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On a Parallel Course to Equity and Justice

During the late 19th century, Black Americans were working hard to establish schools for Black children. Between the 1870s and 1890s, independent Black teacher associations were formed in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

But as the 20th century dawned, race relations in America became delineated by a single U.S. Supreme Court ruling: Plessy v. Ferguson, which made "separate but equal" accommodations for the races the law of the land. In this atmosphere, in 1904, J. R. E. Lee convened a group of Black educators in Nashville, Tennessee to found the National Association of Colored Teachers (NACT), a forerunner of the American Teachers Association.

The organization was created to offer Black teachers, and later White teachers who taught in Black schools, a means to discuss ways to increase the number of high schools for Black students, improve their quality of instruction, and help talented Black students attend college. The organization's goals would expand in future decades. In 1907, the NACT changed its name to the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools (NATCS).

Then, in 1910, the Representative Assembly of the National Education Association did something unprecedented: it elected Ella Flagg Young as the first female NEA President—a full decade before Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. The NEA's far-sighted recognition of the value of women's professional contributions to public education would have consequences for both NEA and NATCS.