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The Instructive Story of This Jim Crow Era Black History Contest (Opinion)

The teaching of Black history in segregated schools has a long history. After emancipation, freed people in the American South flocked to newly established schools to learn to read and write but also to learn about their history and culture.

With the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, those schools of the Jim Crow era were staffed and led by Black teachers dedicated to teaching eager young minds. Students learned about their own past, a past that was not written in the hand-me-down history textbooks they received from white schools. Historians of education have argued that this Black history and culture curriculum, predictably, had to be carried out under the radar, as what Harvard University education professor Jarvis R. Givens calls “fugitive pedagogy,” as it was not approved by white boards of education.

This classroom instruction predates Carter G. Woodson’s founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. By the time of Woodson’s inaugural Negro History Week in 1926, the precursor to Black History Month, the association had already started to draw attention to the importance of teaching all students about African American history.

Less is known, however, about efforts to teach Black history in all-white schools in the post-Reconstruction South. As one might expect, it was a rarity.

A closer look provides insight into the opportunities and challenges that white educators in these segregated schools faced teaching Black history to white students. A little-known initiative, which existed between 1928 and 1943 in the former slave-holding states, brought Black history to separate white schools: the “America’s Tenth Man” contest.

In 1928, Robert Eleazer, a white liberal Methodist from Tennessee, wrote “America’s Tenth Man: A Brief Survey of the Negro’s Part in American History.” He sent the pamphlet to white high schools, with the announcement that a $50 prize (the equivalent of approximately $1,000 today) would be awarded to the best student essay on Black history.

This program was conceived of and administered by the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an Atlanta-based organization where Eleazer was the education director. Led by white allies and Black elites, the commission helped African Americans fight lynching, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in education and the workplace, and it worked to educate whites in the South about racial inequality.

Within two years, Eleazer heard from 500 teachers that they were using the pamphlet in their classrooms. The next year, teachers ordered 50,000 copies. By 1943, he had sent 230,000 copies to white Southern high schools.

When I studied the papers of the commission, which are available on microfilm and housed at the Atlanta University Center archives, I learned that the results of the contest’s goal of teaching racial understanding were mixed.

Social studies teachers conducted research on Black history and prepared lessons and project ideas. Students read Black poetry, sang spirituals, examined contemporary African American newspapers, and even surveyed the Black families in their neighborhoods. Teachers in other subject-matter areas joined in, teaching Black history and culture in sociology, economics, literature, the sciences, and art classes to their white students.

Some students, such as a class of seniors in sociology in Hazelhurst, Ga., learned about structural inequalities and racism through their study of the arrest of a Black adolescent who had been charged with petty theft. In her report to Eleazer, the teacher of that class concluded, “By [studying] this local incident we were led to the results of the Civil War and its aftermath, in which we found a re-enslaved Negro.”

In other instances, however, the lessons on Black history and culture reified stereotypes. One only wonders what the “Mammy’s Dance” looked like when performed by a white female student in rural Kirksville, Mo., in 1931. There were additional egregious examples, including serving “Black foods” in the cafeteria and writing poetry in Black slang. One student concluded an essay that Black people were “shiftless and lazy” because of their roots in “tropical environments.”

What can we learn from this history of the “Tenth Man” contests?

If white teachers in the Jim Crow South found the interest and courage to teach Black history and culture across the curriculum, it is certainly possible for today’s teachers. However, they need to be trained in the field and its principles to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes of Black people.

We need to begin with Woodson’s premise that all students need to learn Black history. I believe that learning Black history should be a requirement in every state. Materials should be made available to all teachers who wish to teach Black history and culture. White teachers should be encouraged and supported to attend professional development workshops and conferences, both local and national, to learn about materials and best practices for teaching African American history.

As this history proves, there was (and currently is) no dearth of sources with which to teach African American history and culture.

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