ways of instruction must be integrated into school practices and curriculum. Southern populations will continue to grow and shift. Neighborhoods will change, and local education will reflect these changes. To this day, race and family income determine quality and access to education. The South has an opportunity—perhaps an imperative—to shape the future of American education and, by extension, the future of America.

As people and businesses migrate South, each state will have to find ways to provide the educational experiences that families and employers demand. Southern demographics will continue to shift, and a shrinking majority population will make room for the needs of rising minority populations. The Southern Albatross may become the region’s Phoenix.

*Part II will be coming soon on BAMSouth.com

Sarah Asmus

Sarah Asmus

Contributing Writer
Sarah R. Asmus earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Education from the first public college for women in the country, Mississippi University for Women (“The W”), and a Master of Arts in English from Mississippi State University. She is a full-time educator and a freelance editor and writer currently living in Jackson, Mississippi. Additionally, Sarah is a fairly sane cat lady who enjoys growing food, grilling, baking, dining out, film studies, public broadcasting, and politics.
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