City College, Class of 1884.
William Hallett Greene was the first African-American graduate of City College, where he excelled academically and served as secretary of his class. After his graduation, he broke another barrier when he became the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. These achievements were a testament to his determination to overcome discrimination and serve his country, but the Signal Corps’s racist administration would later use false charges to dismiss him in 1887. After Greene left the Corps, he worked a series of jobs in New York and Connecticut, but none were commensurate with his level of education. Greene’s achievements and the racism that blocked his success are reminders of the continuing challenges we face in our ongoing struggle for freedom.












The right to a free public education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but its importance as a route to freedom cannot be underestimated. The concept of public education dates to the Puritan settlers and their belief that individuals had to know how to read the Bible. In Massachusetts, education was made compulsory in 1642.

Primary grade, Andersonville Ga.,
c. 1909.

At the end of the War for Independence, educated Americans began to see the need for a people who could read and write if the fragile new republic was going to endure. In the 19th century, many Northeastern and Midwestern states set up publicly-funded schools. Hardly a universal education system, these schools still represented a step in that direction and enrollment steadily expanded. Education became compulsory up to the age of 16 in the first half of the 20th century.

Sitting on the steps of the U.S.
Supreme Court, Nettie Hunt explains
to her daughter, Nickie, that in Brown
v. Board of Education the court ruled
segregation in public schools
unconstitutional, c. May 1954.

The southern states barred slaves from learning to read and write. Even for whites, few public schools existed in the South until Reconstruction. Although segregated, as were many Northern public schools, these schools provided an educational system for both blacks and whites for the first time. Legal segre- gation would not be overturned until 1954, when the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal was inherently unequal.”


Outside Gov. George Pataki’s
office in New York City, staff
and students from the Borough
of Manhattan Community College
/CUNY, protest budget cuts
proposed by the Governor, Oct.
18, 1995.

Publicly funded higher education had its roots in the 19th century. Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, which gave states land to finance the creation of agricultural and technical colleges, such as Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. New York City became a pioneer in 1847 with the creation of the locally funded Free Academy (later renamed City College), which became the flagship of the 23 colleges of The City University of New York. Today they carry on the mission to provide higher education to all New Yorkers. .

Substantial inequalities in education remain throughout the United States, but the noble goal that all Americans should have the right to an education endures.

Opponents of bilingual education wave posters saying “English for the Children” in front of the Colorado State Capitol on June 29, 2001. The following year, Colorado voters rejected an initiative to end bilingual education in the state.

City College as it was in 1884 when William H. Greene graduated. The college was located at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street, the current home of Baruch College.