In 1856 an Afro-Cuban Man Did the Unthinkable: Got a Teaching License
By BETH HARPAZ
In 1856, a free Black man named José Moreno did something that shook up Cuba’s newly established system of segregated public schools: He applied for a teaching license. Professor Raquel Alicia Otheguy (Bronx Community College) tells Moreno’s story in an article in Cuban Studies.
Otheguy portrays Moreno’s quest as a form of resistance against “the hardening racial hierarchy” taking shape in Cuban schools and society. A slave revolt a decade earlier had resulted in increased “oppression of Afro-descendants in Cuba by whites who were attempting to prop up a slave-based sugar economy and a besieged colonial regime.” Both Moreno and his father had belonged to colonial Black militias that offered considerable prestige, but those militias were subsequently disbanded. Becoming a teacher provided a way for Moreno to “recover social standing … and to extend the benefits of literacy and knowledge” to others, Otheguy wrote.
Cuba’s top education official “acknowledged that Moreno’s personal qualifications” were impeccable. He was a literate, baptized, respectable Catholic. His parents were married in the church, he had a letter of reference from a bishop, and he could afford the application fee. But the “firestorm” of official correspondence and debate generated by his application shows that school segregation “was not inevitable; rather, it had to be constructed.”
An education commission said Moreno and future applicants of color should be “considered favorably” because “few white teachers” would want to teach Black children, and “few people of color (were) capable” of doing so. At the same time, the commission questioned whether it was “advisable” to educate Black Cubans at all. Another report from colonial officials warned that licensing Black teachers and educating Black children could “inculcate … maxims that were not conducive to the social state of the island.”
In the end, officials granted Moreno’s request, and he passed the licensing exam. But they characterized their decision as a privilege granted to him, rather than a right or policy: “It doesn’t seem that we should deprive one man of color from teaching those of his class,” they wrote, especially since the government could “take measures later if they didn’t find it suitable to have people of color as teachers.”