Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 3 – The Educational System in 19th Century America
African-Americans at the end of the Civil War craved acceptance as a people and this hope was only partially reciprocated. Education in the late 19th Century was either a short-lived moment in a person’s life or a multi-year luxury that few in the general populace could afford. Whites had an easier path to it, but African-Americans had an even harder road toward it. But it wasn’t for trying. Booker T. Washington, the famous proponent of education for freedmen in the post-Reconstruction South, founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute to help educate African-Americans. He realized that in modern society African-Americans would have to be educated, and educated well, in order to excel. It was a belief that was shared by many African-Americans at the time: that education could help set them on an equal footing with their white counterparts in both jobs and social stature.
Educational reform in the United States was just gaining momentum in the late 19th century. Before that time educating enslaved African-Americans in the South was forbidden by law in many states, but in the North, where schools for African Americans did exist, they were generally housed in crowded buildings staffed by teachers of low q
ualifications and restricted to the knowledge of the teacher. African-American parents also grouped together to make private arrangements for schooling and often times hired their own teachers. Public schools did outnumber private ones, but the quality of educational services varied from school to school, with the quality of teaching depending on how much the parents were willing to spend to pay teachers.
In fact, many of the schools formed would hardly be recognized as such by modern standards. Elementary education was available to African-Americans, but higher, more specialized, educational services that would produce more respect among the already somewhat-doubting white class was harder to attain.
Due in part to this, illiteracy rates among African-Americans were tracked at a staggering 79.9% in 1870, the first year that such statistics were collected. With improvements in education this figure dropped by roughly 10% in each decade that followed underscoring the need for African-American education.11
It’s surprising then that education seemed to be of little factor in the success of any of the black inventors mentioned. Of the three, only one was able to attain a college degree – McCoy. While, conversely the most successful of the bunch – Woods who was also known as the “Black Edison” – had only a meager elementary school education. They proved that the sky was the limit for what could be achieved with creativity and knowledge of your subject against the traditional thinking that formal education alone stood as the foundation for invention of thought.
Next time, Education as the Foundation of Invention