‘The Lost Education of Horace Tate’ and Desegregation

[Black girls fueled the crusade to desegregate schools]

Anderson: Black citizens who challenged Jim Crow segregation by rejecting racial subordination faced violence, intimidation, and economic ruin. Talk about the personal and emotional costs borne by black educators who were fighting for black children during the civil rights era.

Walker: There are obvious losses—black teachers were fired and demoted. Wonderful black principals were put in charge of running school buses. They were humiliated because they had once been leaders in their communities. Some of them had to relocate and move north. But there are costs that we forget—like losing control over what black children learned.

The black educators taught math and science and everything else as best as they could with the limited resources that they had. You also saw the infusion of blackness in their classrooms. They were teaching black children how to be resilient in a segregated society. They seeded the civil-rights movement with this curriculum.

Those of us who reflect on the civil-rights era naturally think about people losing jobs and status. But to me just as important is understanding that they lost the chance to instill in another generation the ability to think about racial progress. We lost things that were foundational. We have to know the breadth of the costs, to understand both how we got to present-day conditions and how to think about moving forward.

Anderson: The implementation of Brown v. Board resulted in what Tate called a “second-class integration”—forfeiting all that sustained black children in all-black schools in the movement for equality. What went wrong, and what was lost in the integration of public schools?

Walker: Black educators supported and wanted integration. They imagined an additive model, in which black children would have more than what they already had. They had school climates that taught black students to aspire. They took the negative messages from the larger society, reconstructed them, and made children believe they could be anything they wanted to be. They had black educators working through their powerful organizational networks across the South, advocating on black children’s behalf. What they wanted was access—to newer school buildings and textbooks, bus transportation, science equipment, and playgrounds. They wanted for black children what many white people already had for their children.

It was their expectation that integration would retain the aspiration and advocacy, and they would gain access. Instead, with integration, they closed most of the black schools and fired many of the black teachers—there goes the aspiring school climates. There was a push following the Brown case to merge black and white teacher organizations in the South, to be on board with integration also. But white educational organizations never advocated for what black children needed. Many of the members of the white organizations were the very superintendents and principals who were oppressing black children. You put the two together—the capacity to advocate is lost.

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