The critical role of education in the history of African Americans, part 3

The Black Panthers’ belief in the need for an education beyond what was being taught in the school system led them to develop a network of liberation schools for youth.



ASALH Historian

The community school has been one of the most instrumental influences in the critical role of education in the history of African Americans. It is a partnership between a school and the community that surrounds it.

The social structure of the old community school was a reflection of cohesiveness within the local black communities of the past. When African-American communities had a vested interest in the success of their local neighborhood schools, the results were that of uplifting through education for students, parents and residents.

The community motivated students to learn not just for themselves but for the entire concept of community. In general, students from before 1965 were more interactive and ethnocentric learners; they developed a love of learning and a thirst for achievement.

A community school is not a new concept in the role of education, but one that needs to be looked into for its best practices since its educational methods are more successful than not. Yes, a community school can form a type of re-segregation, but if that is the case due to circumstances of a neighborhood location, it doesn’t have to be so bad.

In current times, there is enough research available about successful community- based school programs. It could be especially beneficial to look at the history of how particular re-segregated now predominately black schools in various locations have been able to move upward.

Perhaps our schools here in St. Pete could become model schools of community success.

A few years ago in south St. Pete, there were five failing neighborhood schools. The problems associated with the schools’ failure made national news.  Perhaps in its failure, a school was crying out for much-needed help after years of neglect from the county.

Now with great leadership, Melrose Elementary School, in particular, is off to a good start. It’s wonderful to have great school leaders that can help inspire students to excellence.

It’s even more dynamic for communities to steer young people into purposeful directions. Residents have recently been involved in a breaking ground event for the new Melrose Elementary School building being prepared for construction. The school will be surrounded by good people who have good intentions and potential of how to use the role of education to uplift the community.

Local residents could demand proper financial and material resources, as well as provide structured volunteer time when needed. Especially in St. Petersburg, there is a plethora of established and trusted organizations and churches just waiting to be summoned to help out.

Relevant reading, writing and math curriculums infused with black history could nurture inquisitive minds with a strong foundation for the Afrocentric-self.

After all, education has played a critical role in the history of African Americans. Here in St. Pete, there can be a perfect opportunity to see how “it takes a village.”

Finally, the role of education in historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) has been the most compelling force that elevated the status of African Americans over time. HBCUs were established to serve the educational needs of formerly enslaved blacks.

Before the Civil War, there wasn’t a structured school of higher learning for enslaved people. Initially, the first so-called universities were not actually schools of higher learning but institutions that were started as mission schools to provide schooling for students who had no previous education.

It wasn’t until 1900 that any of the HBCUs began to offer courses and programs on the college level. After the Civil War, public support for higher education for black students became legal issues and state governments began to pay attention to what was happening.

Jennifer Gamble-Theard, M.Ed. is a retired Pinellas County educator in the study of history and language. She is also the historian for the St. Petersburg Branch of ASALH.

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