The role white supremacy played in compulsory education, 1906

LITERACY RACE: In 1906, illiteracy among white North Carolina children totaled 45,000. This, combined with a growing fear of an educated Black population, led local residents to push for compulsory education laws. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

In a March 8, 1906 speech, Asheville city schools superintendent R.J. Tighe argued for compulsory education for all children up to 14 years of age. In his address, Tighe reported that North Carolina was home to 45,000 illiterate white children between the ages of 10 and 19. (Data on illiterate Black children was not provided.) Combined, the Southern states totaled 262,590 illiterate youths.

In Asheville, Tighe continued, there were 5,100 school-age children (6-21 years). Of these, only 2,857 were enrolled in classes; daily attendance averaged 1,957.

“How can the south inject into its citizenship year after year such a mass of ignorance?” Tighe asked his audience. “Gentlemen, what help is there for such benighted children but the strong arm of the law to protect their rights?”

City residents gradually got behind the proposal. And on Sept. 28, 1906, The Asheville Citizen reported that nearly 500 citizens signed a petition requesting the issue be included in the upcoming November election.

In the same day’s paper, an editorial suggested that without compulsory education laws, white dominance was in peril:

“Statistics go to show that the negroes of Asheville have a better percentage for school attendance than the whites, and if 1908 brings forth what is generally feared — the granting of the franchise to members of the African race who can read and write — one can readily foresee the result unless something is done to improve the educational conditions of the white race.”

That evening, the Board of Aldermen voted to include compulsory education on the November ballot.

Leading up to the election, race and racism continued to dominate conversations about compulsory education. On Oct. 26, 1906, The Asheville Citizen featured excerpts from Col. Robert Bingham’s address to the Central Labor Union. “The Southern white man has a broad field but many problems confronting him,” Bingham declared, “and he must face the future and what it has in store for us by educating our children, all of our children.”

Later in his oration, Bingham proclaimed: “The man who does not give his child the best education possible is an enemy to his race and his nation, and it is our duty as citizens to protect the state against the ignorance of such men.” (For more on Bingham, see “Asheville Archives: Bingham Military School relocates to Asheville, 1891,” April 30, 2019, Xpress)

However, racism also influenced opposition to the measure. “Some will at once argue, as a few have to me, that compulsory education will give negroes more cunning for crime,” wrote school board member Dr. Paul Paquin, in an Oct. 23, 1906, guest column for The Asheville Citizen.

Years earlier, Paquin had been an outspoken supporter of Asheville’s 1900 white supremacy campaign. (See, “Asheville Archives: ‘White Supremacy Made Permanent,’ 1900,” Feb. 6, 2018, Xpress) Yet by 1906, his views appear to have shifted with respect to education.

In the same piece, Paquin declared:

“If it were possible for me today to set in motion at one sweep in every public school of America an improved system of teaching, and were I charged with the task, I would have a kindergarten department at every school house for white and black, and I would have the laws and rules and principles of human duty and conduct constitute the ABC’s of intellectual and moral evolution.”

But despite his good intentions, Paquin’s ambivalence and paternalism toward African Americans is evident. In his article’s concluding paragraph, he states:

“[I]f you educate the negro mind from babyhood into the lines of right living, morality, justice, you will make a citizen out of him of a very different type than the kind you fear now and complain of. Slavery made thousands of good negroes. The right sort of education for them, which I am not prepared to discuss, will do the same, and more.”

The Board of Aldermen failed to properly register the special election, postponing the vote on compulsory education until Dec. 6, 1906. Leading up to the new date, The Asheville Citizen ran multiple editorials reminding readers what was at stake, including the paper’s repeated claims of the potential 1908 disfranchisement of illiterate white voters. “It is well for us to realize this fact ere we make up our minds not to vote for compulsory education,” an editorial declared on Nov. 25.

On Dec. 6, 1906, citizens approved the law, requiring all children between the ages of 8 and 14 to attend school. In the following day’s paper, it was reported that 726 people had their cast ballots, representing nearly 60% of the city’s 1,273 total “qualified voters.” According to census records, Asheville’s population at the time stood around 16,000.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, comes out on March 23, 2021.

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2 thoughts on “The role white supremacy played in compulsory education, 1906

  1. ashevillemakespeoplepoop

    What about the role of white supremacy in promoting tourism? These tourists lately are some of the whitest I’ve ever seen, completely blond hair and even wearing white pants and pink shirts, as if to appear more white. If you didnt know this place was “liberal”, you’d think these whites were touring here to hide in the mountains. The fact that many of their children wear poker-visors as well as ballcaps is perhaps a good topic for an ontological paper about reality in the USA.

  2. luther blissett

    Another excellent archive piece, Thomas.

    The references to 1908 refer to the text of the 1899 state law / 1900 constitutional amendment introducing a literacy test (and poll tax) for voter registration. Like similar laws in other states, it included the original “grandfather clause”, waiving the literacy requirement for those [white men] who were entitled to vote in 1867 and for their direct descendants. However, those grandfathered in under this clause had to register before December 1, 1908.

    So in theory, a large number of illiterate white men who weren’t old enough to register before that deadline would be disenfranchised. In practice, like everything under Jim Crow, it depended upon who was administering the test. What I didn’t expect to read was how Asheville’s patricians apparently believed that literacy tests would be applied consistently once white men had to take them.

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