Public education in Alabama has largely been a story of indifference, segregation, racism, and underfunding. Education started slowly in the colonial and territorial period. During the antebellum period, in general only the male children of the planter elite received a formal education from tutors and private schools, although state and local efforts to build schools did occur, most notably in Mobile. During that era, education was commonly thought unnecessary in a largely agricultural economy, and state law prohibited teaching enslaved peoples to read and write. Some slave owners ignored the law, however. During Reconstruction, a brief period of educational progressivism gave way to an educational policy that favored low taxes and government spending and little support for public schools. Thus, when the education system was finally opened to blacks, they had access only to underfunded, segregated schools, a condition that lasted until integration in the 1950s and 1960s. In the post-civil rights era, education in Alabama was hampered by latent racism, de facto segregation through zoning and a shift among many white students to private schools, and chronic underfunding.
During the earliest period in what is now Alabama, public education was not a priority. Most early European settlers were determined to make their fortune and return to their homeland, not build a permanent society. Not until Alabama entered the Union in 1819 was any effort to create a systematic or statewide education system attempted.
French, Spanish, and English colonial rulers did relatively little to create an educational system in the territory of present-day Alabama. The only official French attempt to establish an educational system came under Jean-Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville in the mid-1700s in his failed effort to convince the French government to create a college in Mobile. In October 1763, after the British took control of Mobile and it became part of British West Florida, the British parliament set aside land for a Protestant school and appropriated 25 pounds sterling to pay a schoolmaster to educate local residents; the effort met with little success, however, because the realities of frontier life prevented substantive educational endeavors. Mobile under the English resembled French rule in that mercantilist goals superseded all others, including education. After the American Revolution, Mobile reverted to Spanish rule in 1783, but education remained a low priority. Franciscan monks trained Native Americans in arts and crafts and provided agricultural skills with the goal of assimilating them into the mercantilist economy and converting them to the Catholic faith, but they showed little interest in educating whites.
After the creation of the Mississippi Territory, settlers from the East poured in, and by 1813, the United States also had gained possession of Mobile. The Mississippi Territorial Legislature chartered and provided $500 toward the establishment of both Washington Academy at St. Stephens and Green Academy in Huntsville in 1811 and 1812, respectively. (Green Academy served north Alabama for a half century as the region’s only school before Union troops burned it during the Civil War.) Education at most schools during this era in American history was not free, and Alabama was no exception. At Fayetteville, for example, students paid tuition for an education that closely resembled that at a boarding school as students lived with families in town.
When Alabama entered the Union in 1819, the state was required to adhere to the Southwest Ordinance of 1790, which required the new state legislature to set aside within each township one square mile for the benefit of public education. The land was sold to support the establishment of schools and was often the only source of revenue for public education in the state. Under this system of funding, areas with more valuable land, such as the Black Belt, were able to raise more revenue than those in mountainous areas. However, wealthier areas had little need for public education, as residents there usually could afford private tutors and schools for their children. These problems would plague schools throughout much of Alabama’s history.
- Griffith, Lucille. Alabama: A Documentary History to 1900. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1968.
- Lindsey, Tullye Borden, and James Armour Lindsay. “Some Light Upon Ante-Bellum Alabama Schools.” Peabody Journal of Education 20 (July 1942): 37-41.
- Rogers, William W., Robert D. Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, and Wayne Flynt. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.