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African American Educational Traditions and the Challenge of Desegregation

In the 1940s, Charles Houston and his team of NAACP attorneys took film cameras to schools in the rural South to document crumbling and dangerous facilities and meager learning resources. They needed this visual evidence to present school segregation and its consequences for black children to the courts. They were pressing toward what would become the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education finding school segregation by racial category to be unconstitutional.

Freedom School Students Reenact Slave Revolt, Hattisburg, Mississippi, 1964: Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Although Houston and colleagues—alongside local activists in black communities around the country—likely had their own complex experiences with schooling in segregated black schools, in court they focused on a more simplified tale. Segregation produced material inequality like that which they documented on film, and further it yielded psychological damage that meant segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” an inequality that could not be conquered by new buildings or new books.

The story that Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and other colleagues told in court was not the only story to tell about African-American education in the U.S. Historians like W. E. B. DuBois, in his pathbreaking but long-underappreciated Black Reconstruction, recognized not only the depth of Jim Crow racism in education, but also the scope and consequence of black educational activism in the postbellum and early twentieth century South. Both impoverished and professional-class black citizens demonstrated tremendous commitment to securing education for their children, even when state and local regimes threw up every imaginable obstacle and there was no robust tradition of public schooling to appeal to. As DuBois put it, “Public education for all at public expense was, in the South, a Negro idea.” Beyond DuBois and his fellow historian Horace Mann Bond, though, few scholarly works documented black education in the various forms that it took in the U.S., North and South, before Brown. [1]

Brown’s legal pioneers had to focus on segregation’s restrictions rather than the broader landscape of black educational accomplishment as well as struggle. More complex accounts of African American educational spaces only gradually emerged in historical scholarship. The story was still incomplete in 1961, when Ruby Bridges took her brave walk in New Orleans, and in 1974, when Boston erupted in anti-busing protest. Since then, though, studies in African American history have generated more multi-dimensional, more nuanced, and in some respects more challenging accounts of what education in segregated and majority-black schools looked like in the twentieth century U.S.[2]

Three new works on black educational activism in the 1960s and 1970s remind us what is lost when legal struggles for desegregation are taken up separately from a fuller story of black educational history. Published in 2016, Crystal Sanders’ A Chance for Change, Russell Rickford’s We are an African People, and Jon Hale’s The Freedom Schools all provide new angles on African-American educational institutions, thought, and politics well beyond my focus here.[3] They also contain lessons, as well as challenges, for those thinking about desegregation today.

Out-of-doors classes during Freedom Summer at the Freedom School, Priest Creek Baptist Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1964. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.

A Chance for Change traces the work of black working-class and poor Mississippi women who transformed the federal Head Start initiative into a robust community-led early-childhood educational space. Sanders’ book adds to recent reinterpretations of the War on Poverty via a grass roots focus. For educational historians it powerfully demonstrates the inseparability of local community development and educational development, all in the context of intentional cultivation of young people (and their teachers) as powerful citizens. Hale’s The Freedom Schools offers additional images of how young people learned and learned in the educational spaces linked to the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

We are an African People examines radical black educational thought and the independent educational institutions it launched. Although created by those often categorized (in some public discourse then and by historians since) as advocates of separatism rather than desegregation, nationalist educators in Oakland and Brooklyn and many smaller cities across the country manifest how teaching, learning, and school-making are never separate from broader political struggle. What are children schooled for, or what world do schools seeking to make? These questions are no less crucial, even if they have at times been neglected, in the context of desegregated educational spaces.

Nashville, Tennessee exemplifies desegregation’s accomplishments and its limits. Nashville achieved levels of school desegregation, statistically measured, far beyond the typical US school district. But in practice, the desegregation process repeatedly discounted, undermined, or outright destroyed historically black educational institutions and traditions. In some cases, civil rights advocates argued against this trend but lost; in others, it was not part of their strategy. [4]

The limits of Nashville’s desegregated schools are especially vivid when compared to the educational spaces featured in Rickford’s, Sanders’, and Hale’s work. The period in which more black and white students met one another in Nashville’s classrooms and corridors also accompanied a decline in attention to schools’ power, value, and responsibility in fostering future citizens. Instead, economic rationales, and curricular approaches to meet them, gained prominence. This local shift was in keeping with national patterns.

Thurgood Marshall and Nashville legal team for school desegregation, 1955. Source: Nashville Public Library.

In Nashville, and nationally, educators could learn from practices that bound schooling to visions of future citizenship as displayed in sites like the Oakland Community School, the Uhuru Sasa Shule of Brooklyn, or the Child Development Group of Mississippi. And they need to recognize and be challenged by the trenchant critiques embedded in these schools’ practices, of U.S. democracy, of state power, and its abuses and limits formed by racism.

U.S. schools today are more segregated than they have been for decades, while the research on desegregation’s measurable benefits are stronger than ever.[5]

The Obama administration offered a small-scale but rhetorically important commitment to desegregation efforts. Under the new presidential administration this support is gone. Outright opposition might replace it. Nonetheless, much of the potential for desegregation advocacy and action exists at the local and state level.

Continued school segregation, and the inequalities to which it is tied, evidence deep continuities in the U.S. story of racial oppression and injustice. But in terms of knowledge, much has changed since earlier phases of desegregation advocacy. Historians know more now, not only about desegregation but about the broader landscape of black educational struggle and the strengths of African American educational institutions, on which to build a more robust and humane approach to desegregation.

Ansley Erickson is author of Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) and an assistant professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She tweets @ATErickson.

[1] W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, (New York: Free Press, 1992 [ 1935]); Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994 [1939]); DuBois quotation on p. 638.

[2] Key contributions include James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); David Cecelski, Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina and the Fate of Black Schools in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Vanessa Siddle-Walker, Their Highest Potential: An African-American School Community in the Segregated South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Jack Dougherty, More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[3] Crystal Sanders, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Russell Rickford, We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Jon N. Hale, The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[4] Ansley Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo, “How Racially Diverse Schools Can Benefit All Students,” February 9, 2016.