Roscoe Conkling Bruce and the District of Columbia's Public Schools, 1906 to 1921

Thumbnail Image


934342.pdf (1.76 MB)
No. of downloads: 517

Publication or External Link





Roscoe Conkling Bruce presided over the District of Columbia's black public schools from 1906 to 1921. His administration has provided a microcosm of the African- American struggle against segregation. Bruce's decisions and actions produced a clamor from a divided black community. The debate focused upon the direction of education for African-Americans yet failed to produce a consensus. The divided public both hindered and scarred Bruce's administration. Bruce owed his position to the influence of Booker T. Washington. Washington desired to extend his hegemony over blacks and education and Bruce as head of the black public schools would solidify the Tuskeegeean's influence in the District. Bruce had worked with washington at Tuskegee and echoed the Wizard's views on industrial education. However, the support of Washington was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, his political machine provided resources and support not available to most blacks; on the other hand, this support pigeonholed Bruce into a reliance upon Washington since the opposition to Washington extended to encompass Bruce. The assistant superintendent lacked the strength to stand alone against his detractors. The opposition, led by W. Calvin Chase, editor of the Washington Bee, sniped and fought with Bruce throughout his tenure with the District's schools. Curriculum, hiring and firing, as well as Bruce's personal life were used adroitly by Chase to help topple Bruce. Nevertheless, the unwavering support of washington and a white-dominated school board allowed Bruce to continue as assistant superintendent despite the strident attacks of Chase and others. The death of Washington in 1915 left the Tuskegee machine in the District of Columbia in disarray. In addition, the long struggle to protect Bruce had wearied the resolve of the school board to continue the defense. The above reasons, combined with the follies of an obscure Dutch anthropologist, brought about the fall of Bruce. Professor Herman M. Bernolet Moens, a Dutch ethnologist, had received permission to photograph the District's black schoolchildren. These photographs were to be used in the comparison of the races. The actual reason for Moens' research outraged the citizens of the District and a two year investigation culminated in the resignation of Bruce.