Segrenomics in Twentieth-Century American Schools

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Education; Race; Urban and Suburban


Generations of Americans have viewed schools as the pathway to democracy. From the freedmen and women who fought to bring public education to the South, to present activism against the school-to-prison pipeline, generations of Americans have fought for their place in America’s democracy by knocking on the schoolhouse door. For years, historians considered Brown v. Board of Education to be one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights Movement, but the three papers in this panel reveal how variegated actors, from grassroots activists, to school board members, to Conservative think tanks, worked to maintain a separate and unequal system of American education in the wake of Brown. All three of these papers adhere to a central creed: follow the money. Monica Blair’s paper examines how segregationists built a for-profit school in suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1960s to cater to a new political class bent on using the language of diversity to promote for-profit, segregated institutions. Tracy Steffes illustrates how Chicago’s public school fiscal crisis of 1979 was both the cause and the consequence of deepening racial and economic segregation. Esther Cyna’s paper analyzes how public officials used tax base manipulation and district boundary gerrymandering to chronically advantage white schools in rural North Carolina well into the 1990s. Spanning four decades, all three papers illustrate the multiple ways political actors financed racial inequality in the aftermath of Brown. These three papers also help us understand educational inequality by examining its structure in urban, suburban, and rural settings. Many of the best recent works on spatial inequality have been situated in urban history. This panel presents an urban history of Chicagothe location of this conferencealongside histories of rural North Carolina and Washington D.C.’s suburbs. By comparing how discrimination operates in each setting, we will help historians understand how segregation plays a central role in political decision making in different environments. These three papers similarly complement each other by examining the overlapping and contradictory ways political actors have justified economically and racially segregating American schoolchildren. This panel examines the ways in which segregationists co-opted the language of diversity to promote a “diverse” unregulated landscape of school choice, the utilization of racialized narratives of unredeemable cities to justify divestment in black and brown children, and how politicians used gerrymandering and tax codes to rationalize creating three unequal districts in one rural North Carolina county. Understanding and exposing these justifications and obfuscations is key to undoing racial disparities in education. Ultimately, these three papers show that Americans in positions of power fund what they value, and thus, plainly too many have valued whiteness. This panel consequently exposes the overlapping ways in which policymakers have used school finance as an obstacle to racial inclusion and educational equality to effectively stymie full democracy in America.

Papers Presented

Learn, Incorporated: How Conservatives Built a Coalition for Unregulated Private Education after Brown

Fairfax Christian School (FCS) opened in 1961, one year after Fairfax County began implementing token school desegregation. FCS was unique among segregation academies for two reasons. First, it opened as a for-profit school; Fairfax Christian was, above all, a profit-turning business. Second, located just outside of Washington, D.C., FCS quickly became a gathering place for New Right political families. Strom Thurmond, Richard Viguerie, and Morton Blackwell all sent their children to Fairfax Christian School. In this paper, I intertwine the local history of FCS with a national history of conservative organizing to argue that conservative political families responded to school desegregation by creating a movement of their own linking grassroots activists, well-funded think tanks, and politicians in the 1970s. Aided by the Republican Party, organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Learn, Inc. transformed the booming southern private school movement and its promotion of supposedly colorblind “free market choice” into a national political organizing phenomenon. To accomplish their goals, these conservative activists co-opted the language of diversity. They consistently opposed affirmative action, racial quotas, and federal oversight of school admissions processes, but unlike 1950s school segregationists, they did not attack diversity directly. Rather, they co-opted the concept. Instead of embracing student diversity, they called for a diverse marketplace of schooling options. According to the New Right, this educational marketplace deserve public support and required complete freedom from federal regulations, including most civil rights provisions. Thus, these activists laid the political and ideological foundation for the modern school choice movement.

Presented By
Monica Kristin Blair, University of Virginia

Valuing White Lives and White Property: County Governance and School Finance in Halifax County (1968–1994)

By the spring of 1985, termites had gnawed through the walls in fourteen of seventeen schools throughout Halifax County. Ron Douglas, the head school finance officer in the rural North Carolina county, begged the County Commissioners to allocate $40,000 from the countywide budget to treat the infestation. The six white county commissioners refused to grant the necessary funds. Yet just a few weeks later, the same commissioners granted money to the neighboring district of Roanoke Rapids—a smaller, wealthier enclave in the same county with a nearly all-white student body. The county district, Halifax County Schools, was 85% Black. County commissioners possessed the authority to allocate state and local funds in the entire county, which contained three separate school districts (Halifax County Schools, Roanoke Rapids, and Weldon City), and they consistently prioritized Roanoke Rapids. This paper examines issues of school funding in Halifax County from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. I show that county commissioners in Halifax implemented inequitable funding mechanisms to favor white families and white property in the county, through systematic financial discrimination that benefited the segregated white school system of Roanoke Rapids. Through tax base manipulation, district boundary gerrymandering, and a school finance system that chronically advantaged their schools, white residents in wealthier pockets of Halifax County, namely in Roanoke Rapids, maintained a system of public schooling that ensured the maintenance of their privilege. Two specific aspects of this system are particularly salient in Halifax: overblown and exclusionary political influence, and inequitable school finance.

Presented By
Esther Cyna, Teachers College, Columbia University

Session Participants

Chair: Noliwe Rooks, Cornell University

Presenter: Monica Kristin Blair, University of Virginia
Monica Kristin Blair is a PhD Candidate at the University of Virginia and a Jefferson Scholars Foundation Fellow. Blair’s dissertation, “From Segregation Academies to School Choice: The Post-Brown History of School Privatization" examines the role of race, region, religion, and capital in the post-war movement to provide public funding for private education in America. In addition to her doctoral research, Blair has also collaborated on several digital and public history projects, including Jefferson’s University—Early Life Project (JUEL), Participatory Media, UVA Reveal, and the American history podcast Backstory.

Presenter: Esther Cyna, Teachers College, Columbia University

Commentator: Camille Walsh, 20th century U.S. History, legal history