In recognition of The Tribune’s supplement on Race in America, I am devoting today’s column to the challenges of Black folk in public education. A decision that I find troubling but was of tremendous support for many is my focus. That decision is, Brown vs. the Board of Education of 1954.
Serving as superintendent of a South Jersey school district in 2004 provided intimate involvement in public education. I was known for my non-traditional views regarding public education. In a column that appeared in this newspaper in February 2004, I revisited the challenge of Linda Brown, a Black third-grader in Topeka, Kansas, who walked a mile to a Black elementary school when a white elementary school was nearby. This was six years before federal marshals escorted Ruby Bridges to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1960, making her one of the first Black students to integrate public schools after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The Topeka School system was segregated on the basis of race as established in 1896 in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. Although Linda’s father tried to enroll her in the white elementary school, the principal refused. The school district considered this arrangement to be both acceptable and legal. The Browns challenged the decision by appealing to the NAACP for help.
The Browns, encouraged by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), sued in federal district court. It was argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first Black Supreme Court associate justice. The court ruled May 17, 1954, that in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place and separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
For Black Americans, this was seen as a major victory. But if we look at our situation prior to Brown vs. The Board of Education and where we are today, I believe that Marshall is in disbelief. I have no doubt that things have gotten worse! Schools today are more segregated than they were, back in the day. Additionally, a disturbing trend of an increasing achievement gap is developing between white students and students of color.
Each day seems to bring a new theory to explain the underperformance of Black students. There are no easy explanations for low performance of Black youngsters on state-mandated or standardized tests. Clearly, I do not have concrete data to explain why things are this way. But a visit with my cousin, Gladys Sprout, in her hometown of Beaumont, Texas, in 1980 provided some insight. I spoke with my cousin about the school system in the town where she lived and also taught. What she told me was totally unexpected. She said, “Cousin, we had an excellent school system prior to integration.” She described how the Black schools in Beaumont had dedicated, loving, caring and highly motivated teachers who had high expectations for their students. With integration, however, the outstanding Black teachers were sent across town to the white schools; the mediocre white teachers ended up in Black schools. She pointed out that integration resulted in a loss of dedication, love, care, motivation and high expectations from the staff who served them; qualities which supported the development of outstanding young men and women. I readily related to my cousin’s observations. Back in the day, I attended one of the most dynamic schools. This school, Martha Washington Elementary, was the kind of school that Brown vs. The Board of Education sought to abolish. You see, back in the day, our schools had some intangibles that ultimately made productive students and human beings. Just think, the things that made us unique and productive often took place in those segregated schools that we sought to eliminate in the past.
I believe that the Black experience in the United States, in some areas, has been negatively impacted by integration. For as long as I live, I will appreciate my elementary teachers, who by the way, lived in the neighborhoods where they taught. The sound of their names brings a smile to my face. Many of you can quickly recall the names of teachers who made a difference in your lives. These teachers established high expectations for us and they didn’t accept any excuses. Not only did we learn and master the basics of writing, reading and arithmetic, we also learned about ourselves. We learned about our history throughout the year rather than just the month of February. We also learned social skills as well as appropriate behavior. You may have had a principal such as Marie Chase, mine at Martha Washington Elementary School. Principals like her were in most Black schools. Any utterance of profanity was met with a visit with Ms. Chase in her office, where a cup of soapy water was available to rinse out one’s mouth. We lovingly recall memories from back in the day, of those special qualities and high expectations for all students found in school settings. To what extent are these qualities fundamental to the behavior of teachers and administrators today?
There was a time when intangibles existed that clearly made a difference in the lives of young people. Just sitting next to a white student was not a path to achievement. There was also a time when our teachers, particularly those living in our segregated communities, had high expectations for us to succeed and consequently we did. Those were the days when our teachers and our families had high expectations for us. High expectations were the key to success in the classroom and success in life, during those memorable, yet challenging times, back in the day.