Answering the Call
The History of the National Education Association
By Sabrina Holcomb
In last month’s issue, we witnessed the first wobbly steps taken by a fledgling NEA, when, in 1857, 10 state Associations issued “The Call” for the nation’s educators to unite. In part two of this four-part series, we look at the pivotal role the Association played from Reconstruction through the turn of the century, advocating for the education of all children and those who taught them.
A Journey Through Time
After the War
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the hard work of Reconstruction began for the nation and for its educators. Black and White teachers from the North and South worked to teach newly freed slaves of all ages, as grandparents and their grandchildren sat side by side, learning to read and cipher.
Literacy was so linked to freedom that emancipated slaves were the first to campaign for universal, state-supported schools in the South, a movement many Southerners opposed. During this time, NEA—then known as the National Teachers Association (NTA)—sought federal aid to help
Southern states rebuild their school system and educate the emancipated population. In 1867, the NTA won its first major legislative victory when it successfully lobbied Congress to establish a federal Department of Education to provide and regulate education in the coming years.
The Spirit of Change
Ironically, even though the NTA had been open to minority educators from day one, women had been barred from joining. With the end of the War, however, came a new spirit of egalitarianism that led NTA members in 1866 to open membership to “persons,” rather than just “gentlemen.” Despite the low wages, overwork, and other challenges of the profession, female teachers had more autonomy than practically any other group of women in the 19th century, although many states still had laws barring married teachers. In 1869, just three years after NTA membership was opened to women, Emily Rice became Vice President of the Association—the first woman elected to NTA office.
The very next year, NTA became the National Education Association by absorbing three smaller organizations: the American Normal School Association, the National Association of School Superintendents, and the Central College Association. As a new century began, the growing Association would have a profound impact on education in America.
Indian Education and Child Labor
NEA continued to address important societal and educational issues of the times. NEA’s Department of Indian Education, established in 1899, researched how the government’s policy of isolating and assimilating the American Indian nations negatively impacted their education. Indian children attended White-run reservation schools, or boarding schools, where they were systematically stripped of their language and culture. Lessons focused on vocational skills and American patriotism.
Child labor was another priority for the Association. Deeply concerned about the disruptive influence child labor had on the health and education of children, NEA worked for years to enact state and federal prohibitions against using children in industry; the address at NEA’s 1905 convention was devoted to this topic. In the decades to come, the combination of compulsory schooling and child labor laws had a huge influence on the number of American children receiving an education.
At the turn of the century, teachers were still struggling with perennial issues: salaries remained under $50 a month in most places, and women were still paid less than men. Within their classrooms, teachers often had to educate more than 60 students with little support. At the 1903 NEA convention, fiery Margaret Haley, a Chicago teacher, led a demonstration to bring attention to the need for improving the lot of classroom teachers. In response, NEA created a national committee and allocated funds to work on improving teacher salaries, tenures, and pensions.
By the time NEA celebrated its 50th birthday in 1907, the Association had grown to represent 5,044 educators across the nation. But members were preoccupied by an internal debate: For the first 50 years, administrators had led the organization. As classroom teachers began to dominate the membership, however, they pushed for a greater voice within the Association and in the workplace. In a speech that year, Ella Flagg Young, who would become NEA’s first female president, said: “If the public school system is to meet the demands which 20th century civilization must lay upon it, the isolation...of teachers from the administration of the school must be overcome…can it be true that teachers are stronger in their work when they have no voice in planning the great issues committed to their hands?”
A Lucky GambleTroubled by the Association’s constant poverty and modest membership, President-elect Thomas W. Bicknell (left) spent his own money traveling around the nation, promoting the 1884 convention in Madison, Wisconsin. Bicknell met with the press wherever he went, extolling the virtues of NEA and the beauties of the host city. He also persuaded the railroad to offer deeply discounted rail fares to Madison, collect NEA dues, and distribute 100,000 copies of a 16-page pamphlet on NEA and Madison. It worked! The 1884 convention drew more than 5,000 educators, launching a significant membership and financial breakthrough for NEA.
The Birth of the American Teachers Association
In the post-Reconstruction era, segregation permeated life in the North and South, sanctioned by law or local custom. Then, in 1896, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld legal segregation of schools, which forced Black teachers into a desperate struggle to provide “equal” resources for Black students. The rise of Jim Crow laws would set back the cause of Black education for nearly a century. In 1904, J.R.E. Lee, a prominent Black educator, founded the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools (NATCS) to offer Black teachers a national forum for discussing and addressing their concerns. NATCS would later become the American Teachers Association.
Photos provided by NEA Archives and Corbis.