Monday, May 03, 2004

The Value of Brown

A fascinating article from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that looks at the healthy and successful black schools that were closed in the name of integration:
As America marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, the ruling is celebrated as a freedom song, the death knell for legally segregated schools and, with them, an order of racial apartheid that dictated the rules of black-white relations in the American South and beyond.

But to many, Brown -- handed down May 17, 1954 -- was also a dirge for something precious and irreplaceable: a network of black schools almost sacred to those they served and wholly devoted in their belief in black ability and pursuit of black advancement.

"Brown was turned against us. We lost our schools," says Elias Blake Jr., who graduated in 1947 from Risley High School in Brunswick, Ga., and credits it with transforming him from an indifferent student, sights set no higher than a job at the local hotel, into someone who became valedictorian of his college class and ultimately president of Clark College in Atlanta.

Absent from the standard telling of Brown, the superior education that many black schools provided is a source of fierce pride for alumni, and the subject of a growing body of scholarship.

For those who knew or came to know these schools, recounting their story is a mission -- to more truly and fully record history, to render thanks and give credit where due. It is a remarkable tale of how black communities, under the thumb and under the radar of oppression, created schools that imbued black children with a sense of confidence and possibility in the very midst of a system determined to limit them.

* * *
Brown's most profound irony may be that answers to closing the achievement gap lie buried in the history of the schools that Brown's implementation destroyed.

Glittering amid the ruins, the answers are straighforward: Dedicated teachers. Strong principals. Order. Discipline. High expectations. Community and parental support. What is astonishing, Siddle Walker says, is how many black children attended schools during segregation that delivered on these objectives, and how few do so now.

* * *

For Siddle Walker, the unnerving contrast between the bright photos of engaged young people in yearbooks of the Caswell County Training School in her North Carolina hometown and the often listless black students she encountered in current-day schools led to her prize-winning book, Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South.
* * *
Vivian Gunn Morris, a professor of education at the University of Memphis, and her husband, Curtis Morris, wrote two books about Trenholm High School in Tuscumbia, Ala., from which they graduated in 1959. It was torn down in 1969. When they talked to other alumni, "we were floored" by the depth of feeling, she says. "People were tearing and crying."

Typically desegregation resulted in closing black schools, dismissing black teachers, demoting black principals and dispersing black students from places where they had ruled the roost to white schools where they arrived as unwelcome strangers.

Black life in Tampa, Fla., revolved around two high schools -- Middleton and Blake -- both closed in the 1971 desegregation of Hillsborough County schools. "It was bad. It was terrible. More than anything, it was unbelievable," says Fred Hearns, a 1966 Middleton graduate, founder of its alumni association, and now Tampa?s acting director of community affairs. "What we thought is that they would improve our school and bus in some white kids."

* * *
Cecelski says that when he talks to black audiences of a certain age, "I'm still always taken off guard by the depth of bitterness" about the loss of their schools. "I'm always asking myself how much is grounded in the strengths of those schools -- and there is no question about it, that is real -- and how much is grounded in what they see as the mistreatment and the damage done to African-American children in the schools today."
As I say, a fascinating article. And discomfiting. As immoral as segregation was, it's quite unnerving to think that ending it might have made the educational situation worse than before.

It might well be, as Derrick Bell has recently argued, that blacks would have better off had the Supreme Court focused more on equality than on ending separateness. Bell's recent book "Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform" argues that "despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many black schools functioned well and racial bigotry had not rendered blacks a damaged race." An article on a similar lecture at Stanford notes that "New York University Professor Derrick Bell provocatively suggested last week that generations of black children might have been better off if the case [Brown] had failed." (A video of Bell's lecture at the University of Tulsa can be found here.)

It all reminds me of Justice Thomas's opening line in his concurrence in Missouri v. Jenkins, a school desegregation case. Said he, "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."

And even more so, these paragraphs from the middle of his opinion:
Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. Indeed, it may very well be that what has been true for historically black colleges is true for black middle and high schools. Despite their origins in "the shameful history of state enforced segregation," these institutions can be " `both a source of pride to blacks who have attended them and a source of hope to black families who want the benefits of . . . learning for their children.' " Fordice, 505 U. S., at ___ (Thomas, J., concurring) (slip op., at 4). Because of their "distinctive histories and traditions," id., at ___ (slip op., at 5), black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.

. . . "Racial isolation" itself is not a harm; only state enforced segregation is. After all, if separation itself is a harm, and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education, then there must be something inferior about blacks. Under this theory, segregation injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot achieve. To my way of thinking, that conclusion is the result of a jurisprudence based upon a theory of black inferiority.


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