Black History in Education, by Alumni Erica Thompson

The Cohort
Written by:
Courtney Grace
Published on:
February 25, 2021
kid writing on a notebook on a desk

Take a closer look at the history and evolution of education in Black communities during Black History Month. We dive into this important topic through the insightful perspective of App Academy alumna Erica Thompson.

With so much growth in racial understanding in America during the past year, this February is a very special Black History Month for me.

With better understanding, we are better able to learn from and build on our shared past, while building a more perfect and inclusive union.

One of my favorite parts about this time is learning about new events and people that detail the experiences and ingenuity of a group who is still overcoming so much yet is still finding ways to give back to each other and the world.

Pit Schools

One of my greatest discoveries is learning about the Black American tradition of Pit Schools — illegal underground schools — that were created by the Black community to educate each other.

This became entirely necessary to improve civil rights for all Americans since laws made it illegal for Black Americans to acquire any fully self-determined education in some parts of America until the 1970s.

Pit Schools were named for being literal pits in the forest ground. Students would hide spelling books in their hats for impromptu literacy sessions when available; black soldiers would study during their lunch breaks.

Their desire is said to have “transformed education in the American South”¹.

Later, Black Americans lead the education of all poor people of all ethnicities. This is said to have become the impetus for state legislatures to ensure education for all poor Americans and credited to have influenced the birth of public education in the American South.

The Barriers to Education in Black Communities

Education for Black Americans was never out of reach for any lack of desire; the threat of violence or arson prevented many from their goals. Self-determined education later became permissible but then also was made less attainable by the creation of financial and other exclusionary barriers.

My grandmother, who I once lived with, lived with her grandfather as well, a formerly enslaved Black American who detailed his experiences to Congress in the collection: “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938” as Caleb Craig.

In this narrative, he asserted that America was headed in the right direction since the US government finally offered to teach him to read and write in his 80s. My grandmother went on to become an English teacher during segregation, and my mother went on to become a valedictorian and an elected civil rights leader in education at UNC-Chapel Hill during desegregation in the 1970s.

My grandfather, an Army veteran, helped desegregate the police force in our hometown, one of the largest 100 police forces in the nation, yet he was only making $10,000 a year. They all greatly valued education and hard work through one of the darkest periods in recent history but it couldn’t fully translate economically.

Economic inequality is still an issue that plagues our communities because of this history of educational setbacks and lack of access to higher-paying industries.

App Academy’s Commitment to Black Education

This is why I’m grateful for App Academy.

App Academy has created access to this specialized education and experience in such a lucrative and competitive field.

This is allowing me to overcome some of the setbacks that still affect me as a Black millennial in America. I also majored in education, to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, but felt we still have a ways to go and wanted to find new ways to affect change in education. That’s what App Academy is doing.

With the help of App Academy’s diversity scholarship, I was able to recently graduate from their program in January 2021. App Academy is a part of that greater change that is sorely needed in finding and promoting strong STEM talents in all communities by aligning their financial goals directly with their students’ goals.

Scholarships Available for Continuing Black Education

Efforts like this can only help America (and the world) find more solutions by including more perspectives and experiences. Recently, App Academy partnered with Facebook who is donating $500,000 to App Academy students’ tuition for their shared diversity goals to make software engineering more attainable for all. Not only can this help my community, but also any community that is underrepresented in the industry as well.

If technology is the future, like everything else, it will only get better the greater the diversity of people who have access to it at every level.

¹ Williams, Heather. “Self-Taught”, Harvard Educational Review, 2005, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


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