How the Legacy of Slavery and Racial Composition Shape Public School Enrollment in the South

Jan 20, 2016

Robert L. Reese, left; Heather O'Connell

On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Robert L. Reece, doctoral candidate at Duke University and Heather A. O’Connell, postdoctoral fellow at Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, co-authors of a Rice University study, “How the Legacy of Slavery and Racial Composition Shape Public School Enrollment in the American South.”

Slavery was abolished more than 150 years ago, but its effects are still felt today in K-12 education in the South, according to this new study.

Using regression analysis to explain differences in the degree of attendance disparities across most counties in the South, researchers found a correlation between historical geographic slave concentration and modern day K-12 school segregation. An increase in slave concentration is related to greater underrepresentation of white students in public schools.

Overall, the proportion of black students in a county who are enrolled in public schools is an average of 17 percent higher than white students. But that gap in public school attendance is even larger where slaves were more heavily concentrated, increasing by just over 1 percentage point with every 10 percentage-point increase in slave concentration.

Soon after slavery was abolished, the former slaves quickly organized schools, according to the study. However, white resistance was substantial. Several other separation tactics were employed along the way, but the construction of private schools was the most recent action taken to maintain a segregated school system.

Private schools are important for explaining contemporary school segregation. The study found that having more private schools in a county is related to a greater underrepresentation of white students in public schools. But this relationship doesn’t explain why slavery still matters for public-private school segregation.

O’Connell and Reese found the same is true when considering another important county characteristic — the relative size of the black population. Generally speaking, a larger concentration of black students is related to increased separation of white students. The findings of this study support this “white flight” argument, but add another dimension.