victorian woman

The Struggle for Education in the Victorian Era

By Joshua Elkridge

victorian schoolAfter 4 years of staggering through the cold desert we call high school, my mother incessantly urged me to enroll for my first semester at Consumes River College. Coming from a family that stresses the importance of education and me being indecisive about the idea, my mother took me by the hand and enrolled me herself. To insure my success, she signed me up for DIOP, a program/club within the school that catered to Black-American subjects. I attended this classes for barely a month before dropping out to pursue a job. If I could go back and tell myself to stay in college and finish the program, I would.

Being a person of color these days has its ups and downs, but that struggle had a lot more push to it back when America was blanketed with the curtain of suffrage and slavery. Although blacks struggled more in the south during the Victorian-era, suffrage was practiced all over the United States and it hit closer to home than one would think. In the year 1850, the first census of California counted 962 Black-Americans in the state with 240 of them residing in the young and developing city of Sacramento. The Black-American population stayed low during the mid-1800’s due in part to the fact that California Homestead laws were in place to dissuade blacks from moving there. Despite the anti-Black-American legislation that sat over Sacramento, the black community in Sacramento were determined to provide education not just for them but for future generations.

During the 1850’s, most Black-Americans in Sacramento lived between 3rd &6th, I &J streets. Black Americans were only granted citizenship so that they could pay taxes. Despite paying taxes, the Black American community in Sacramento didn’t see a single cent from the tax fund as the money was used solely for the purpose to benefit all-white schools. The Black community methodically petitioned the all-white Sacramento City council to build a school for the colored to no avail. It wasn’t until 1854 when Elizabeth Thorne Scott, considered by some as the pioneer in education for colored children in California and educator Rev. J.B. Sanderson established a private school in Ms. Thorne’s home dubbed, “The School for children of African descent‘. They were the only two teachers at the school despite Ms. Thorne’s inability to receive certification due to her being a black woman. Sanderson, a black man, received certification later on. Their salaries were paid by an improvised Black-American Sacramento community. The community also funded school materials.

Late into the year of 1854, after many conventions and petitioning, a driven group of Black-American women obtained a deed for an empty lot that was sold to them by a white man named John Prentice. Their plan was to build an official school house for the Black community of Sacramento. They passed the deed on to a board of black trustees and the black community, led by the church leaders and clergy men, held fund raisers and successfully obtained the money to build a school house on the empty lot. The community was beginning to overcome, however, support from the all-white Sacramento council was needed for the school to continue functioning. It wasn’t until 1856 when the school finally received the funds from the Sacramento Council that it desperately needed to continue operating. With 25 dollars a month, most of the money went to the salary of the teachers. The sum was meager, even for the time, but it was a step forward in the right direction.

By the 1870’s, after many years of racial tension and prejudice, California passed laws ending Anti Black-American legislation. Black men were able to vote and the schools in Sacramento became desegregated. For the first time, Black students were able to obtain the same benefits in education as white ones had. The biggest accomplishment for Black Sacramentans, came in 1894 when Black-American educator, Sarah Mildred Jones, became the first black woman in Sacramento to become principal of fully integrated Freemont Primary School, located today at 24th and N Street. The school, mostly white with an all-white staff was under fire by white parents for the move and 36 of them petioned to reverse the decision to the Sacramento school board. In turn, ninety-eight petitioned to support Sarah Jones. Speaking for herself in front of parents, staff, and the school board, Ms. Jones calmly stated her credentials and asked to be judged not by her skin, but by her abilities and accomplishments. That day in East Sacramento, the board upheld their decision to give Ms. Jones the job as a trial, based on her qualifications and success. A huge positive note for the City of Sacramento.

When I think back about deciding to drop out of school, I think about this information. We need to take advantage of the education provided to us that is scarce in some places of the world today. The Black- American community in Sacramento during the Victorian-era, went through great lengths, hardship, and sacrifice just so future generations wouldn’t have to. The ability to successfully receive your education, whether you’re White, Black, or Asian, would give them the justice they so well deserve.


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