Recent historians of education, using evidence from oral history, argue that before the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, black schools for the most part were remarkably successful in educating children as valued members of a community. Principals and teachers were severely restricted in their resources and actions by white superintendents and school boards. Nevertheless, historians argue, they succeeded in turning their schools into hubs of the community. Geraldine Davidson reports that her high school principal, Dr. Floyd Brown, “would try to interact with the community, because the community is the one that accepted him and believed in his dream.”1 School events such as Dr. Brown’s Thanksgiving celebrations and basketball games were widely attended by community members, alumni associations served as networks through which graduates could (as much as was possible in a segregated, economically depressed South) find jobs, and teachers and administrators acted not only as instructors, but as mentors. This model of schooling in the decades before integration produced a generation of black professionals, literally Du Bois’ “talented tenth.”

In contrast to these oral history accounts stand sociological data which indicates, as early as 1966 (12 years after Brown), that de facto segregated schools educated students more poorly than integrated schools. The U.S. Department of Education’s Coleman Report from that year analyzed data on 570,000 pupils and concluded that the largest factor in the academic performance of an individual student was overwhelmingly the socio-economic composition of her school – the higher the percentage of low-income students in a school, the lower the overall academic performance of its students, even accounting for their individual socio-economic levels. A 2002 study2 takes this one step further, showing that a high percentage of African-American students in a school has a “strong adverse effect on achievement of Blacks.” If we believe historians of pre-integration African-American schooling, segregated schools provided a valuable educational and community resource. What, then, so fundamentally changed post-Brown that present-day schools which are in many cases segregated in fact if not in law, fail fundamentally at educating African-American students?

One part of this disparity surely lies in the nature of oral history. Accounts of the past, especially of childhood, are invariably to some degree romanticized. So when Merlin Jones talks about his school, a “two story frame building … [with] a beautiful playground,”3 his recollections are clouded by nostalgia. Further, students who were more affluent and had better educated families received more support from teachers, administrators, and community members; these students also tend to be the ones that present-day oral historians interview. William J. Cooker, Jr., the only person interviewed in Remembering Jim Crow (one of the most comprehensive oral histories of the era) who talks about discrimination within black schools, reports that “children from certain neighborhoods, children who did not have the advantage of being able to dress in a reasonable manner ... by some teachers [such children] were treated atrociously.”4 The absence of reliable statistics on pre-Brown African-American schools no doubt has led to a romanticization of the quality of their education.

Ironically, however, the main answer lies in the very nature of desegregation. Before Brown, segregated black schools served a valuable symbolic role in the African-American community. Although they disagreed on educational philosophy, education itself was central to both Booker T. Washington’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’ plans for achieving racial equality, and this role was reflected in the way that community members treated schools. When Merlin Jonesshop class lacked the necessary equipment and supplies, parents stepped in, donating “tools, hammers, squares, things they weren’t using.”5 Local brick masons, painters, and carpenters donated their time to teach students the skills they would use to achieve, in Washington’s philosophy, economic independence. Further, as one of the few professional occupations open to well-educated blacks, teaching was well-respected in the community, and successful graduates of schools frequently returned to the community to teach the next generation. Because schools were viewed by community members as so integral not only to the future of their pupils but to the greater future of the community and the race, teachers, students, and administrators all received the utmost respect from the community.

When integration efforts actually started in Southern counties white school boards chose, either because of the false impression that black schools were inferior, or because of the desire to integrate without fundamentally changing the racial hierarchy, to adopt integration plans which closed black schools. Either black students were moved into existing white schools, or new schools were created, usually adopting the mascots and traditions of old white high schools, to house students. Racist hiring policies in the new integrated schools allowed white administrators to fire respected black educators en masse, removing from schools people who served as important mentors and community leaders. This method of integration left, in all but a few cases, the traditions and history that black teachers and administrators had worked so hard to create literally in the wastebasket - segregated schools, which with community support were able to train black students to navigate through and begin to dismantle the complicated hierarchy of racial oppression, were destroyed and replaced by white-controlled schools which reinforced that hierarchy.

By destroying black schools, desegregation also destroyed the sense of urgency and importance that the African American community had previously vested in schools. While segregated schools were in some ways figureheads of the African-American community, and resources invested by the community in their schools clearly went directly to helping other members of the community, integrated schools had no such ties to the community and as such did not enjoy the same level of community support. In integrated schools, black students received an education that, even though superior, didn’t to the same degree involve the whole community. Further, with the notable exception of Hyde County citizens6, the first steps towards integration of school districts caused many black education activists to lose energy for future campaigns. While integration of school districts was an important symbolic victory, many activists failed to realize the need for, or lost support for future campaigns that might have achieved real equality. More recently as schools have begun to become resegregated, they have lacked the community support that is integral to making schools with high percentages of low-income or minority students successful. This in turn leads to predominately African-American schools being stigmatized as low-performing, and, in the great irony of school desegregation, actions in the wake of Brown, intended to cure the stigma that separate-but-equal imposed, have caused, some 50 years later, that very stigma to reappear.

  1. William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, Remembering Jim Crow, 172.
  2. Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steven G. Rivkin, New Evidence about Brown v. Board of Education, cited in John Boger, Education's Perfect Storm, 42.
  3. Remembering Jim Crow, 162.
  4. ibid., 158.
  5. ibid., 164.
  6. Described in David Cecelski's Along Freedom Road.

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