September 27, 2011
As the nineteenth century transformed into the twentieth, the Doctrine of Discovery transformed as well. During the last decades of the century, with financial and political support from the U.S. government, Christian boarding schools were busy christianizing and civilizing American Indian youth. However, as the last decade fell into place and the financial figure for Indian education edged closer to three million dollars, and the media’s perception that the West is settled—no longer able to use fear of Indians as a selling point for newspapers and books, and thoughts of Indian wars now located in grandparental memory, public, and in turn, political support for Indian education wanes.
In 1905, Francis E. Leupp became Indian Commissioner. Having sat on the Board of Indian Commissioners prior to his stint as commissioner, Leupp understood political ramifications lay ahead if something were not done to reduce the yearly outlay of Indian education funds. Taking stock of the current U.S. educational system, Leupp found public support of funding for the public education for white children increasing. It only made sense, in Leupp’s estimation; if Indian children could enter into the public education system then the government could reduce the funds allotted to Indian boarding schools. However, a roadblock laid in the middle of the road leading to public education of Indian children in a White school system.
In 1896, nine years before Leupp became commissioner, the Supreme Court opinioned on the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. Homer Plessy was a successful businessman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Homer Plessy was also an “octoroon” as defined by Louisiana law—one whose ethnic makeup is seven-eighths White and one-eight African-American. Legally, Plessy was a black man. As a successful businessman, Plessy, who easily walked in two racially charged worlds, felt he had attained the power and privilege required to risk civil disobedience on behalf of the Committee of Citizens who were challenging Jim Crow laws. Returning home by rail, on June 7, 1892, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Plessy boarded a railcar designated for Whites. When he refused to move to the “colored” car, the authorities arrested and jailed him. The Supreme Court heard Plessy’s case in 1896, and in a 7-1 decision the court upheld Louisiana law requiring segregation. Justice Henry B. Brown delivered the court’s decision saying,
Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences….
Allowing the court to argue,
If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.
Significant to the decision was the belief that as long as facilities are equal to one another, segregation is both legal and constitutional. Thus doctrine is developed (one more in the long line of the Doctrine of Discovery) leading to sixty years of racial segregation under the framework of “separate but equal.”
Leupp’s proposal to move Indian children into segregated White public schools was much more progressive than he could have imagined. His proposal directly countered the public’s resolve for system of separate but equal schools for children of color and white children. Therefore, Leupp needed to come up with an argument allowing the White public system to accept the desegregation of schools when it came to Indian children. Leupp began writing, speaking, and traveling promoting a message which endorsed having Indian and White children in the same classroom. Leupp builds White public support by first arguing Whites as an advanced race who needs to help backward races,
All primitive peoples are, from our economic point of view, grossly wasteful of their natural resources. As nomads they require a vast field to roam over; and where they have reached the stage of stationary habitations [reservations] and crude tillage of the soil, they still cover a great deal more space, with poorer visible results, than a community of civilized people…Hence the most we can ask of the advanced race is to deal justly with the backward races, and give always a fair equivalent for the land it invades…
As an advanced race, Whites should not fear the Indian who is but a “petty landholder” but rather, is it ”not better that we lay hold now of the means which are nearest our hands, save all we can for the Indian and nail it fast, while the times are still favorable for such an undertaking?” Leupp goes on to argue that once the public grasps those means nearest to our hands—the White public school , great value is attained, for when Indian youth enter the White public classroom their
overwhelming number of non-Indian ‘peers’ might serve to propel such unfortunates away from their own traditions and even more rapidly into the realm of Euroamerican tastes, values and sensibilities.
Leupp continues to argue his progressive stance for the integration of Indian youth into White schools beyond his tenure as Indian Commissioner. Finally, in 1917, Leupp’s arguments achieve moderate success when the government provides two hundred thousand dollars to place Indian children into White public schools.
© David B. Bell 2011