Separate and Unequal
David J. Garrow on black teachers in the segregated South
A CLASS OF THEIR OWN:
in the Segregated South.
By Adam Fairclough. Harvard Univ. Press.
533 pp. $29.95
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of the end for legally mandated racial segregation in public schools. But from the time public education developed in the American South following the Civil War until well after Brown, southern blacks struggled to obtain quality schooling. Before Reconstruction ended in 1877, equal education for students of both races was an imaginable possibility, but once white “redeemers” seized political control, gross inequities took hold.
In A Class of Their Own, historian Adam Fairclough, of Leiden University, in the Netherlands, masterfully recounts black southerners’ efforts to build schools that could offer their children some hope of educational uplift. By the 1870s every state had a public school system, but actually enrolling black youngsters in a functioning school “depended upon black initiative,” usually through recruitment of willing individual teachers who would “first set up a school, then ask the county to pay their salary.” Across the largely rural South, “black farmers depended upon family labor,” and agricultural demands often resulted in very short school terms. Exploitative share cropping practices forced many black families to move almost yearly, so sustained schooling was often impossible.
These conditions made the lot of black teachers a hard one. They were generally poorly paid part-time workers lacking adequate training and experience. Circumstances did not improve as the decades went by. Fairclough writes that once the disfranchisement of black voters peaked, at the turn of the century, “southern states began to spend much less on black schools relative to white schools.” A 1930 survey showed that “more than half of all black rural teachers had failed to complete high school,” and Fairclough reports that “the condition of most rural schools was about the same in 1940 as it had been in 1870.”
What improvements did occur across the South were concentrated in a relatively elite group of black-run private schools funded primarily by northern white contributors, such as the school for black girls that pioneering black educator Mary McLeod Bethune founded in 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida (now Bethune-Cookman College). Little remembered today, those schools initiated a good number of the relatively few upper-level academic programs available to blacks in the South. Many black public high schools and many of the nascent black state colleges originated as private institutions before attaining grudging public support and hybrid financing.
Only in the 1940s, as anti-segregation lawsuits began to point the way toward Brown, did southern states start to give more than lip service to the long-standing “separate but equal” doctrine. In many black communities, including the two in South Carolina and Virginia whose legal complaints became part of Brown, better school services, not racial integration, was the topmost goal.
Once Brown established desegregration as a constitutional requirement, black teachers realized that integration into white-dominated school systems could threaten both their jobs and black schools’ existence. When schools began to merge, the number of black principals declined precipitously. In North Carolina, for instance, there were 226 high schools with black principals in 1963. Nine years later, there were 15.
“To many black southerners,” Fairclough explains, “the closure of black high schools represented the symbolic decapitation of their communities.” Growing black ambivalence about the benefits of integration generated “a belated recognition that many segregated black schools of the pre-Brown era had been successful institutions.” By the 1990s, Fairclough notes, more and more institutional histories of black schools expressly challenged the earlier integrationist view that black education in the segregated South had more than merited Brown’s devastating upheaval.
Fairclough’s own verdict is measured and sagacious. On the one hand, he writes, “the central assertion of the Brown decision—that segregated schools generated feelings of inferiority in the black children who attended them—has never been proven. In fact, the more we learn about those segregated schools, the more dubious that assertion seems.”
Yet he firmly refuses to adopt a sanguine view of the South’s pre-Brown days as “a golden era of community stability and educational progress” for black southerners. Indeed, he rightly warns, too much “uncritical celebration” of black courage and achievements during this period would only obscure “the extent to which white supremacy blighted black education” from the end of slavery to the present day. A Class of Their Own is scholarly history at its very best: A richly textured and nuanced book, it tells an important American story that should not be forgotten.
—David J. Garrow