The History and Culture of African American Boarding Schools

by Gabriela Schneider

Although the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys is a fictional institution, it is based on an important tradition of African American private education. Before desegregation, there were about 100 boarding schools for African American students throughout the country. These schools provided education and a route to a better life for former slaves and their descendants at a time when many schools excluded anyone who was not white.

In 1954, the landmark supreme court decision Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools. As America slowly began the shift toward racial integration in public schools, the all-black private schools gradually became less popular, and today only four schools remain in the Association of Historically African American Boarding Schools.

Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine

As rare as they have become, these schools are not just relics of the Jim Crow era. The argument that African American students learn better in an environment that reflects their culture and heritage has persisted for decades alongside efforts to increase diversity in schools. In 1935, NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an article entitled Does the Negro Need Separate Schools? Although Du Bois was an important advocate of integration, in this particular case he argued that forcing schools to integrate in spite of racism was not in the students’ best interests. He maintained that as long as prejudice persisted among white teachers and students, black students would not be able to get a good education in traditionally white schools, and he pointed out the human costs of turning schools into civil rights battlegrounds:

"In evaluating the advantage and disadvantage of accepting race hatred as a brutal but real fact, or of using a little child as a battering ram upon which its nastiness can be thrust, we must give greater value and greater emphasis to the rights of the child’s own soul. We shall get a finer, better balance of spirit; and infinitely more capable and rounded personality by putting children in schools where they are wanted, and where they are happy and inspired, than in thrusting them into hells where they are ridiculed and hated."

W. E. B. Du Bois

As much as American society has progressed since the 1930s, Du Bois’s words remain relevant. Desegregation led to significant gains for African American students, but the present situation is far from perfect. Since the busing programs of the 1970s and 1980s have been discontinued, many school districts have returned to de facto segregation because of a lack of diversity in housing. Across the country, many of the public schools serving minority students are lacking in funding and don’t achieve the same levels of quality as more affluent schools. Historically African American boarding schools still exist because they can fill this gap, combining a high level of intellectual rigor and a strong commitment to financial aid with an emphasis on African American history and culture that is hard to find in mainstream independent or public schools.

Students at Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania

Boarding schools shape their students a human beings, permeating every aspect of their lives. When students live with their classmates, the things they can teach each other become part of the curriculum, and maturity and trustworthiness are often as important as algebra or essay writing. While formal lessons learned in class develop the student’s mind, student cultural traditions like Drew’s honor code develop his conscience and his perception of himself as a part of a larger society. Like the real African American boarding schools, the Charles R. Drew Prep School For Boys works to mold boys into responsible and honest men.