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Black History and Career Technical Education

by Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher / Feb 8, 2017

February marks Black History Month, an annual recognition of the contributions and achievements of Black Americans/African Americans. This yearly celebration began as a week (Negro History Week) that acknowledged the central role of Blacks in U.S. history and was initiated by noted historian Carter G. Woodson, who is credited as the founder of what evolved into Black History Month. As a Black kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the public library I spent a considerable amount of time at was the Carter G. Woodson Library on 95th and Halsted Street. The Woodson Library was one mile from my house. It was a point of pride for me to study there because of the legacy of Carter G. Woodson as well as knowing that Black History Month’s beginnings were rooted in Chicago.

In the summer of 1915, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, who also was an alumnus of the University of Chicago, traveled to the Windy City with friends to take part in the state-sponsored 15th anniversary celebration of the emancipation. Woodson provided a presentation displaying Black History. He and scores of Blacks traveled cross-country to participate in the emancipation celebration, which featured exhibits noting the contributions of Blacks and post-slavery progress and promoted Black pride. That September, Carter G. Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which later sponsored the first national Negro History week in 1926. By the 1960s, Black History was being integrated into the curriculum in Black educational institutions at the elementary, secondary, and college levels. Negro History Week was replaced with Black History Month by the late 1960s (Dagbovie, 2007; Franklin & Moss, 2000). 

History of Blacks in Career and Technical Education (CTE)

February also marks Career and Technical Education Month, which is an annual effort to raise awareness, highlight best practices in CTE programming, and spotlight student success. However, CTE (previously referred to as vocational education and industrial education in the 19th and 20th century) has a mixed history when it comes to the education of Blacks. In what is commonly known as the “Great Debate,” Black leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois openly disagreed about the role of education in the advancement of Black Americans. Washington was a proponent of industrial education, contending that it was the pathway to economic independence and mobility and arguing that a liberal education was more superficial than substantive, with industrial education providing Blacks with entree to an occupation and subsequently integration into society based on economic mobility (Gordon, 2014). “The Washington doctrine of industrial education, or, more properly, vocational education, for the great mass of blacks was hailed by whites in the North and in the South,” which was touted by Washington to promote racial harmony and Black progress (Franklin & Moss, 2000, p. 246-247). Conversely, W.E.B. DuBois asserted that industrial education was a means of making Blacks assimilate and keeping the Negro in his “proper place.” DuBois did not feel Washington grasped the effect of the Industrial Revolution, as many of the occupations that Washington encouraged Blacks to pursue were quickly becoming outmoded. DuBois contended Black youth should aspire the highest levels of education and that support of the Washington doctrine as opposed to liberal education would limit Blacks from charting their own course and being independent, critical-thinking, and fully emancipated persons who are not the serving class to perpetuate the interests of Whites.

The Founding Father of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson, was also an advocate for more liberal training of Black folks. Woodson, in his book The Mis-education of the Negro, discussed the wave of industrial education throughout the country, saying:

The educational authorities in the cities and States throughout the Black Belt began to change the course of study to make the training of the Negro conform to this policy. The missionary teachers from the North in defense of their idea of more liberal training, however, fearlessly attacked this new educational policy; and the Negroes participating in the same dispute arrayed themselves respectively on one side or the other. For a generation thereafter the quarrel as to whether the Negro should be given a classical or a practical education was the dominant topic in Negro schools and churches throughout the United States. Labor was the most important thing of life, it was argued; practical education counted in reaching that end; and the Negro worker must be taught to solve this problem of efficiency before directing attention to other things (Woodson, 1933, p. 10).

Woodson expressed that advocates for industrial education desired distinct training between what Blacks received and education extended to Whites. According to Gordon (2014), there were differential vocational/career education pathways, noting the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act (1917) perpetuated segregated education, restricted curricular tracks, and produced inequitable outcomes, particularly for Black students, as they were predominantly in lower level vocational courses and occupations (e.g., woodworking, janitorial services, upholstery, tailoring, etc.). The uneven vocational training between Blacks and Whites produced segmentation of school-to-work opportunities that continued for decades, with Blacks commonly excluded from more lucrative occupations, which continued inequitable labor market outcomes by race.

Perkins Legislation, Special Populations, and Advancing Equity

Three decades after the Smith-Hughes Act, federal support for vocational education was expanded under the George-Barden Act (P.L. 80-402) to be broader than industrial subjects, and by 1958 the National Defense Education Act (P.L. 85-864) extended vocational education in technical areas including but not limited to mathematics and science (Dortch, 2012). More federal support for vocational education came in the form of the 1963 Vocational Education Act (P.L. 88-210) and its subsequent amendments (i.e., P.L. 90-576 in 1968). By 1984, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act (Perkins I, P.L. 98-524) replaced the Vocational Education Act, was updated in 1998, then was reauthorized as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 (Dortch, 2012). Stratification of students, particularly by race/ethnicity in vocational education, continued for several decades (Oakes, 1983). The 2006 Perkins Act attempted to address broadening participation and accessibility with the addition of “special populations.” With respect to Perkins IV, special populations include individuals with disabilities, economically disadvantaged individuals, foster children/former foster youth, single parents, displaced homemakers, individuals in nontraditional training/employment, and persons with limited English proficiency. It is noteworthy that among the special populations identified, race and ethnicity specifically were not included.

CTE participation has to be more diversified particularly in view of changing demographics. For the past two decades, the number of Hispanic students has more than doubled, and Asian student numbers have substantially grown, with smaller increases in the number of American Indian and Black students; this has led to a majority-minority in school age population, as 2014 marked the year that kids of color comprised the majority of students in American public schools. CTE education is largely comprised of White males at the postsecondary level (see and One of the challenges with recruiting, retaining, and/or graduating underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students in CTE programs is related to how few faculty of color are in the teaching force and as CTE instructors specifically. In examining the diversity of CTE teachers, 90% are White, while 4% are African American, and 3% are Hispanic (Gordon, 2014). Research has found evidence to support that racially/ethnically diverse teachers are often seen as role models, affirm students of color, and influence those students’ progress and aspirations, whether they are identified as gifted, or decisions regarding career cluster pursuits (Delpit, 2006; Grissom & Redding, 2016; Gordon, 2014; Irvine, 1990; Milner & Howard, 2004). Interestingly, over eight decades ago, Carter G. Woodson argued that successful outcomes of Black students were in part due to the cultural congruence between them and Black teachers. “To be frank we must concede that there is no particular body of facts that Negro teachers can impart to children of their own race that may not be just as easily presented by persons of another race if they have the same attitude as Negro teachers; but in most cases tradition, race hate, segregation, and terrorism make such a thing impossible. The only thing to do in this case, then, is to deal with the situation as it is” (Woodson, 1933, p. 16).

In order to cultivate a diverse pipeline of participants in CTE, we must look at the diversity pipeline of the educators standing before them. How can we promote equity and student success through Career Technical Education in a culturally pluralistic 21st century global knowledge economy in the absence of race and ethnicity? Today’s CTE training calls for high-quality curricula that present new opportunities to increasingly diverse cross sections of American learners. Critical to meeting the national completion agenda is broadening access to high-skill, high-demand, and high-wage employment opportunities across racially/ethnically diverse groups. Fostering on ramps to further education and articulated CTE pathways that provide an accelerated track to college degrees is very necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive globally.

Addressing equity in CTE programming to date has not purposively looked at race/ethnicity given the current criteria for special populations. A national initiative Advancing Equity in Career and Technical Education[3]  to identify trends and barriers as well as best practices relative to equity in CTE is underway. During this month of February as we celebrate Black History and CTE, there is contemporary relevance of the historical debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois over what is the best educational training for Black Americans. Today the question of whether it is better to pursue career-oriented education versus liberal arts continues. However, it is not an either/or consideration, as each contributes to equipping students with the requisite knowledge (i.e., academic and technical skills) to enhance lives through gainful employment that can lead to greater mobility and a productive career. Hence, CTE has the ability to transform life chances but still has room to grow relative to increasing diversity in the CTE pipeline and subsequently bolstering opportunity for all.


  • Dagbovie, P. G. (2007). The early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Dortch, C. (2012). Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006: Background and performance. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.   
  • DuBois, W. E. B. (2001). The education of Black people: Ten critiques, 1906-1960. NYU Press.
  • Franklin, J. H., & Moss, A. A., Jr. (2000). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (8th edition). NY: Random House.
  • Gordon, H. R. (2014). The history and growth of career and technical education in America. Waveland press.
  • Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2015). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. AERA Open, 2(1).
  • Irvine, J. J. (1990). Black students and school failure. Policies, practices, and prescriptions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Milner, H. R., & Howard, T. C. (2004). Black teachers, Black students, Black communities, and Brown: Perspectives and insights from experts. Journal of Negro Education, 73(3), 285-297.
  • Oakes, J. (1983). Limiting opportunity: Student race and curricular differences in secondary vocational education. American Journal of Education, 91(3), 328-355.
  • Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the Negro. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers.
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