Black History Month included a special anniversary for Washingtonians and many others besides, marking the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, the famous social reformer, writer, abolitionist, orator and statesman spent his final years in Washington, D.C., after a lifetime of tireless activism. His Anacostia home is today preserved as a National Historic Site, and a statue of him now stands in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
There are many facets to Douglass’s long and industrious life before his death in the nation’s capital in February 1895, some of which are better known than others. One constant theme is that of education as a key to personal and social liberation. Self-taught to read, write and learn, Douglass quoted his slaver in his autobiography, who forbade his wife from teaching Douglass to read and hired him out to a local “slave breaker,” that learning to read would “unfit him as a slave.”
This and other experiences in an inspirational life frequently touched by tragedy led Douglass to become one of the first advocates for school desegregation, after observing the huge disparity in the instruction and facilities available to African-American children in New York compared to their white peers. Fleeing an arrest warrant for having sought freedom in New York state, he took his message to England and Ireland before legally securing his liberty in 1846.
In the nation’s capital, the progress in education that Douglass sought through numerous speeches, books and the newspapers he published — The North Star out of Rochester and the New National Era from Anacostia — was slow. Slavery did not end in the District until 1862, when it became a federal territory. D.C. Public Schools was founded in 1805, but the first — segregated — schools for African Americans didn’t open until after the Civil War, such as Stevens in 1868 and Dunbar in 1870.
Howard University also was founded post-war, in 1867. D.C. Public Schools did not desegregate until the mid-1950s, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The post-Civil War system of federal control of the District, and therefore the school system, did not end until Home Rule in 1973. A long decline in enrollment began prior to that, as a centralized system increasingly failed to meet the needs of students.
As school standards declined, families who could afford alternatives such as relocation outside the District, or private or parochial schools, left the system. Those who lacked those choices — already the most politically and economically marginalized communities — were left behind to endure the status-quo. Enrollment did not begin to stabilize and then to expand until two key reforms: when public charter schools were allowed to open in 1995, and when DCPS was placed under mayoral control in 2007.
These reforms brought about school choice for all, regardless of income and neighborhood. While there is still room for improvement, charters have wrought a revolution in public education and now teach 47 percent of all students enrolled in public school in the District. Free to pioneer new methods — they are taxpayer-funded and tuition-free, but operating independently of DCPS — they have raised on-time high school graduation rates and standardized test scores while enriching curricula.
Charters’ greatest impact has been on students from low-income families who were ill-served by the old monopoly of the traditional system. Charter students in Wards 7 and 8, which includes Douglass’s Anacostia, are twice as likely to meet statewide college and career benchmarks as their non-charter public school counterparts. The charter school reform was a significant motivator for the D.C. Council to move to a system of mayoral control of DCPS, leading to significant reforms.
More progress could be made still if District charter schools, which do not receive a public schoolhouse upon opening, could better access appropriate facilities, and if the D.C. government funded public charter students on par with their neighbors and siblings in city-run schools, as the law requires. Some 10,000 students are on waitlists to get into charters that are currently unable to accommodate them.
Douglass saw much change in his life — once pursued by District Marshals after escaping slavery, he was later appointed Marshal of the District of Columbia, the first African-American confirmed for a presidential appointment by the U.S. Senate. Douglass famously said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The national hero who one local historian has christened “the Lion of Anacostia” certainly laid the first foundation stones for such equality in education as we enjoy today.
Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.