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Democratizing Schools

By Caroline Gordon

Arts & Ideas hosted the lecture, “Democratizing Schools: The African American Fight for Educational Justice in Massachusetts,” in person and on Zoom, featuring author Kabria Baumgartner Oct 13.

Baumgartner is an associate professor of history and Africana Studies and associate director of public history at Northeastern University.

She is the author of the book, “In Pursuit of Knowledge,” which is about Black women and educational activism in the Antebellum South. “In Pursuit of Knowledge” has won three book prizes including the 2020 Outstanding Book Award from the History of Education Society.

Additionally, Baumgartner has been recognized for her university service. Prior to working at

Northeastern, she worked at the University of New Hampshire where she was named the 2019 Outstanding Assistant Professor.

Baumgartner opened the lecture by discussing the importance of the fight for educational justice in the 19th century and its relevance today.

“I find that it is forgotten history that needs to be recovered and discussed,” she said.

She said there are four education movements historians often talk about.

The first is the common school movement, which was the expansion of public, primary, and grammar schools. The second is the female seminary movement, which was when over 300 female institutions were established. The third is the rise of colleges and universities. The fourth is the state normal school movement, which was when institutions made for teacher training.

She said abolitionist and educator Mary E. Bibb attended Framingham State and that “her story is absolutely part of this history of normal schools.”

Baumgartner said African Americans were excluded from common schools and barred from


She noted in addition to race, gender was a barrier to college.

“Where were Black girls and women in this educational landscape during these educational

movements?” she asked.

Baumgartner said her book concerns the education of Black women in the northeast, such as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine.

She said one of the main themes of her book is Black women’s pursuit of knowledge was not led by a particular leader.

“I found that this was collective and dynamic. A group of Black educational activists women and their allies created a network to reform education,” she said.

Baumgartner added, “While tracing this network, I show that Black women modeled this vision of purposeful womanhood. This meant they were resilient, resourceful, and forward thinking as they fought to live with purpose in severe forms of oppression and opposition.”

She said the oppressions Black women and girls faced were threats of violence.

Baumgartner discussed the destruction of the first seminary for Black women in New England. The seminary opened in Canterbury, Connecticut and closed 17 month later.

“This is often not taught as the history of New England,” she said.

Baumgartner touched upon Sarah Mapps Douglas, a Black teacher and abolitionist.

She said Douglas encouraged Black women and girls to attend school despite the oppression and violence they would face.

Baumgartner read a quote by Douglas – “Be courageous. Put your trust in the good of the oppressed and go forward.”

She said Black female students wrote editorials where they expressed their gratitude for education. The editorials were published in anti-slavery newspapers.

Baumgartner read a line from an editorial by a Black student. “It is not until the present moment until we have gotten to enjoy that which our minds have greatly desired.”

She discussed Sarah Remond, an abolitionist. Remond and her two younger sisters attended public primary schools in Salem. Baumgartner said they attended school in the late 1820s and during this time, Salem’s public schools were not racially segregated.

She said some white residents “recoiled” at the presence of the Remond sisters attending their public high school.

The residents petitioned the Salem School Committee to expel the girls and create a separate school for African American students.

Baumgartner said the Salem School Committee then created a separate school for African Americans in 1834.

She posed the question, “Why did residents move from racial integration to racial segregation in Salem?”

Baumgartner said racial segregation was implemented because the Remond sisters, particularly Sarah, stood out as they excelled academically.

“They didn’t want their daughters to compete with her,” she said.

She discussed the Boston School Committee and their decision to keep racially segregated schools despite petitions to desegregate.

Baumgartner closed the event by discussing lawyer Robert Morris and a case he took on, Sarah Roberts v. the City of Boston. Sarah Roberts was a 5-year-old Black girl who was required to go to a Black public elementary school. Her father challenged the Boston School Committee by requesting she go to a school closer to home despite the school being desegregated.

She said the Roberts case was dismissed, but the case’s attention and Morris’ perseverance aided the eventual desegregation of schools.

“No matter the form of their activism, there were two common principles that drove them. First, they refused to accept the idea that the existing system of schooling was the best possible. Second, they were inspired to pursue knowledge to reform American schooling and teaching in ways that were inclusive and transformative.”


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