Magazine Feature

The Underground History

Jarvis Givens uncovers the subversive story of Black education in the United States

By Marilyn Cooper

Spring 2024

Jarvis Givens, a professor of education and of African and African American studies at Harvard University, was just weeks from receiving his doctorate in African diaspora studies from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016 when he got a phone call that ultimately changed the course of his professional life. The caller, Barbara Spencer Dunn, explained that she was a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, an organization founded by Black educator and activist Carter G. Woodson in 1915. A mutual acquaintance had told Dunn about Givens’s research on the history of Black education during Jim Crow. For decades, Dunn had been collecting materials related to Woodson and his work with Black teachers and students around the United States. Could there be, she wondered, something useful for Givens’s ongoing research in her stash?

Just days after the call, Givens found himself sitting on the floor of a large storage closet in Prince George’s County, Maryland, sifting through an eclectic assortment of materials. One item was a 2009 video of a retired Washington, DC, politician and minister named Jerry Moore. In the video, Moore speaks of Tessie McGee, a history teacher who’d taught him in the 1930s at the only Black high school in Webster Parish, Louisiana. Moore recalls that McGee would secretly instruct her students about topics from Black history, such as slavery, that both the local school board and the state’s all-White department of education had barred from the curriculum. McGee displayed the approved outline of the official curriculum on her desk but kept one of Woodson’s textbooks about Black history on her lap, out of sight. She taught from Woodson’s textbook, but if the principal or another official came into her classroom, she switched to the outline.

The discovery was an aha moment for Givens. McGee vividly embodied Black education as an effective form of political resistance and a tool for social change. Givens came to call her approach and ones like it “fugitive pedagogy.” The term denotes the covert pursuit of Black education as a way to subvert racial subjugation and gain liberation. Previously, Givens had focused on intellectual history, but the video sparked his interest in the social and emotional history of Black education.

Givens spent the next four years hunting for the voices of Black teachers like McGee and their students in correspondence, diaries, oral histories, public school records, and the archives of educational organizations. The result was his 2021 book, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, which won the 2022 Frederic W. Ness Book Award from the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

In the following conversation with Liberal Education, Givens reflects on the state of Black education today, the value of Black History Month, and the intellectual and political legacy of Woodson.

What inspired you to write Fugitive Pedagogy?

The book grew out of my ongoing work on the intellectual history of Black teachers. My PhD dissertation had focused on Carter Woodson’s development of textbooks for Black schools during the 1920s and 1930s. My discovery of the story of Tessie McGee forced me to reconsider the social history of Black teaching and the ways in which subjugated groups have navigated power in the context of education. For so long, most of the narratives about Black education before desegregation have been about the victimization of Black teachers and students and the lack of material resources. Instead, I wanted to tell a story of agency and self-empowerment.

Why do you use the term “fugitive pedagogy”?

I use the term to draw a narrative line from enslaved people who secretly pursued education to teachers like McGee in the Jim Crow era who provided a meaningful education in subversive ways in the face of anti-Blackness hostility.

Legal statutes criminalized Black education for a long time. Anti-literacy laws predate American independence. South Carolina passed the Negro Act of 1740, which made it illegal for enslaved Africans to learn to write, in response to the 1739 Stono slave uprising. Such laws proliferated during the antebellum period, as did stories of enslaved people secretly learning to read and write. Black folks continued to pursue education fugitively and subversively after the Civil War and throughout the Jim Crow era, even though it was technically illegal. They knew they were under constant surveillance and threat.

How does fugitive pedagogy relate to (or differ from) liberal education?

It is closely related to liberal education. Both focus on liberatory practices, but fugitive pedagogy is anchored in the distinct experiences of African American history and the important role education played in undoing slavery and the continual fight for racial justice in its aftermath.

Students in 1902 at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, the first US university for Black people. (Booker T. Washington Collection, Library of Congress)

Please explain Woodson’s notion of the mis-education of the Negro.

Woodson published The Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933. In it, he argued that the Eurocentric education, also termed “the American Curriculum,” offered in US schools and colleges intentionally indoctrinated African Americans to aspire to Whiteness. This was a socialization process that methodically taught Blacks that they had no history or culture—or at least none worthy of respect. Woodson believed that explicitly critiquing mis-education was a key step toward developing a liberatory model of education. He wanted educators to create a different curriculum that took into account Black people’s full humanity and the complexity of their struggles.

How has that mis-education affected the lives of Black students, today and in the past?

It diminishes the possibility of having a positive self-image and becomes a demotivating factor in the educational process. If you have no past or if there is no evidence that your people have ever achieved anything or even have the capacity to achieve anything, then why try? To combat mis-education, Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and Negro History Week in 1926. He committed his life to rewriting the cannons of knowledge to account for Black people’s experiences and challenged notions that Africa was outside the story of human civilization.

Today’s Black History Month is an outgrowth of Woodson’s Negro History Week. At what point did Black History Month catch on outside the Black community?

Negro History Week expanded to Black History Month in 1976. There was always a small number of educators who were not African American who recognized the importance of Negro History Week, but its national prominence expanded beyond African American communities in the 1970s after the civil rights era.

Does today’s Black History Month fulfill Woodson’s original intentions?

The Heritage Months such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and LGBTQ+ History Month are all important, but I have some concerns about them. They are sometimes a procedural response to a fundamental crisis in our systems of knowledge. Woodson did not want us to simply move from a monochromatic narrative to a polychromatic one. He wanted us to change the actual narrative structure. And he wanted Negro History Week to be a time to organize around social issues for structural changes—not just to commemorate the past.

Do the heritage and history months come with the risk of generalizing and homogenizing diverse historical experiences?

Absolutely. Whether it is women’s history or Black history, it’s important to take a particularized approach because much of the struggle for these groups involves resisting stereotypes about them as a collective. Any meaningful commemoration of Black history must address the nuances of Black life. I believe we can both examine the collective struggle of a group of people and recognize that it’s made up of individual people with distinct experiences. For example, Black people’s experiences during the early twentieth-century in the South differed significantly from those in the North, but individuals from both regions experienced anti-Black violence.

To what extent is “the American curriculum” that emphasized White attainments and largely overlooked the achievements of Black Americans still in place?

It remains prevalent. Some school districts have quantified the attention White American and European history, literature, and writers receive in their curriculum. They found that there’s still an overrepresentation of White people’s contributions to the story of human experience. There is greater inclusion of the narratives of African American people than before, but the version of Black history that’s often taught is sanitized, especially in terms of which historical figures and events are included and excluded. Too often educators make pedagogical choices based on how easily they can integrate new information into the existing historical narrative.

During the Jim Crow era, public schools were racially segregated in the US South. In the 1940s, Black students attended one-teacher schools in Veazy, Georgia (above) and Siloam, Georgia (below). (Library of Congress)

In January 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in high schools, saying it lacked “educational value and historical accuracy” and violated Florida law. You served on the curriculum committee for that course. Are such efforts a new iteration of mis-education?

Yes. It is a continuation of systematic efforts to block US schools from fully engaging with Black history and culture. And in the absence of a nuanced and expansive representation of Black life, students instead receive distorted images of African American history and, in turn, human history.

Woodson would say that these continuing distortions have a direct relationship to the systematic violence that Black people are experiencing today in the world around us. He would assert that this violence emanates from and is reinforced by a distorted historical narrative. This warped knowledge system shapes, forms, and molds who we are as a people. We must be mindful of that. It is a core part of our struggle as Americans.

Woodson had serious concerns about how the history of enslaved people, the Civil War, and Reconstruction were taught, especially in public schools. How would you assess the way they are taught today?

One of my biggest concerns is that students learn very little about the role Black people played in the events that had a direct bearing on their experiences as enslaved people. Students do not encounter a rigorous representation of enslaved people’s political agency, their constant struggle to resist the institution of slavery, their work for abolition, or their active role in the Civil War and during Reconstruction.

For instance, few people know that formerly enslaved people and their allies played a pivotal role in establishing public education in the South by adding tax-supported universal education to state constitutions. That’s why W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction wrote that in the South, education at the expense of the public was a Negro idea. People are often shocked to learn this because we are not primed to fully appreciate the political imaginations of Black people.

What do you think Woodson would say about the state of Black studies today?

He would say that Black studies needs to do a much better job of engaging teachers and students in the K–12 context, because the mission of Black studies was always about more than the work done in institutions of higher education.

In Fugitive Pedagogy, you write, “There is a desperate need for intentional relationships between Black Studies and K–12 education, especially Black teachers, whose alienation in the educational sector has continued to increase since—ironically—the time Black Studies became implanted in US Universities.” What should this relationship look like and what would it entail?

Students need to start wrestling with fundamental questions about African American history—including what education has meant in the lives of Black people—before they get to a Black studies class in college or university. For this to happen, professors from Black studies departments and K–12 teachers need to sit at the same table and examine the relationship between their work. Then they’ll have to figure out how to translate the mission of Black studies to a K–12 setting, including letting K–12 teachers know about available educational resources. I don’t have all the answers for how to do this or what it will look like, but it’s important.

What would Woodson say about the state of Black education today?

He would say his book The Mis-Education of the Negro remains very relevant. Woodson wrote that “the education of any people should begin with the people themselves.” That means that the purpose and aims of education should consider students’ histories and the social world they live in. Unfortunately, that’s not the educational experience for many Black and Brown students today. Teachers and students describe a huge disconnect between their lives and educational content and a lack of vision about the mission of contemporary public school education. Conversely, during Jim Crow, Black teachers like Woodson had a clear political vision about the uplifting function of education.

What’s Woodson’s legacy and lineage?

Regardless of whether people recognize his role, the prevalence of African American studies departments in US colleges and universities reflects the institution building and intellectual work of Carter G. Woodson, including the newest iteration of an Advanced Placement African American Studies course. Similarly, everyone has heard of Black History Month even if they don’t know Woodson’s name. It is all part of his legacy.

Do you see yourself as part of his lineage and legacy?

I do. I write about African American history and Black teachers, and I also model my efforts on the work Black intellectuals like Woodson, Du Bois, and Anna Julia Cooper did with K–12 educators.

I see Woodson as someone who collapsed boundaries between higher education and K–12 education. He was a public school teacher for nearly thirty years, even though he had a PhD from Harvard, and he was pushed out of many places in higher education. He always had an expansive vision about his work as an intellectual. That included an educational vision that transcended the boundaries between K–12 and higher education. I am trying to operate in that tradition.

Lead photo: Jarvis Givens (Ethi Al-Mahdi)


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is the associate editor of Liberal Education.