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Brown V Board of Education: When Slavery Really Ended

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The 50th anniversary of the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education comes up in May. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregation of public schools “solely on the basis of race” denied black children equal educational opportunity, even though “physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may have been equal.” The plaintiff’s case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, later to become the first black Supreme Court justice.

To commemorate that landmark decision, the Census Bureau has assembled comparative data on the educational attainment and school enrollment of blacks between then and now.

We were talking about this just the other day: the question raised was “how long will the specter of slavery hang over black Americans and be a legitimate ‘excuse’ for relative underachievement?” The person posing the question asked “isn’t 140 years long enough?”

Though I firmly believe we have reached a time when it is up to every individual to take resonsibility for his or her own life, and that the structures are in place to allow achievement for every individual who is willing to do this, I also know “slavery” didn’t end until at least Brown vs. Board of Education a relatively short 50 years ago, and a good case can be made that it really didn’t end conclusively until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is only 39 years ago.

So my answer to the question is “I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the pernicious remnants of 350 years of subhuman treatment to be gone after 39 or 50 years, but I am pretty sure we will see it fade before 2094, 140 years after Brown.” The numbers provided by the Census Bureau are cause for optimism:

Enrollment: 1954 to 2002
69%
Percentage of black children ages 5 and 6 who were enrolled in school in 1954. By 2002, enrollment for black children of those ages was 96 percent.
<http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/school.html>

24%
Percentage of young, black adults ages 18 and 19 who were enrolled in school in 1954. In 2002, the comparable enrollment was 58 percent.
<http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/school.html>

High School Graduates: 1952 to 2002
15%
Percentage of blacks age 25 and over in 1952 who were at least high school graduates. By 2002, this rate had risen to 79 percent. <http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/educ-attn.html>

1.6 million
Number of blacks 25 years old and over with at least a high school diploma in 1957. This number had risen to 16.0 million by 2002. <http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/ppl-169/tab01.pdf>

College Graduates: 1952 to 2002
2%
Percentage of blacks age 25 and over in 1952 who were college graduates. By 2002, the rate had risen to17 percent.
<http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/tabA-2.pdf>

252,000
Number of blacks who had at least a bachelor’s degree in 1957. In 2002, 3.5 million blacks had at least a bachelor’s degree.
<http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/ppl-169/tab01.pdf>

Students: 1955 to 2002
4.5 million
Number of blacks enrolled in schools (nursery through college) in 1955. This number had risen to 11.7 million by 2002. <http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/school/tabA-1.pdf>

155,000
Number of black college students in 1955. By 2002, this number had risen to 2.3 million.
<http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/school/tabA-1.pdf>

926,000
Number of black high school students in 1955. In 2002, this number was 2.6 million.
<http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/school/tabA-1.pdf>

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About Eric Olsen