A Moment in Time: Education for Southern Blacks, 1940

Learning a little sometimes reveals a lot.

Tuesday night I attended a screening of a recently discovered film from 1940 that was thought to have been permanently lost. After being on a “lost films” list that is circulated in the industry, two copies of One Tenth of Our Nation were found in the extensive collection of documents, films, and photographs at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

One Tenth of Our Nation was a documentary film commissioned by the General Education Board, a philanthropy created by John D. Rockefeller to aid education in the United States. It premiered at the Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. The subject was the state of Negro education in the South; its intent was to show both progress and continuing need.

What the filmmakers of the day lauded as progress was indeed a step in the right direction, but to today’s audiences the film stands as a clear reminder of how very shamefully African-Americans have been treated throughout almost all of American history.

The narrator noted that the film was being made seventy-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation; up until 1865, no education at all was provided for black people. The progress depicted in 1940 showed one-room schoolhouses filled with children of all ages, with the number of students attending ranging from thirty to 100 children — still with only one teacher.

We also learned that children walked from one to seven miles in order to attend their area school.

Education for high school-age students was depicted to be what we think of as trade schools. Girls were learning to sew or do tailoring; boys were learning various mechanical tasks including wood working.

In a health care scene, black doctors were shown on camera, but it was noted that “Negro children die at a rate ten times higher” than their white counterparts. We learn that they die of preventable illnesses, because there are not enough doctors to provide treatment. Why? The images in the film remind us that in 1940 a southern black child (and likely a northern one, too) could only be treated by “one of their own.” For the sake of this blog posting, we will only imagine what hurdles an African-American might have had to overcome to become a doctor.

Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a program for the training of museum professionals, was one of two speakers who presented remarks prior to the screening to provide a bit of context for viewing the film. Among the items shown in her presentation was a photo of a sign from an establishment in Ohio in 1940, stating “We Cater to the White Trade Only.” Clearly, Jim Crow laws were not limited to the South. She also talked about the necessity of a guide like “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was a directory of restaurants, hotels, beauty shops, stores, and gas stations in both the North and the South that would serve or sell to a black person.

She also noted that four African-Americans had been lynched in 1940. As we know, 1940 was not the end of self-appointed white posses taking the law into their own hands.

We also learned that at the 1940 Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind, no black people were admitted. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film, a part for which she received the Academy Award for best supporting actress (the first ever won by an African-American), was among the cast members who were not permitted to attend.

Today we have an African-American president and laws that are intended to assure equal justice, but this peek at the past reminds us how very far we still have to go.

I came home from the film eager to learn more about the Negro Exposition held in Chicago in 1940, and a Google search brings up only one or two references to it. Compare that to a search for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933; the results for that search are almost limitless.

To paint a complete picture of this country, we need the information and the stories–both good and bad–about people of all colors.

The showing of this film was sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Archive Center. The organizations deserve high marks for showing it. This “time capsule” is a stark and frightening reminder of how truly terrible life was for children — and people — who were not white.

The opportunity to step back in time provides a good wake-up call for all the issues that still need work in providing equality and justice for all. I, for one, will consider my attending this screening as an obligation to learn more about the past of all Americans.

For more on the experience of black Americans, see a previous post about baseball great Jackie Robinson trying to fly cross country to get to Florida for spring training.

Share with Others!

1 thought on “A Moment in Time: Education for Southern Blacks, 1940”

  1. Pingback: Latino Family Opened Door to School Integration in 1940s - America Comes Alive

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »
Scroll to Top