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.
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She traveled from Augusta to Minneapolis with the hopes of appealing to the Presbyterian General Assembly for funds to expand her school. The Presbyterians didn’t invest, but Laney impressed a wealthy donor and raised $10,000.
That one investment propelled Laney’s school to educate and change the lives of thousands of African Americans well into the 20th century.
The teacher’s name was Lucy Craft Laney. She was born during slavery to parents who bought their freedom through hard work, patience, faith, and discipline. She was reading by age four, and she was amongst the first wave of post-slavery black college graduates. Like many black women of her time becoming an educator wasn’t a career, and it wasn’t something 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.
Laney had a clear mission: to pursue justice for the black race by preparing a community of leaders with a foundation of classical academics and wage earning industry. African Americans in those days viewed education as the key strategy for gaining full freedom, and as the path to being accepted as skilled and self-supporting in a racialized economy.
It would be easy us to overstate how far we’ve come in our supposed progressive post-racial society. It would be a luxurious error African Americans can ill-afford.
We have come so far only to be too far behind.
Today, in one of America’s most educated cities, Minneapolis, Laney’s name is affixed to a public school where an intolerable 27% of students are proficient in reading. That is degrading enough, but it gets worse considering the literacy rate of black children was 35% during the 1880s when Laney established her school in the Jim Crow south.
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. If we were functional stewards of our heritage we would curtly ask the district to rename that school after a more appropriate figure – maybe Charles Stenvig.
Think about it: 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.
And, a little known fact, she started one of histories first charter schools to demonstrate self-efficacy and fulfill the limitless potential of the black student.
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.
It doesn’t mean hope is lost.
In the middle of a defunct government education monopoly that employs and benefits one population at the peril of others, we have one Minneapolis beacon casting light on our heritage and defying cultural incompetency.
It looks like us. It sounds like us. And seems to believe in us the way Lucy Laney did.
It’s called Harvest Prep and it comes one hell of a lot closer to academic emancipation, and it does more to honor the legacy of our successful education ancestors, than any school in Minneapolis.
I thought you knew.