Knowledge is the first step to self-determination

“The alphabet is an abolitionist.” This statement appeared in a November 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly in an editorial on “Education in the Southern States”.1 Frederick Douglass—himself an abolitionist—learned the ABCs from his enslaver’s wife. Upon discovering this, Douglass’s master admonished his spouse telling her, “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do… if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass reflected on this moment in his autobiography: “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”2

But Douglass could not possibly have anticipated the lengths to which the U.S. government would go to ensure Blacks were deprived of the opportunity to receive a formal education, nor just how much the specter of Blacks receiving that education would haunt and menace whites, driving them to commit acts of violence and destruction. To list but a few examples of these efforts in the first half of the 19th century: Georgia prohibited teaching Blacks to read, an offense that was punishable by fine and imprisonment. Georgia also prohibited Blacks from working in jobs that required reading or writing via an employment law and prohibited teaching Blacks, punishable by fines and whippings via an anti-literacy law.3 Alabama and Virginia prohibited teaching Blacks to read or write, punishable by fines and floggings. Missouri prohibited assembling or teaching Blacks to read or write.4

Even when slavery was abolished in 1865, and various Civil Rights Acts were introduced, progress was challenged by state implemented legal segregation in all aspects of southern life, especially education. Black, Colored, and Negro schools were funded at significantly lower rates than white schools. The American Council on Education sent investigators to Negro schools in the South during the 1930s. And what they discovered was that these schools—which routinely saw pronounced teacher shortages and overcrowded enrollment—were in dilapidated buildings and that students had limited access to basic class materials such as textbooks. The Council’s report, Growing Up in the Black Belt, revealed most Black children during that time only attended school for a total of 15 or 20 weeks each year, and that many did not go on to high school. In 1932, only 14% of those between 15 and 19 years old were enrolled in public high schools, 89% of which only offered elementary-level curricula; also, their teachers had little training in those academic subjects.5

A series of legal battles in education—from Sweatt v. Painter (1950) to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and beyond—eventually led to public school desegregation. In 1969, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education created the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a congressionally mandated effort to measure student achievement. When analyzing 4th-grade reading proficiency scores over the years, Black students are less likely to be proficient or above level readers. These disparities remain true when analyzing 8th and 12th-grade proficiency scores as well — Black students have the lowest rates.6

Instead of focusing on educational disparities, public schools implemented zero-tolerance policies modeled after the War on Drugs’ mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. The National Education Association (NEA) found that zero-tolerance policies were intended to respond to serious offenses (e.g., selling drugs, gang violence) but have been used broadly to include minor offenses (e.g., talking back to school staff, bringing prescription drugs to school without a doctor’s note, and uniform violations).7 This disproportionately impacts Black students, making the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ more of a nexus where schools become prisons. 

The Obama administration attempted but failed to address disparities in school suspensions and expulsions for Black students. When analyzing preschool discipline data from the U.S. Department of Education, it shows that Black boys make up 18% of the male preschool enrollment, but 41% of male preschool suspensions, and Black girls make up 19% of female preschool enrollment, but 53% of female suspensions. This trend continues throughout grade school, eventually leading to a significant loss of learning time in over-policed schools. The report found that in some school districts, more than 1 out of every 20 Black middle and high school students were arrested.8  Students who are suspended from school “lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, and more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”9

Though public schools were desegregated in 1954, Black students are still five times as likely as white students to attend schools that are highly segregated by race, with extreme levels of poverty.10 The U.S. Department of Education has produced countless reports that show disparities in education for Black students. These reports demonstrate that Black students are largely in schools with less qualified teachers earning lower salaries, less likely to be enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, less likely to be kindergarten-ready, less likely to be college-ready, and have the lowest levels of income amongst races regardless of educational attainment. 

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were over a hundred higher education institutions dedicated to serving Black Americans. These colleges and universities were some of the only post-secondary institutions Black Americans could attend because of legal segregation. The Higher Education Act of 1965 honored these institutions, deeming them Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). HBCUs have many accomplishments that helped shape America today. Over 80% of Black Americans with medicine and dentistry degrees attended HBCUs; three-fourths of all Black Americans with a doctorate, three-fourths of all Black officers in the armed forces, and four-fifths of all Black federal judges attended HBCUs; and most Black students with bachelor degrees in life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering attended HBCUs.11 But in a post-Civil Rights era America, between new collegiate options, a dramatic reduction in federal funding, and philanthropic discrimination, HBCUs today are struggling to remain open. In the 1970s, between 75% and 85% of Black Americans attending college were enrolled at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This rate has decreased dramatically to about 9% today.12

The Duke University study, What We Get Wrong About Closing The Racial Wealth Gap, found that “[a]t every level of educational attainment, the median wealth among black families is substantially lower than white families. White households with a bachelor’s degree or postgraduate education (such as with a Ph.D., MD, and JD) are more than three times as wealthy as black households with the same degree attainment.” The report further reveals that “on average, a black household with a college-educated head has less wealth than a white family whose head did not even obtain a high school diploma.”13 Black students are more likely to have student loan debt and more likely than white students to drop out of college because of financial instability.

In addition to being underserved in general subjects, Black students are also grossly lacking education about themselves. In 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture reported that U.S. history classrooms dedicate 8% to 9% of total class time to Black history.14 There are no national history standards, and the suggested national curriculum is largely ignored in favor of state-level standards. About a dozen states do not require teaching the Civil Rights Era, and nearly half of the states do not teach about racial segregation at all.

The latest blow to education for Black America is the COVID-19 pandemic. McKinsey & Company reported that, while Black students are most likely to continue remote learning, they are the least likely to have computers, internet access, and live contact with teachers at home. The lack of access to resources to learn from home has led to wider achievement gaps and increases in dropout rates. McKinsey & Company estimates that an additional 2% to 9% of high school students could drop out because of the coronavirus school closures—that equates to 232,000 students in the mildest scenario and as many as 1.1 million in the worst.15

The fight for basic education has been a lethal one, with countless Black schools being bombed and burned down across the country, including the recent burning of a historic Black schoolhouse in July of 2020, south of Nashville, TN, in Maury County.16 Because Black Americans are the only group in the U.S. that has had to fight legal discrimination in education at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as being victimized by white backlash as a result of simply trying to learn, Black Americans require a comprehensive education agenda:

  • The U.S. Congress must enact a law placing a federal ban on all preschool and primary school suspensions and expulsions.

  • The U.S. President must sign an executive order making suspensions and expulsions a health crisis as it is a direct contradiction to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ education access and quality objectives for children. In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, these agencies shall investigate the public school system’s role in lost wages for Black American families due to the educational and economic impacts of school suspensions and expulsions. This amount shall result in retroactive direct payments to those impacted families over a ten-year period.

  • The U.S. Department of Education’s $1 billion dollar budget for counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals must reserve half of its funding for specialists in race-based trauma to reflect the national public school student population being nearly half non-white.

  • The U.S. Congress must enact a law placing a federal ban on law enforcement in public schools, zero-tolerance policies, and amend federal hate crimes to include age when race-based discrimination is present. These efforts shall decriminalize student behavior that is largely a response to living in extreme poverty and prevent minors from being charged as adults.

  • The U.S. Department of Education must work with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to double funding for Family Resource Centers in predominantly Black census tracts to increase supportive services that can help mitigate nuisance behavior associated with zero-tolerance policies. The $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant shall prioritize these same census tracts.

  • The U.S. Department of Justice must investigate its department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to identify any correlations of the school-to-prison pipeline for current and past inmates. They must develop remedies for justice for the impacted inmates and/or their descendants. These remedies shall include—but not be limited to—full-ride scholarships to HBCUs, student loan forgiveness, and recompense to be used for private educational purposes.

  • The U.S. Congress must empower the U.S. Department of Education to enact national history teaching standards. These standards must include a fact-based, comprehensive, and required teaching of Black History in America. This curriculum must include the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Slavery and the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, redlining, the Civil Rights Era, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, police violence, the lineage wealth gap, and more. It shall also include thorough teaching of Black Americans’ contributions to the U.S., such as inventions, arts and culture, achievements in political organizing, and more. The U.S. Department of Education must monitor the implementation of national history standards until 100% of American history is inclusive of Black American history and enact federal pension penalties for public school teachers who do not comply.

  • The U.S. Department of Education must limit the American Families subsidized tuition spending to HBCUs and ADOS students and expand it to full-ride scholarships instead of the proposed two-year coverage.

  • The U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice must investigate all public post-secondary institutions for their role in slavery and segregation. The penalty shall include extracting endowments from schools like Georgetown that were built by slaves and transferring funds into new endowments for HBCUs that enroll and serve the communities they were originally meant to. This investigation shall also target Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) that potentially participated in the slave trade and segregation.

  • The U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy must collaborate with the U.S. Department of Education to create a robust plan to eliminate the digital divide between Black working-age adults and the rest of the population. This includes free access to obtain equipment, skills training, licensing, and guaranteed employment as automation replaces low-skill tasks in the workforce.

  • The U.S. Department of Education must create a framework for public schools to adopt the community school model, where schools provide resources in and out of school time in predominantly Black census tracts. The $443 million budget request must be limited to these census tracts to fully fund quality childcare before and after school, in addition to enrichment programs.

  • The U.S. Department of Education’s $50 billion infrastructure investment for “job-creating investments in cutting-edge, energy-efficient, resilient, and innovative school buildings with technology and labs”17 must prioritize renovations for former Black, Colored, and Negro Schools and schools with predominately Black American student populations.

  • The U.S. Department of Education must collaborate with the Department of Justice to create a student exoneration model that provides recompense in the form of scholarships to any public or private post-secondary institution for students who were wrongfully expelled. Black Americans represent 50% of the 2,820 exonerations since 1989.18 A thorough investigation would show that students require similar justice.

  • The U.S. Department of Education must transfer its multi-million dollar investment in Minority Science and Engineering Improvement to HBCUs or Predominantly Black Institutions to start or upgrade their Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) degree programs. Black Americans are underemployed and underrepresented in STEAM careers while other minority groups are over-employed and overrepresented.


  1. Dalton, Karen C. Chambers. 1991. “The Alphabet Is an Abolitionist” Literacy and African Americans in the Emancipation Era. The Massachusetts Review.

  2. Douglass, Frederick. 2008. In The Complete Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass: (An African American Heritage Book). Wilder Publications.

  3. Tolley, Kim Tolley. 2016. Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  4. The Missouri General Assembly. 1837. Negroes and Mulattoes.  The Missouri Secretary of State.

  5. Johnson, C. S. 2014. Growing Up in the Black Belt, Negro Youth in the Rural South. American Council of Learned Societies.

  6. 2019. National Achievement-Level Results. The Nation’s Report Card. U.S. Department of Education.

  7. 2011. Policy statement on discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. 2021 NEA Annual Meeting. National Education Association.

  8. 2020. National Report Calls Attention to Frequent Use of Suspension Contributing to Stark Inequities in the Opportunity to Learn. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

  9. Mowicki, Jacqueline, Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities. GAO. March 2018. Crisis Prevention. Accessed February 2022.

  10. 2020. Schools are still segregated, and black children are paying a price. Economic Policy Institute.

  11. Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Higher Education Desegregation. US Department of Education (ED).

  12. Daniel, James Rushing. 2016. Crisis at the HBCU. Composition Studies. University of Cincinnati on behalf of Composition Studies.

  13. 2018. What We Get Wrong About Closing The Racial Wealth Gap. Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.

  14. King, LaGarrett J. 2015. The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society. National Museum of African American History and Culture.

  15. Dorn, E., Sarakatsannis, J. & Hancock, B. 2020. COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

  16. Tiede, Rachel. 2020. Historic 1920s Black schoolhouse burned to the ground in Maury County. Fox 17 WZTV Nashville.

  17. 2021. Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Summary. U.S. Department of Education

  18. Selby, Daniele. 2021. 8 Facts You Should Know About Racial Injustice in the Criminal Legal System. Innocence Project.

Learn more about the Black Agenda


Despite being the agricultural experts at the end of Slavery, Black farmers have been historically excluded from agricultural programs.

Black Business

Black America requires investment in business, economic uplift, and employment. Learn more.


For decades, Cannabis was used to incarcerate a disproportionate number of Black Americans.
Repair starts here.

Climate Change

The change in regional climate patterns stems from public policies historically aimed at protecting white property values at the expense of the Black community. Learn more.

Criminal Justice

Black America has faced unequal outcomes from the justice system for centuries. We want to change current outcomes to more equitable ones.

Environmental Racism

Polluted environments harm our communities in America. Learn about our solutions to address this issue.

Health & Nutrition

Health is a part of wealth. Our communities have been deprived of access to adequate healthcare for centuries. This inequality must be addressed.


Redlining and subprime lending practices exacerbated the lineage wealth gap. This inequality must be addressed.


Widespread Immigration has been used to suppress Black mobility for decades. We want to provide a more ethical pathway to citizenship.


The government provides grants for road and public transit projects, utilities, and a host of other capital expenditures. Black America must have access.

Unemployment & Labor

Throughout the years, many employment programs excluded Black Americans in parity, but allowed their abuse for profit. Learn how to repair.

Without these measures being instituted, ADOS are locked out of the country our ancestors built during chattel slavery. Without reforms through transformative government, we will be left to continue living a third world life in a first world country.

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