Freedom's Classroom

The Rosenwald School

By the turn of the century, what was left of reconstruction efforts had evolved into the dual society that slavery produced. Having suffered major legal upsets, African-American men were once again barred from voting in Maryland.

Congress had passed the Reconstruction Act in March of 1867, ordering federal supervision of elections and the right of Black men to vote. In Maryland, the Republication Party began to actively recruit Black men into its membership. It was the first time Black men were allowed to participate in local and state political processes. However, Maryland's Democrats were the dominant party. In response, that summer a state convention was held to draft a new constitution to replace the one adopted in 1864. In September 1867, this new constitution was adopted, the provisions of which served to once again deny Black men the right to vote.

The First Colored Senator and Representatives,In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution. It provided that: ".... the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The effect of the Amendment's passage was to generate immediate activity on the part of freedmen and once again, they joined the Republican ranks. Republicans, black and white, held meetings at churches, schools, and private homes and organized a network of Republican clubs across Prince George's County. One of the principle activities of the clubs was to teach potential voters how to register and cast a ballot.

Additionally, the Reconstruction-era Congress, which included African-Americans representatives, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The legislation stated that: "That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude."

On October 15, 1883, the United States Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 unconstitutional.

In May 1896, the Supreme Court made another historic decision in the famous "Plessey vs. Ferguson" court case. In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana Statute, which segregated railroad passengers by race. This decision supported the concept of "separate but equal." In justifying its position, the court maintained that, "the object of the Fourteenth Amendment was to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law," but in the nature of things it would not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either." The effect of this decision was its assurance to states that "segregation" was both proper and legal.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, southern states enacted the infamous "grandfather clauses, which set qualifying conditions used to discourage black voters. For example, a grandfather clause could enfranchise only those men whose fathers and grandfathers were qualified to vote on January 1, 1867, thereby eliminating Black people who were slaves, or descendants of slaves.

For example, in March 1901, the Democratic legislature passed a new election law. This new law eliminated easy straight ticket voting by prohibiting party groupings of candidates, removed all party emblems from the ballot, and prohibited assistance for voters in marking their ballots, except for those who were physically disabled; it provided that candidates must be grouped alphabetically under the office they sought with their party affiliations spelled out after their names.

The Prince George's Enquirer, a heavily Democratic local paper, carried several stories from the national press, which supported the new election law. In its March 22nd edition (1901), the Enquirer carried a story from the Philadelphia Times: "If there is any truth in the statement that the new ballot law adopted by the Maryland legislature had already had the effect of stimulating the Negroes to learn to read in order to avoid disfranchisement, it is the fullest possible justification for the measure, assuming that any justification was needed."

From the Philadelphia Public Leader, reprinted in the Prince Georges Enquirer on March 29, 1901, it was observed:

"One result of the passage of the law is that Republicans are making, it is said, extraordinary efforts to educate the colored illiterate voters, who are much more eager in Maryland, as in other southern states, to get an education...

An editorial in the Prince Georges Enquirer, dated April 12, 1901, made the following comment:

"If all the stories that are told about the opening of night school to teach illiterate voters to read are true, then the new Maryland Election Law is already performing a good service. This state has maintained for over thirty years public free schools for Whites and Blacks. The colored schools have, of course, been maintained almost entirely by the White people, who have willingly taxed themselves to educate their colored fellow citizens."

Perhaps the most graphic expression of Democratic attitudes toward the Black voter were made in an editorial in the Enquirer dated April 12, 1901, submitted by Arthur Pue Gorman; it said:

"If there are many illiterates in Maryland who will be affected by the passage of the present law the blame lies with themselves. We have had the most perfect system of public schools for the past 30 years of any state south of Pennsylvania. Since 1870 the colored population has had ample opportunity to learn to read and write by means of the schools furnished by White taxpayers of Maryland. And if, after these years of honest effort on the part of the White people in supporting these schools at their own expense there are, as is claimed, 26,000 of them who cannot read or write the fault can only be attributed to their lack of desire to obtain knowledge. If they prefer to remain in ignorance there is no way to compel them to learn, unless the incentive to vote may thereafter encourage age them to attend the schools."

Blacks would hold no significant offices until the middle of the century. However, national, social, political and economic issues would prevail upon local politics to change. From 1910, the Black voter would begin the process of changing their party allegiances, acting independent of the Republicans and pressuring the Republican Party for their inclusion into the process, before their exodus.

The Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1919, ratified by Congress in 1920. This amendment provided that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. " Thus, women were granted the right to vote. In 1920, there was already in place an active Black female constituency, which participated in various women's clubs and federations. Women like Helen Bell Cardoza of Seat Pleasant and Hester V King of Beltsville would make an impact on local politics in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In 1920, the growth of suburban towns encouraged increased political and social activity in Prince George's County. Fairmount Heights, Lincoln, North Brentwood and other Black communities played an increasingly important role in Black politics during the first half of the twentieth century.

It was within this political climate that African-Americans continued their pursuit of education and a means to an end: equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

By 1878, at least one school for African Americans opened in each election district and teachers for those schools were paid an annual salary of $300 and by 1899, black students attended school for a period of eight months.

In Prince George's County, the African-American community and sympathetic whites were the primary advocates for public education for black children. One notable example was a woman named Theresa Douglas Banks. Banks would make the history of education for African Americans in Prince George's County the subject of her master thesis and the focus of her career as an educator.

Therea Douglas Banks, Eductaor"The Development of Public Education for the Negro in Prince George's County (1872-1946)" was submitted on June 29, 1946. Banks based her work on an examination of the minutes of the Prince George's County Board Of Education, oral history interviews, and other primary and secondary sources.

In her thesis she wrote: "The influences which contributed to the starting and developing of Negro public education in Prince George's County during the period from 1872 to 1900 have been due to: 1) personal visits made to the school board by parents and teachers, 2) the cooperation of interested white persons, 3) the passing of certain laws by the Legislature which helped to improve educational opportunities for Negroes; and 4) to the organization and operation of the Negro teachers within the county."

In 1900, the state of Maryland passed legislation that empowered the Governor to appoint a State Superintendent for Public Education, who would serve for a term of four years. Although general operation of public schools in each county remained under the management of a local school board, those institutions were now under the supervision of the state. The salary of black teachers was set at $62.50 per month in 1900.

At a meeting of the county Board of School Commissioners, the members instructed Enos Pumphrey to examine the condition of the colored schoolhouse at Niles Chapel and to report on the repairs that were needed. The school at Niles Chapel was located in the community known as "Meadows," located on land that is now a part of Andrews Air Force Base. Historical records indicate that most of the black families from Poplar Hill participated in activities at school at Clinton. Some families, however, chose to send their children to the school at Meadows, formed by the congregation of Niles Chapel.

Each school and community struggled with insufficient resources to meet the growing demand for buildings, supplies, and support for professional staff at Black schools. The records of the school board continued to reflect numerous requests for personnel, equipment, and the appointment of trustees to local schools. The records are scarce, and much of what exists is recorded in the Board Minutes and in documents such as that written by Theresa Douglas Banks, or in reports in black-owned newspapers, such as the Washington Bee.

At a meeting held on December 17, 1903, the Board ordered that the colored schools be closed on March 1st due to insufficient funds. The Board gave residents the choice of keeping their respective schools open if they could pay the teacher salaries themselves.

In December of 1905, James Jackson, a descendent of slaves from Poplar Hill, offered his resignation as a teacher at the Clinton Colored School No. 1 and it was accepted. Minutes did not reflect the reasons Jackson resigned his position. Two months later, the Board approved the purchase of a stove for the school.

At the meeting of August 21, 1906, the Board ordered that white schools in Prince George's County open on September 12, and that black schools open on October 1st.

On February 19, 1915, The Washington Bee Newspaper published the list of teachers at Negro schools in Prince George's County. Mrs. Alberta Henry was recorded as the teacher at the Clinton Colored School. On May 26, 1917, the newspaper reported that Willie Clark was assigned teacher at the colored school at Clinton.

Up to the early 1920s, black students in the Clinton area were still attending class in the building constructed by the Freedmen's Bureau in the 1870s. On January 13, 1925, a delegation of citizens went to the Board of Education to request the construction of a new building. That request was denied.

On January 19th 1926, the delegation came back to the Board of Education. This time the citizens made an offer to raise $500 towards the construction of a new two-room building. The Board passed a resolution to include $2,200 in its budget for a new school at Clinton. In its meeting minutes for June 28, 1927, the Board of School Commissioners approved contracts for the construction of several colored schools in the county. The contract included $4,281.54 for the construction of a school at Clinton. The residents requested that the new school be a two-room building and that a second teacher be appointed to the school. Clinton Colored School No. 1, District 9 was part of a Rosenwald School program, a project funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The mission of the program was to aid new school construction for black communities in the southern states.

By 1921 there were 58 Negro teachers, 48 Negro schools, and Negro teachers received an annual salary of $450," according to Banks. By 1930, that annual salary would be increased to $680, still significantly lower than the salary paid to white teachers. Nevertheless, equal educational opportunities for children in Prince George's County were a long way off.