I grew up in the segregated South, and came of age as a “deseg baby.” My friends and I began our school lives in modern buildings constructed in our segregated neighborhoods in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some of them during periods of budget reductions.
In 1955, with the decision known as Brown II, the Supreme Court decreed that public schools be desegregated “with all deliberate speed,” though it would be another 16 years before any real effort was made to carry out that decree on a large scale. Predictably, the responses of the 21 states directly affected by the Brown decision ranged from “ready compliance” to hostile, aggressive legal challenge and evasion. A number of southern states chose the path that Florida did: While attempting to legally challenge the ruling, the state also tried to forestall counter challenges from the black community by making our separate schools “equal” through a rash of new construction and renovation and unprecedented purchases of new instructional supplies.
It was too little, too late, but it added fuel to a debate that had been carried on for over a century—whether “separate schools with equal facilities are more advantageous than mixed schools with prejudice”—a question posed by ardent desegregationist Charles H. Thompson, the first dean of Howard University’s school of education and founding editor of the influential Journal of Negro Education.
There is considerable evidence that until early in the 20th century significant numbers of African Americans, if not the majority, supported the existence of separate schools. Many viewed them as “symbols of racial achievement [that] provided about the only avenue of opportunity for black professionals,” wrote historian Daniel Crofts.
Prior to the 1930s, African-American schools were not necessarily considered academically inferior; nor were “mixed” (integrated) schools equated with “equal” (or superior) education. It was not uncommon in the 1930s to be opposed to the evils of segregation and still support separate schools, though it seems paradoxical. This debate was one of the hottest topics in the African-American press.
Yet, with few exceptions, supporters of African-American schools were denounced as “accommodationists” and/or “self-serving fools” intent on little more than preserving patronage positions. A. Philip Randolph even called them “Jim Crow niggers.” Today, if we remember these folks at all, this is pretty much how we remember them.
Judge Robert L. Carter (who served as NAACP General Counsel and was a lead attorney in the Brown cases) noted in retrospect that the legal team had not sought the advice of professional educators in shaping its collective ideology, saying “[W]e felt no need for such guidance because of our conviction that equal education meant integrated education.” As sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot noted, “although the Brown decision focused on schooling, it disregarded the development of children and the perspectives of families and communities.”
Between 1935, when the NAACP began implementing its school strategy, and 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision, the goal of equal educational opportunity and the strategy of desegregation were conflated in such a way as to make it difficult to publicly oppose—or even to question—the ideology of integration. The debate among African Americans didn’t end, though; it simply became a private rather than a public conversation.
I grew up hearing those “in-house” conversations. Many times over the past 30 years, I’ve wished that I had the opportunity to talk with the folks we dismissed as “Toms,” to explore with them the perspectives they gained by simultaneously supporting black institutions and challenging Jim Crow education. Can “separate but equal” schools really work? We don’t know: We’ve never really had them. Does integration work? Haven’t had much experience with that, either.
While much has been written on the challenges, limitations, and miscalculations of desegregation policy as an effective vehicle for guaranteeing equality of access to educational opportunity, the prevailing viewpoint—especially as we approach the 50th anniversary of Brown—attributes contemporary wisdom to historical hindsight. It would have been difficult to accurately predict the complicated mix of social, political, legal, and economic factors that have led to school resegregation in the United States. Yet academic tracking, discriminatory disciplinary practices, the radical decline in the number of black teachers and administrators, rising drop-out rates, and other challenges that define 21st century educational apartheid were real and imminent threats to parents and educators in the 1930s—just as real as the inferior facilities and other manifestations of institutional neglect that galvanized their opposition to segregation.
By the time I graduated from high school, the county system had been fully desegregated, but it seemed that we had slipped even further away from the goal of access to quality education. Thirty years later, hometown debate over the continued failure of our public schools to educate African-American children has been deflected by a new proliferation of “neighborhood” schools and a revived emphasis on “choice” as an alternative to court-ordered busing.
Vanessa Siddle Walker, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and others have documented how segregation forced black communities to develop strategies and structures that allowed effective schools under the worst of circumstances. Yet they are clear that there is nothing to be gained from romanticizing the non-existent “good old days” of segregation.
It seems to me we’re still missing the point that W. E. B. DuBois made in 1935: “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools.”
It’s the same point that parents and educators have been making for the last 150 years. Would we now be better prepared to respond to the challenges of desegregation if we’d been able to have a more honest public debate on its potential risks and benefits all along?
Linda Mizell (email@example.com) is a lecturer in education at Tufts University. She is a member of the steering committee for the National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA) and a senior associate with Enidlee Consultants USA.
Plural but Equal , by Harold Cruse (William Morrow, 1988). $12.95.
Shades of Brown , edited by Derrick A. Bell (Teachers College Press, 1980). 150 pp. $29.99.
Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South , by Vanessa Siddle Walker (University of North Carolina, 1996). 276 pp. $18.95.
Too Much Schooling , edited by Mwalimu J. Shujaa (Africa World Press, 1994). 412 pp. $21.95.
What Brown Should Have Said , edited by Jack Balkin (New York University Press, 2001). 257 pp. $20.