Today, our featured Black Educator is Benjamin W. Arnett.
Benjamin Arnett was born free in Brownsville, Pennsylvania in 1838. As a child, he attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his uncle. While Arnett was working on a steamboat, he suffered an ankle injury that caused a tumor and later amputation in March of 1858. Despite that setback, Arnett persevered.
Arnett obtained his teaching certification later that year and would become the first, and only in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. In 1864, Arnett moved to Washington D.C. to serve as the principal before eventually returning to Brownsville to continue to teach.
Arnett was a skilled orator and spoke on behalf of the Republican candidates and on the platform of Black citizenship. He even joined National Equal Rights League led by Frederick Douglass. Arnett also became an ordained minister in the AME church, selected as a bishop in 1888.
While serving the AME church in an administrative capacity, Arnett was chosen by the faculty of Wilberforce University as a candidate for the Ohio legislature. Arnett won his election and served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 1887 to 1889 where he secured a state facility for Wilberforce. He also guided the passage of two important, and controversial, pieces of legislation. The first funded, a teachers college at Wilberforce University, and the other desegregated Ohio’s white schools.
The school integration legislation, however, caused a split in Ohio’s Black community. Arnett’s gave a roiling speech to defend integration in the legislature. his theme was famously used by Dr. Martin Luther King:
One would think that at this time of our Civilization, that character, not color, would form the line of distinction in society, but this is not the case.”
While many applauded the legislation, others believed it would lead to the closing of Black schools, sending Black children into hostile white schools, and the mass firing of Black teachers; sadly, that’s what happened in Ohio and served as a harbinger for what was to come after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board decision.
Nevertheless, Arnett’s intentions were not criticized. He was recognized as a champion for Black people and people knew where his heart was. He used all the tools at his disposal to care for Black people during their natural lives as well as their eternal lives. Like Arnett, educators should involve themselves in civic affairs that promote the rights and privileges of Black people – especially educators who teach Black children. An example of Arnett’s fierce
The conflict of right and wrong is not confined to the human heart, but found in the laws and customs of men. They find themselves incorporated into the fundamental law of nations. In the declaration of rights and wrongs, the Legislators formulating them, and spreading them on the Statute book often sanction them.
They are seen in the judicial decision of the Supreme Court, in the dissension of the minority from the majority. But though wrong may be written in the constitution, and affirmed by the judicial decision of a thousand courts, it will not be right. It may be law, but law is not always right.
It is imperative that, like Arnett, our intentions are aimed at the best interests of students. We must also consider the impact of our advocacy to ensure that we don’t do more harm than good.
Benjamin W. Arnett; a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
For more information on Benjamin Arnett, visit the following site.