April 3, 2020

Remembering Lucy Craft Laney and self-determination in education

In 1883 an African American teacher with a great deal of vision and purpose started the first school to educate black children in Augusta, Georgia. It took one year for her new school to explode from six eager learners to nearly 300 souls hungry for learning. She traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota with the hopes of appealing to the Presbyterian General Assembly for funds to expand her school. Her journey from south to north was so long she lost sleep along the way. By the time she was before the Presbyterians – her prospective funders – she was to tired to give an inspired pitch. They didn’t invest but she managed to impress one wealthy donor who raised $10,000.

That one investment propelled established what might be America’s first black charter school.

The teacher’s who started that school was Lucy Craft Laney. She was born during slavery to parents who bought their freedom through hard work, patience, faith, and discipline. She was an advanced learner who read by age four, and she eventually became one of the first post-slavery black college graduates.

Like many black women of her time becoming an educator wasn’t a career one did to achieve steps and lanes; it was a high calling. It was God’s work. The goals were “racial uplift” and social agency to liberate African Americans from the condemnation of racism and illiteracy.

The mission of teaching was to pursue justice for the black race by preparing a community of leaders with a foundation of classical academics and wage earning skills. Education for African Americans was the commonly understood strategy for gaining full freedom, and as the path to being accepted as skilled and self-supporting citizens in a racialized economy.

Today, in one of America’s most educated cities, Minneapolis, Laney’s name is affixed to a public school where this year not a single 7th grader was proficient in math and an intolerable 9% of students are proficient in reading. Consider the fact that the literacy rate of black children in the 1880s when Laney established her school in the Jim Crow south was 33%.  Did we really travel over 125 years only to be less proficient?

It’s unfortunate that too few of us know our own history, and that allows others to refashion it to their liking. In truth there is no logical connection between Lucy Laney the excellent black educator and the Minneapolis Public School that abuses her good name.

The historical Lucy Laney was motivated by dedication to the progress of black people; she saw her own college education as a communal asset for her community, to be employed for improving the social standing of African Americans. She believed self-determination could overcome a state government that would not (or could not) educate African Americans to their full potential.

We don’t see much of that spirit alive today. Especially in traditional public schools where knowledge of us, and belief in our talent, exists at inadequate levels. We hear more about how poor our students are; how deficient and unruly; how broken. We hear about the burdens of teachers and other middle class “professionals” as they scalp one of America’s last occupational cash cows.

But hope is not lost. Black educators and community members are continuing Laney’s legacy of creating schools for us, by us. They don’t always get the support they need, but they push forward and make it work.

We all should be so good at honoring our history.

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