Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Juneteenth is a jubilant celebration marking an end to slavery in the United States. It is an annual celebration now in dozens of cities and states -- including Memphis, where the Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival marks its 19th year in historic Douglass Park June 15-17 -- that recognizes the long-fought battle over African-American bondage and the long wait for freedom.
But this sordid epoch in human history only reminds us that we have come a long way and yet have a long way to go to achieve equity, parity, justice and freedom for all God’s children. For example, African Americans were prohibited from reading and writing for fear it would encourage revolt, improve their comprehension abilities, and thus improve their lot in life. That’s why we’re saluting African-American educators for their tireless work in education and their commitment to improving the lot of African-American children and others in the school system here and elsewhere.
Would you believe there were anti-education laws on the books that prohibited the teaching of slaves? Case in point: There was a law in Alabama in 1832 that fined a person $250-$500 for educating a slave. And then there was Brown v Board of Education (1954), a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. This landmark case overturned Plessy v Ferguson (1896), which allowed state-sponsored segregation.
Today, as it was then, an educated person -- whomever he or she is or whatever creed or color he or she happens to be -- stands a better chance of weathering storms of resistance in the struggle for civil rights, human rights, human dignity and respect, and the pursuit of education. African Americans have made significant accomplishments and gains in education both as teachers and students: Marva Collins, who founded the Westside Preparatory School in 1975 in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago; Booker T. Washington, an author, orator, political leader, educator and reformer who presided as president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University); and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and civil rights leader who started a school in Daytona Beach, Fla., that became Bethune-Cookman University.
Educators today have much to contend with. While African-American educators such as Collins, Washington and Bethune were instrumental in creating educational opportunities for African Americans, they succeeded in spite of the turbulent racial climate of the day by making gallant strides to ensure their students’ educational attainment.
Education reform is now sweeping America. In the recent past, No Child Left Behind undoubtedly was the most significant reform efforts in the United States, which determined success by good scores on standardized tests in reading and math and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on student test scores. Now in Memphis, many teachers are feeling the anguish and the possible termination of their jobs when Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools officially merge during the 2013 school year.
Educators are necessary in society if the people are going to move forward. We all owe a debt of gratitude to teachers who spend six to eight hours in the classroom teaching the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic so our children can become productive members in society. So this year we salute African-American educators for enriching our minds and enabling us to compete in a world still wrought in inequity. In many cases, the playing field is still uneven.