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African-American Teachers in the South, 1890-1940: Growth, Feminization, and Salary Discrimination

by Michael Fultz - 1995

The intent of this article is twofold: (1) to analyze data on demographic trends in the growth of the African-American teaching force in the South from 1890-1940, highlighting, in particular, the significant feminization of the black teaching corps that took place over this period; and (2) to investigate the complex topic of discriminatory salaries for African-American teachers, and to illuminate the African-American perspective on the interrelated issues involved. The history of African-American teachers in the South has been a neglected area of American educational history, and consequently the feminization of the black teaching cadre has seldom been systematically examined. Likewise, paltry, discriminatory salaries were a linchpin in the South's system of segregated schooling,, but their pervasive influence on a number of aspects of the African-American educational experience, and the arguments crafted by African-American educators, has not been fully considered. The broader intent, of course, is to begin to lay the groundwork for a rich and dynamic consideration of the problems and the achievements, the possibilities and the limitations, of African-American teachers in the era of de jure segregation.

The intent of this article is twofold: (1) to analyze data on demographic trends in the growth of the African-American teaching force in the South from 1890 to 1940, highlighting, in particular, the significant feminization of the black teaching corps that took place over this period; and (2) to investigate the complex topic of discriminatory salaries for African-American teachers, and to illuminate the African-American perspective on the interrelated issues involved. The history of African-American teachers in the South has been a neglected area of American educational history, and consequently the feminization of the black teaching cadre has seldom been systematically examined. Likewise, paltry, discriminatory salaries were a linchpin in the South’s system of segregated schooling, but their pervasive influence on a number of aspects of the African-American educational experience, and the arguments crafted by African-American educators, has not been fully considered. The broader intent, of course, is to begin to lay the groundwork for a rich and dynamic consideration of the problems and the achievements, the possibilities and the limitations, of African-American teachers in the era of de jure segregation.

The history of African-American teachers has been a neglected area of research in African-American educational history, reflecting, in part, the state of serious inquiry into matters related to teachers in American educational history in general.1 This omission is curious since, during the 1930s in particular, issues and topics concerning the performance of African- American teachers in the classroom, and expectations for teachers’ extracurricular activities, were subjects of considerable discussion, commentary, and inquiry within the African-American scholarly community. As the history of African-American education has continued to mature, and, not so parenthetically, as disgruntlement and frustration over the persistent underachievement of African-American students have continued to mount, the need for a comprehensive history of African-American teachers has become more pressing and salient. The intent of this article is twofold: (1) to analyze data on demographic trends in the growth of the African- American teaching force from 1890 to 1940, highlighting, in particular, the feminization of the black teaching corps during this period; and (2) to investigate the complex, multilayered topic of discriminatory salaries for African-American teachers, and in so doing to illuminate the African- American perspective on these issues. Paltry, meager salaries for black teachers were, as has often been noted, one of the most pervasive aspects of the African-American educational experience during this period, but its influence on a variety of other aspects of that experience has seldom been systematically examined. Likewise, the perspectives and arguments crafted by African-American educators regarding these concerns prior to the salary equalization movement led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have often been ignored. The broader intent, of course, is to begin to lay the groundwork for a rich and dynamic consideration of both the problems and the achievements of African-American teachers in the era of de jure segregation.


One of the first dilemmas to confront in a historical review of African- American teachers is divergent data on the size of the black teaching force. The 1890 census aptly portrays the problem. On the one hand, in its “Occupations” section, the 1890 decennial census lists 15,100 Negro teachers and professors nationwide, 7,236 men and 7,864 women;2 its “Report on Education in the United States,” on the other hand, compiled from submitted state data, gives a nationwide figure of 25,214 colored teachers, 14,354 men and 10,860 women.3

These discrepancies in the available data remain evident through 1940, with figures from state-generated sources, drawn from southern state superintendent and department of education reports, consistently higher than Census Bureau figures. In 1930, the U.S. Office of Education began to provide summary statistics, similar to and based on the data drawn from state sources that formerly appeared in the annual Commissioner of Education reports, regarding the education of African-American children in the seventeen states and the District of Columbia that maintained de jure segregated schools. Four such reports, supplementing the office’s biennial surveys, were published between 1930 and 1943.4 Table 1 draws from U.S. Commissioner of Education reports, U.S. Office of Education reports, and U.S. Census Bureau reports to give a composite view of the growth of the African-American teaching force in the South.

The reasons for the discrepancies in the two official sources of data are unknown, and certainly the specific figures from both sources should taken only as “ballpark” estimates.5 Problems of accuracy aside, however, the trends and discrepancies in the figures invite explanation.


It would seem, on the one hand, that the southern states would have been motivated to overrepresent the number of African-American teachers employed in order to put their discriminatory educational practices in a somewhat better light. Also, given that an unknown number of black teachers taught in more than one school during the year, they might have been counted more than once in state reports. Although there are no hard figures on this phenomenon, African-American educator W. T. B. Williams, generally acknowledged as the most knowledgeable person in the South regarding black school conditions during the first third of this century, mentioned in a 1906 article on the status of Negro education in Prince Edward County, Virginia, that it was “usual” for a local Negro teacher to hold two four-month sessions at two different schools during the year. Likewise, both Fred McCuistion’s 1931 report “The South’s Negro Teaching Force” and Horace Mann Bond’s comprehensive The Education of the Negro in the American Social Order mention that “many” African-American teachers worked in more than one school during the academic year.6 It is a practice that seems both functional and logical given the short school terms and low salaries typical of the times and it seems to have persisted throughout the period. Thus, one African-American teacher might be counted two or even three times as states compiled county reports. With regard to the census reports, errors may have resulted from the customary undercounting of African-Americans. In addition, there is the very real possibility that if an individual worked only three, four, or five months as a teacher and spent the rest of the year in another job, either through self-report or enumerator interpretation the nonteaching employment would be considered the primary occupation and would be reported as such.

Regardless of the source of the data, certain trends regarding the black teaching force during the period are evident. As Table 1 indicates, it was during the 1920s that the size of the African-American teaching force in the South experienced its largest increase, both in absolute numbers and in percent change, expanding by 13,000–16,000 according to the two sources of data. The 1930s also saw the African-American teaching force in the South grow substantially; numerically, this was the second largest increase. Both sources of data also indicate, on the other hand, that the 1910–1920 decade was a setback with regard to the employment of black teachers, with growth patterns during that decade less than that in the 1900–1910 period. This relative stagnation is even more meaningful when contrasted with the data presented in Table 2, statistics from U.S. Commissioner of Education and U.S. Office of Education reports on enrollment and attendance patterns in African-American common schools in the South.


These data indicate that paradoxically, while the growth of the black teaching force slowed during the 1910–1920 decade, the number of black children enrolled and in average daily attendance (ADA) increased more than in any other ten-year period; in fact, the 28.1 percent growth in average daily attendance during the 1910–1920 decade was almost double the 14.7 percent growth these same sources reveal for the size of the southern black teaching force. This divergence in growth rates had serious implications for teacher-pupil ratios in already overcrowded classrooms.

African-American educators in the 1930s, in fact, frequently pointed to crammed classrooms in black schools to argue that the size of the African- American teaching force needed to be significantly enlarged in order to match either southern white or national teacher-pupil ratios. In a particularly lucid discussion of this and related issues that appeared in the Journal of Negro Education’s first special yearbook issue, on the Negro elementary school, Carroll Miller and Howard Gregg noted that if the average of 47.1 pupils per teacher in the black elementary schools of the South in 1929–1930 were to be reduced to the white pupil-teacher level of 34.3, an additional 17,190 African-American teachers would have to be hired. If the national norm of approximately 30 elementary pupils per teacher were to be reached, then more than 26,000 African-American teachers would have to be hired.7


Another demographic trend in the growth of the African-American teacher cadre across this half-century, one that frequently goes unmentioned, is the tremendous feminization of the black teaching force after 1890. The census data become particularly salient in this regard since they provide a readily available resource to track the South’s teaching force by state, race, and gender. According to census data, the percentage of black and white women employed in the South from 1890–1940, as compared with nationwide figures, was as shown in Table 3.

As Table 3 indicates, the African-American teaching force in the South, for undetermined reasons, was slower to feminize than was the region’s white teaching corps (as was the white South than the nation overall).8 When the data are disaggregated by state in 1890, for example, white women made up a greater percentage of the white teaching force than did black women among black teachers in sixteen of the eighteen segregating locales (seventeen states plus the District of Columbia). In five states, the racial difference in percent of women teachers was greater than 15 percent; Louisiana had the largest discrepancy at slightly over 20 percent (women made up 71.5 percent of the state’s white teaching cadre, but only 51.1 percent of the black teaching force); Mississippi had the second largest racial difference at 18 percent. In 1900, although the almost 11 percent regional difference in the percent of women teachers by respective race was reduced to 2.4 percent, the percentage of white women teachers still exceeded the percentage of African-American women teachers in thirteen states and in Maryland, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the racial differences were approximately 13, 12, and 10 percent respectively.


African-American women in the South surpassed white women as a percent of their respective race’s teachers by the 1910 census, and the racial difference, with black women as the larger proportion, grew between 1920 and 1940. In fact, the percentage of white women teachers in the South declined between 1920 and 1930 and continued to do so in the following decade; among African-American teachers, it was only in the 1930–1940 decade that their numbers dropped slightly as a percentage of the race’s schoolteachers.

On examination, the feminization of the African-American teaching force did not result solely from a growth in the number of black women teachers, although indeed that was the dominant trend. Without exception, the number of black women teachers increased in every southern state and in the District of Columbia in every census report from 1890 to 1930; they decreased in five states between 1930 and 1940, falling spectacularly (by over 22 percent) in Kentucky to below 1920 levels but only modestly in the other four states. The number of African-American male teachers, on the other hand, fell in a total of six states between 1890 and 1900, in twelve states between 1900 and 1910, and in fifteen states between 1910 and 1920. Thus, between 1890 and 1920, the absolute number of black male teachers declined. During the period of sharpest decline, from 1900 to 1920, the number of African-American male teachers decreased in fifteen states overall (Oklahoma, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia were the exceptions) and by over 20 percent in nine of those states. From 1920 to 1930 and from 1930 to 1940, the number of African-American male teachers grew in every southern state; from 1930 to 1940, in fact, unlike the patterns in the previous decade (which were more variable), the percent growth among black male teachers surpassed that of black women teachers throughout the region.

There have been no investigations that have explored the underlying trends fostering the feminization of African-American teaching; indeed, the growing predominance of black women teachers was rarely mentioned in the literature. Overall, the data for this half-century indicate that as segregation in the South institutionalized and hardened, as increasingly larger discrepancies were seen in the funding and provisions for African-American schools, the teaching cadre in black schools feminized dramatically, with an increasingly larger percentage of black women employed to teach in the impoverished black schools than white women to teach in the South’s burgeoning white systems. But, contemporaries did connect, on occasion, the relationship between salaries for black teachers and gender trends. In doing so, they implicitly and explicitly raised the issue of so-called opportunity costs, the term historians have applied to the sum of the factors that in various periods have made teaching less attractive to men.9 As one respondent noted in W. E. B. DuBois’s 1901 Atlanta University Study of the Negro Common School, for example, the meager salaries were “only a living chance for women.”10 Similarly, Williams mentioned in 1905 that men could hardly afford to work for the salaries offered by southern school officials, and in 1911 he noted a decline in the numbers of Hampton Institute men going into teaching.11 Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier has also provided a perspective on this issue, commenting in a brief 1927 discussion that

in the case of men . . . the competition of other professions has always been felt. In fact, men are attracted from teaching because of the small salaries . . . to a far greater extent than women. They have been willing and in reality could afford to incur the unpleasant association and social stigma of menial employments because of family responsibilities more than women. . . . It is rather common to see men leave the class room not because they do not care for teaching, but because of the prospect of higher monetary return in one of the professions.12


Frazier, I believe, is combining two somewhat distinct points. One has to do with what he calls “menial employments,” and further historical analysis will be needed to investigate whether in fact African-American men were more “willing” than African-American women to take these types of jobs. The data base is stronger regarding Frazier’s second assertion, for it can be clearly demonstrated that even within the limitations of a racist, patriarchal, and segregated society, African-American men had a broader range of professional opportunities available to them than did African-American women. Table 4 presents nationwide figures for African-American teachers and college professors, by gender, as a percentage of their respective gender’s listing under the census category of those employed in “Professional Service.”

As Table 4 indicates, in 1890, for example, of the 8,824 African-American women classified under Professional Service, 89.1 percent were educators; of the 25,170 African-American men listed under the Professional Service category, only 28.7 percent were educators. By 1930, the number of African-American men and women in the Professional Service category had increased to 72,898 and 63,027 respectively, and the corresponding percentages of educators had fallen to 13.8 and 74.2 percent, indicating that professional opportunities were expanding beyond common school and college teaching for both sexes. But gender differences were still considerable. Unquestionably, additional research is needed to understand more fully gender-based professional opportunities among African-Americans and their relationship to the funneling of African-American women into the teaching profession.

Moreover, my hunch is that among both blacks and whites, the growth in the number of male teachers after 1920 reflects the concomitant growth of high schools, a process that was delayed for both races in the South compared with nationwide trends and particularly for African-Americans. The percentage of men as high school teachers has historically been larger than their representation in the lower grades, and it is likely that subsequent analyses will more firmly explain this process in the South. Available Office of Education data indicate that in 1929–1930 black men made up 13.6 percent of the race’s elementary school teachers but 45.8 percent of the 5,231 African-American high school teachers; in 1939–1940, black men made up 13.8 percent of the race’s elementary school teachers but 48.8 percent of the now more than double 11,753 high school teachers.13

Finally, although this review has concentrated on the African-American teaching force in the South, census data portrayed in Table 5 indicate that throughout the period, less than 10 percent of African-American teachers worked outside the South; the range was from 6.6 percent in 1910 to close to 9 percent in 1930, with less than a 1 percent difference between the 1,247 black teachers employed outside the South in 1890 and the 4,866 black teachers outside the South in 1940.

On examination, the vast majority of the African-American teachers outside the South were employed in seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. These seven states employed approximately 89 percent of the black teachers outside the segregating South in 1900 and 90 percent in 1940. Although on the surface it seems as if neither the Great Migration from the South during the World War I period nor the subsequent flights in the 1920s affected the employment of black teachers in the Northeast and North Central areas, in certain states the increase was actually quite dramatic, though ultimately, nationwide, proportional to growth patterns in the South. The percent growth of African-American teachers in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York exceeded the percent growth in several southern states between 1910 and 1930, although layoffs and sluggish black teacher employment patterns during the Depression seem to have affected these states and others outside the South more than those maintaining de jure segregation.



The key factor influencing the size of the African-American teaching force, its gender composition, and, as many argued, the quality of pedagogy offered was, of course, the pitifully low salaries paid to black teachers. Earnings characterized as “a mere pittance miscalled salary” or hardly “plow-hands’ wages” were, along with the persistence of small, dilapidated rural schoolhouses, the most defining feature of African-American education prior to World War II.14 In fact, given that for many years almost all public funds for black educational purposes went exclusively for teacher salaries—to the neglect of buildings, supplies, equipment, and other features of the physical plant—it might be said that low salaries were the linchpin in the South’s system of segregated schooling: Discriminatory teacher salaries impoverished black education in innumerable ways as they cumulatively enhanced opportunities for white youth.15

Robert Margo’s recent analyses have supported what both Williams and DuBois noted in 1911: that compared with white teacher salaries, and sometimes in real dollars, African-American teacher salaries were retrogressing rather than progressing. Margo found, for example, that in 1890 a racial gap in average annual teachers salaries existed between black and white teachers, but that this disparity was much smaller than it would be after the turn of the century. His data indicate that from 1890 to 1910 the black/white teacher salary ratio declined sharply in those states where comparative information is available, before rising modestly between 1910 and 1936. In Florida, the black/white salary ratio fell from .93 in 1890 to .46 in 1910 before increasing to .47 in 1936; in Louisiana, the figures are .82 in 1890, .26 in 1910, and .43 in 1936. In Alabama, Margo calculates that black teachers actually seem to have averaged higher salaries than whites in 1890, but the pattern remained the same, with ratios dropping from 1.19 in 1890 to .39 in 1910 before rising slightly to .46 in 1936. Mississippi shows another variation in the general model insofar as the ratio in 1936 was below the 1910 level: In the Magnolia State, the black/white ratios declined from .80 in 1890 to .45 in 1910 before dropping even further to .32 in 1936. Margo’s analyses also confirm Williams’s observation that the dominant factor influencing the decline in the ratio from 1890 to 1910 was a “dramatic” increase in pay rates for white teachers, while simultaneously, the salaries for African-American teachers actually fell in several states; certainly in no state did black salaries keep pace. Between 1910 and 1936, on the other hand, modestly growing average black salaries caused the black/white ratio to increase in some states, although in absolute dollars, the salary gap was larger in the mid-1930s than in 1910.16

In several editorials that appeared in the Journal of Negro Education during the 1930s, Charles Thompson began laying the groundwork for the looming salary equalization movement, repeatedly asserting that the salaries for black teachers were worsening. He also called attention to a factor first raised in Miller and Gregg’s analysis of Negro elementary teachers: namely, that black and white teachers’ salaries did not vary proportionally with differences of training between the races. This was an important point. To the extent that levels of teacher preparation and training became incorporated into teacher salary schedules—both formally, when and where such schedules existed and were adhered to, and through informal “custom”—and to the extent that levels of training were consistently lower among African-American teachers than among white teachers, complaints about racial differences in salaries could be dismissed on these grounds.17

Miller and Gregg found that although median salaries among African- Americans varied “very definitely” with their amount of training, salaries did not vary proportionately with differences in years of preparation between the two races. Indeed, they found that across five categories of rural schools, from one-teacher schools in the open country to three-teacher village schools, the average African-American elementary school teacher possessed 70 percent of the training (years of education beyond eighth grade) of comparable white teachers but received only 41 percent as much salary.18

Thompson discussed this theme, and others, in several of his quarterly editorials. In October 1936 he decried discriminatory salaries in Maryland, angrily criticizing a state law that formally set salary schedules for African- American teachers below those for white teachers at every grade of certification (except in the city of Baltimore, where salaries were equal). “The situation instead of improving is growing worse,” Thompson charged, arguing that the total dollar difference between average black and white teacher salaries increased by more than $400 between 1900 and 1930. He added that the discrepancy was clearly discriminatory since the black teacher-pupil load increased from 29 to 38 percent more students per black teacher than white teacher over this same period, and differences in training had been reduced.19

Again in 1938 Thompson reiterated his charge of racial bias while supporting the Virginia State Teacher Association’s decision to join with the NAACP in a legal challenge to discriminatory salaries. While state officials explained the discrepancy in terms of differences in training, Thompson noted that in Virginia, African-American classroom teachers had 86.3 percent as much training, but received only 63.4 percent as much salary. Again, the salary differences were said to be greater “both absolutely and relatively” than thirty years earlier: Black teachers, principals, and supervisors, he maintained, had averaged 72 percent of the average white salary in 1906, but only 59.8 percent in 1936. The impatience that marked the long-delayed salary equalization movement of the late 1930s and 1940s was almost palpable in Thompson’s concluding remarks: “Such facts should give pause to a well-meaning but uncritical group of optimists who go around the country preaching the erroneous doctrine that Negro teachers are getting a better deal now, and ascribe this remarkable advance to the Negro’s patience and forebearing.”20

Another of Thompson’s editorials addressed what was perhaps the most commonly raised justification for racial differences in teachers’ salaries—what he called the longstanding “fiction” that lower standards of living among African-Americans actually made their lower salaries comparable to the higher salaries of white teachers.21 This nebulous rationale had been a prominent excuse for underfunding African-American schools since the Peabody Fund in the late 1860s and early 1870s institutionalized discriminatory payments as an integral part of their philanthropic program. The fund’s general agent, Barnas Sears, detailed the plan to give schools serving African-American children one-third less than the amount given to white schools on the grounds of his belief that it somehow cost less to sustain schools for African-American children.22

Several of the studies Thompson cited to dispute the myth are illuminating. In one, data gathered from summer school students at Hampton Institute and Virginia Institute provided a striking commentary on African- American teacher salaries in the 1930s: Median living expenses among this group far surpassed salary, $623.66 to $398.08. The average teacher, then, had to augment his or her salary substantially to make ends meet.23 This pattern was substantiated in a National Education Association (NEA) survey undertaken around the same time. The 1939 NEA study found that among 342 black teachers responding to survey items on uses of income, expenditures exceeded income by $13 (3.1 percent of salary) for those rooming or boarding, and by $45 (13.4 percent of salary) for those personally maintaining a home. In order to make up these deficits, the teachers had to borrow or withdraw funds from savings.24

Another study cited in the Thompson editorial was even more revealing than the JNE editor indicated. In this 1934 investigation, Dennis Cooke, a white faculty member at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, compared and contrasted the “relative adequacy” of the salaries of some 1,719 white teachers and 1,048 African-American teachers in thirty- two school systems in eleven states. Among Cooke’s findings were that: (1) In each of the thirty-two units, the average salary of white teachers was larger than that of the black teachers; (2) the average salary for black teachers was 57 percent of the white average, while their average cost of living was 76 percent of that for white teachers; (3) the average cost of living for the white teachers was 48 percent of their average salary, while the average cost of living for the black teachers was 64 percent of their average salary; (4) in view of the then generally acknowledged principle of salary schedule construction that adequate teacher wages should be at least twice as great as the cost of living, the average salary for black teachers was inadequate in twenty-seven of the thirty-two units, while the average salary for white teachers was inadequate in fourteen of the thirty-two units.25

Interestingly, Cooke also found that 14 percent of the African-American teachers and 11 percent of the white teachers in his sample did other remunerative work during the summer of 1933, with 8 percent of the black teachers and 6 percent of the white teachers working at another job during the 1932–1933 school year in addition to teaching. More opportunities for extra employment were open to the white teachers and average amount earned in the majority of occupations was greater. For these white teachers, coaching athletics, tutoring, teaching summer school, clerking in stores, and being a salesperson were the major types of extra work undertaken. For black teachers, on the other hand, farming, teaching summer school, sewing, and working as maids for white families headed the list of supplemental employment.26 Again, the 1939 NEA survey of rural teachers provides support. Across types of rural schools, African-American teachers on average received a total yearly income of $422, of which $346 (82 percent) was salary for school services. Nationwide, the average white rural teacher received an estimated total income of $967, of which $876 (91 percent) was school salary. In other words, while black teachers received a salary less than 50 percent of the white teacher average, 18 percent of their total income came from nonschool-related employment as opposed to 9 percent for white teachers. Unfortunately, the NEA survey did not ask respondents to specify types of employment undertaken.27

In addition to repudiating duplicitous training and cost-of-living concerns, black educators developed arguments for salary increases around matters of standing and status solely within the African-American community. African-American teachers have often been thought of as mainstays of the black middle class, and although there need not be a one-to-one attribution of position to class status in every individual case, low wages undermined one of the major underpinnings of middle-class respectability. In his 1907 presidential address, for example, National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools’ (NATCS) founder J. R. E. Lee noted the standard argument that “it should not be assumed that he [the African-American teacher] can live cheaper than any other people.” He added, moreover, that better pay was needed not only for black teachers to be able to afford the costs of “further preparation and study,” but also because they were expected and required to maintain “an example of the best civilized home life.”28 Monroe Work, the longtime editor of the Negro Year Book, agreed, and elaborated:

The teachers in general belong to the upper class of colored people, and are required to maintain the standard of this class, with its consequent living expenses. In addition, teaching is becoming more and more of a profession, and as a result the preparation before entering the profession and the requirements after entering are increasing. There are books which the teacher is required to purchase and read; there are institutes and summer schools to attend; and there are standards of dress to maintain.29

As mentioned, issues of low salaries were said to have, and indeed did have, far-reaching ramifications on African-American education. The relationship of salaries to the size of the African-American teaching force, to the feminization of teaching among African-Americans, and to the socalled opportunity costs making the profession less attractive to black men have been addressed. An even more prominent subject in the literature centered on the effect low salaries had on the quality of classroom instruction: specifically, that salaries “materially” influenced the amount of preparation and training many prospective black teachers were willing to undertake, and that low wages, often combined with arbitrary hiring practices, drove many of the most competent teachers out of the profession.30 It is difficult, however, to distinguish rhetoric from fact in these assertions since they run counter to the well-acknowledged fact that racially restricted employment possibilities funneled well-educated African-Americans, especially women, into teaching positions. Both DuBois and Bond, in fact, sharply criticized southern white school officials for taking unfair advantage of what Bond called “the prejudice which bars Negroes from other occupations by forcing Negro school graduates to seek employment [as teachers] at pitiable wages.”31

One way to explain this puzzle is to consider the possibility of both trends occurring simultaneously over time. Racially restrictive job opportunities clearly channeled bright, talented young black women into teaching, more so, as Table 4 above reveals, than educated black men. It is also fairly well established that African-American teachers stayed in the profession longer than did white teachers, notwithstanding the fact that particularly in rural areas low salaries seem to have caused considerable movement from one teaching job to another.32 But although there are no data on the numbers of African-American teachers whose levels of motivation were affected by low salaries, or on those choosing to leave the profession because of low salaries (or on a differential impact on the most talented black teachers), the many claims to this effect are persuasive in their volume, and should not be written off as mere exaggerations. Even without hard data, it is certainly plausible that better-educated African-American teachers might have left the teaching profession for more remunerative work elsewhere. It is equally plausible that the lack of material rewards affected individuals’ levels of drive and motivation, even in the face of limited opportunities.

On the other hand, there is considerable evidence corroborating that it was harder for small rural schools to attract and to retain black teachers with strong academic credentials; levels of preparation among African- American teachers were positively correlated with size of school, just as both levels of preparation and size of school were positively correlated with higher salaries.33 In addition, data from both Ambrose Caliver and Jane Ellen McAllister indicate that low salaries were likely to have played a distinct role in fostering high levels of teacher turnover in rural African-American schools. In his study Education of Negro Teachers, Caliver, the first specialist in black education hired by the U.S. Office of Education, found that most of the demand for “new” African-American teachers in the South (new in the sense that the teacher had not taught in that particular school the year before) was because the former teacher left to teach elsewhere (43.2 percent of “new” black teachers assumed their position because their predecessor moved on to teach in another school; only 7.7 percent received a newly created position). When these reasons for the demand of new African-American teachers were distributed according to size of community, more teachers in the open country and in villages under 2,500 population assumed their positions because their predecessors left to teach elsewhere than was the case in more populous locales; equally relevant, in the open country schools, in particular, a substantially higher percentage of their predecessors left to enter another profession. While Caliver did not directly connect these teacher turnover, mobility, and demand factors to low salaries, he did note that this relationship “is a question which naturally arises.”34 Similarly, McAllister, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in education at Teachers College, Columbia University, found these same forces at play in her study of Louisiana teachers: The largest turnover and shortest tenure occurred in those parishes that had the least trained and most poorly paid teachers. As with Caliver, McAllister was hesitant to say that low salaries were unequivocally involved, although she did comment that “provisionally, . . . the parallelism involves a causal relationship.”35

An anecdote reported in the Bulletin, the journal of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, is illustrative of the perspective taken by many African-American educators regarding the overall salary problem. An African-American high school senior was talking with friends in the local barber shop: “ ‘Teaching,’ said the senior with a disdainful laugh, ‘why I’m not ready to starve. I could never see why any man would go into teaching unless he was either hopelessly in love with that type of service or in trouble.’ ” The author of the article reflected on the youngster’s remarks:

To me what that promising young high school lad felt and believed about the profession of teaching deserves more than passing notice. There must be something wrong with a profession that is decreasing rather than increasing in its appeal to the promising young men and women of the race. . . . Even those of us who have been teaching longest and love the profession most are forced to admit that in comparison with the successful men in other professions, the so-called successful teacher presents a rather unattractive picture. True his joy comes from service and self-sacrifice, but by the stern standards of modern times, men are not judged by their willingness to suffer martyrdom in any cause or field, but rather by their ability to pay their debts.36

An important component of the arguments that low salaries affected African-American teachers’ levels of preparation, their tenure in the profession, where they taught, and the quality of education provided was the related notion that southern white officials deliberately chose unqualified black teachers whom they could pay less. DuBois made this assertion in his 1901 Negro Common School study, charging that “the country is at present deliberately choosing the very worst [Negro] teachers it can find,” while noting that reports from Louisiana indicated that a concerted effort was underway to drive out as many first-grade black teachers as possible, leaving only poorly trained candidates available who could be hired at low salaries.37 A number of African-American educators repeated this accusation, and in the 1930s angrily rebutted the misconception that there was an “oversupply” of black classroom teachers. A typical response came from Miller and Gregg, who declared in their comprehensive JNE analysis that the normal forces of supply and demand influencing teacher employment practices were critically “distorted” when African-American teachers were considered since “teacher demand in the Negro schools is not reckoned in terms of the quality and quantity of teachers needed, but rather in terms of how much money is left to employ Negro teachers after most of the funds for teachers’ salaries have been expended in behalf of the white teachers.” Low salaries and racially motivated hiring practices, they maintained, created an artificial sense of large numbers of African-American teaching candidates, when actually there was only “an oversupply of poorly trained teachers.”38

Of the several black state teacher associations, the Tennessee Association of Teachers in Colored Schools took an especially strong stand against these seemingly widespread and longstanding practices. Thus, in explaining why they joined with the white Tennessee Education Association in promoting the new Eight-Point Educational Program for the state’s schools, the black teachers’ group highlighted what they considered three prominent factors thwarting professional improvement: (1) “community inbreeding,” using local residents as teachers regardless of their qualifications, the salaries offered being too low even to sustain outsiders who might have been willing to board with residents; (2) forcing African-American applicants to understate their professional preparation in order to avoid paying higher salaries according to the local salary schedule; and (3) the deliberate and preferential employment of teachers holding low-grade certificates.39

Unfortunately, neither subterfuge nor crass and willful intent to hire less-qualified applicants were the only means used by white school officials to avoid paying African-American teachers adequate wages. On the one hand, whereas both white and black teachers sometimes received part of their wages as in-kind payments (produce from the local store, etc.), this practice seems to have been especially common for black educators.40 On the other hand, several of the black teachers quoted in DuBois’s 1901 Negro Common School reported that they had to return a “margin” or “pay a percentage” of their salary to their employer (i.e., pay a kickback for gaining the position); had to “discount” a portion of their wages; had to “give notes” on their contract; or had to “make presents” to county school officials.41 Aside from a passing reference in After Freedom, in which anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker comments that it was the “custom” in Cottonville, as in other Mississippi counties, to sell licenses to unqualified black teachers—the man who served as the intermediary was referred to in the community as a “good nigger”42—there is no mention of these practices apart from the testimony offered in DuBois’s study. As a result, it is impossible to determine how extensive they were or how long they persisted.

A number of Office of Education reports during the 1930s, on the other hand, confirmed an extensive and persistent relationship of salaries to school location, and exposed a disturbing national, regional, and district-level hierarchy: that teacher salaries in the South continued to be among the lowest in the nation; that the lowest teacher salaries in the South were in rural southern communities; and that rural one-teacher African-American schools in the Black Belt cotton regions were at the bottom of the barrel. With the exception of Washington, D.C., where average salaries were among the highest in the nation, average instructional salaries (supervisors, principals, teachers) in the seventeen states of the South were only 67–68 percent of the national average from the 1919–1920 school year through the 1939–1940 school year. Ten southern states had lower average instructional salaries than the lowest nonsouthern state in 1919–1920; southern states had the nine lowest salary levels in 1929–1930; four of the lowest five in 1939–1940 were in the South, as the nation’s schools started to recover from the cutbacks of the early Depression. (Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia had the five lowest southern averages at each of these data points.)43

Salaries for African-American teachers, of course, were the lowest in the southern states—with the surprising exception that, in 1935–1936, average instructional salaries for black educators in Delaware, Missouri, and Oklahoma were reported to exceed slightly white averages within those states. (Salaries were equal in the District of Columbia.) The explanation highlights another demographic trend in salary levels: that in these states, as elsewhere in the nation, average salaries in urban areas exceeded those in rural areas, and in these states it appears that there were a disproportionate number of black schools in urban settings. Across the nation, average salaries for instructional staff in rural schools in 1935–1936 were estimated as only 45.5 percent of that for urban schools; in seventeen southern states, rural schools were actually doing somewhat better, averaging 62.2 percent of their urban counterparts although, of course, urban schools in the South had lower average salary levels.44

Even more fine-grained correlations can be established. The 1916 report by white philanthropic administrator Thomas Jesse Jones, Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States, disclosed that, using teacher salaries as a proxy for educational expenditures, funding for African-American schools in the South varied dramatically in an inverse relationship with the percent of black people in the county. Counties with under 10 percent African-American population had per capita expenditure levels of $7.96 for white children 6–14 years old in the school population and $7.23 for black children. In counties where the African-American population ranged from 75–100 percent, expenditures (i.e., teacher salaries) were $22.22 per capita for white children but only $1.78 for black youth.45 These predominantly black counties were overwhelmingly rural.

In the 1930s, both Caliver and respected African-American sociologist Charles S. Johnson discovered, additionally, a strong correlation between length of school term, teacher salaries, and the chief crop characteristics of the county.46 Johnson’s study, an attempt to analyze the major social and economic characteristics in 1,104 counties in thirteen states, both corroborated and extended Caliver’s finding that it was in the cotton farming regions of the South where school terms were shortest and that larger percentages of black teachers had low salaries. Johnson vividly established the manner in which cotton growing permeated the life of the South, and African-American life in particular. Cotton was the major crop raised in just under one-half (551) of the counties studied, and the only important crop raised in 63 percent of those counties (only 12 percent of “other farm counties” showed such exclusivity). In 230 cotton counties (42 percent), 40 percent or more of the population was African-American; all but two of the forty-four counties with 70 percent or more African-American population were cotton counties.

Furthermore, the findings with regard to educational issues not only confirmed the county-level relationship reported in the 1916 Office of Education study,47 but convincingly demonstrated, as Johnson noted, that “counties which raise cotton are dominated by it socially as well as economically.” Cotton counties had slightly higher illiteracy rates than did other counties, and lower attendance rates. They had fewer white one-teacher schools than noncotton counties, and slightly more black one-teacher schools. Using teacher salaries per pupil enrolled as a proxy for expenditures (inclusion of other items would have increased the black-white differential, Johnson observed), cotton counties had lower per capita expenditures for African-American children than did other counties and the size of differential was greatest. Interestingly, though some metropolitan counties had a higher percentage of African-Americans than did some noncotton counties, the corresponding ratios of discriminatory funding were not substantially different. Thus, for Johnson, the issue was more complex than one of mere demographic association. As he perceptively remarked,

The mere concentration of Negroes does not in itself explain the educational statistics. It is well to remember that the plantation system is bound up with a social system which sanctions the division of school funds to one group in the population. The plantation system is bound up also with a large Negro population and this in turn with a large racial differential. The relation is not simply a large differential where the Negro population is large.48

Finally, it is ironic that although low salaries were said to dissuade African-American teaching candidates from entering the profession and from remaining on the job, they also strongly influenced the arguments and rhetoric used to attract and retain individuals within the profession. That is, black educators strategically incorporated the prospect and reality of low salaries into the dominant “missionary” and “racial uplift” motifs of the period, creating the conception that only a unique, racially conscious, racially motivated individual was fit for this special “calling.” Thus, a broad spectrum of African-American commentators, ranging from Booker T. Washington to New Negro scholar Alain Locke, called on black teachers, as Locke remarked, to put “service above pecuniary reward.” “If all other appeals fail,” Locke commented, “I would expect the gripping appeal of social service, of race service, to sustain an ardent professional spirit.”49 Similarly, as John Gandy, the longtime president of Virginia State College, remarked, African-American teachers needed to “join teaching more from a spirit of race pride, the recognition of a great need and a desire to serve, than from financial considerations. As a Race, we must be willing to be made financial martyrs in order that our youth be led into the light of intelligence and manhood of American citizenship.”50 And again, as J. S. Clark of Southern University in Louisiana stated, “The teacher’s reward has never been and can not now be measured in terms of dollars and cents, but altogether it represents the difference between racial liberty and racial slavery of the soul.”51


As the front-line public representatives of African-American education, African-American teachers were bound up with a social system that specifically sought to oppress and repress African-American life and opportunities. If “educated niggers” were the bane of the white South, feared and perceived as threats to the status quo, those who educated “niggers” were to be suppressed as well. Not only was the quality of education to African- Americans restrained by maintaining unconscionably low salaries for black teachers, but, as one African-American educator observed, equal salaries would have implied an admission of equality that “would be distasteful in many [white] communities.”52

More research is needed in order to explicate more fully and to understand more thoroughly both the overall growth patterns of the African- American teaching force in the South and state, local, and urban/rural configurations of feminization. Much of the available data, for example, provides broad parameters regarding rural trends, and certainly the majority of African-American teachers prior to World War II delivered instruction in rural areas, either in the open country or in small towns and villages. But, as a few contemporaries observed, we need to make more precise distinctions between these open-country and small-village situations.53 Moreover, the available literature on African-American teachers in the increasingly urbanized South is strikingly sparse.

The issue of the class standing of African-American teachers within the African-American community is another example of a topic that requires careful study and consideration. Although, as noted, assertions of middle-and upper-class standing for black teachers are common, the persistent criticisms of their levels of academic preparation, quality of instruction, service contributions, and so on, not to mention their low salaries, raise questions of time and place in the attribution of class status. Were rural black teachers, for example, or city teachers for that matter, accorded middle- or upper-class status solely on the basis of their employment or, as is more likely, were other social factors considered? Did these factors change over time? One speaker at an NATCS convention in 1907, for example, declared that because of low salaries, in some parts of Mississippi teachers were looked on as a “pitiable class.” Moreover, E. Franklin Frazier, August Meier, and others have noted that “moral” considerations and social distinctions other than income were important criteria determining class status.54 Certainly, the necessity for African-American teachers to serve as an “example,” as moral and social role models, was a prominent and pervasive theme in the African-American literature throughout this period.

To probe these questions is not to demean or be hostile to African- American teachers’ multiple roles and contributions. Rather, research must move beyond stereotypes if we are to develop reliable models of African-American leadership patterns and to achieve a balanced assessment of the possibilities and limitations of black teachers’ activities both within and outside the classroom. Throughout these investigations not only must additional factors such as salaries, levels of preparation, the conditions of teaching, and the local social context be interwoven into the analyses, but so must the African-American teachers’ “voice” in all its diversity. In particular, efforts must be made to retrieve the African-American women teachers’ perspectives, “voices” that are conspicuously absent from the available literature and that must be incorporated if a rich and illuminating African-American educational history is to flourish.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 544-568
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10626, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:10:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Fultz
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
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    Michael Fultz is assistant professor, department of educational policy studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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