By JONATHAN TILOVE
April 28, 2004
c. Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) 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.
“They were not preparing their children for a segregated world. They were preparing their children for a world that did not exist, for an integrated world,” says Vanessa Siddle Walker, an educational historian at Emory University.
Today, the schools’ successes resonate with more than historical interest. In the decades since Brown, an American dilemma of legally sanctioned, separate and unequal education was replaced by a stubborn gap in black and white educational achievement, endlessly calibrated and worried over. 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.
As early as the 1970s, economist Thomas Sowell, now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was writing about “patterns of black excellence” at segregated schools like Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington, which produced Martin Luther King Jr.; Frederick Douglass in Baltimore, which produced Thurgood Marshall; McDonough 35 in New Orleans, which produced the first black state superintendent of schools (California’s Wilson Riles); and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.
Dunbar, the first black high school in America, produced the first black Cabinet member (Robert C. Weaver); the first black general (Benjamin O. Davis); the discoverer of blood plasma (Charles R. Drew); the first black senator since Reconstruction (Edward W. Brooke, R-Mass.); Charles Hamilton Houston, the first special counsel to the NAACP and chief architect of the assault on Jim Crow that led to Brown; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia delegate to Congress.
By 1899, students at Dunbar _ then called the M Street School _ scored higher on citywide tests than white students in Washington.
Lawrence Graves, class of 1940, recalls that his homeroom of 32 boys produced nine medical doctors, one dentist, three judges and four lawyers. “All the rest were educators,” says Graves, a retired D.C. principal.
After Brown, Dunbar was not the same, and Graves, who at 82 still arranges alumni scholarships, says there is no way to recapture what was lost: “It was segregation. You had all these wonderful teachers who couldn’t get jobs in other places. Circumstances have changed.”
And yet, as Sowell wrote, the history of success needs to be remembered and understood at a time when public discussions of “quality education of black children proceed as if educational excellence were only a remote possibility, to be reached by futuristic experimental methods.”
Most notable about the scholarship since Sowell is the rediscovery of exceptional black schools all across the landscape of segregated America. Hard data such as Sowell deployed in describing Dunbar are hard to come by. But descriptions are stunning in their sameness.
These were schools of unstinting discipline, order and respect. Of committed teachers and the most keen and caring mentorship. Of high and unyielding expectations. “People assumed you were first rate,” Graves says.
The schools were confident in the esteem in which they were held and the support they could expect at home. “There was no daylight between teachers and parents,” says Blake. “If you got punishment from a teacher, they sent a note home and you got a second punishment when you got there.”
“Today it’s a cliche, `it takes a village to raise a child.’ It’s just a slogan. But it was not a slogan in my day,” says Faustine Jones-Wilson, a former editor of the Journal of Negro Education, who in 1981 wrote about her alma mater in the book “A Traditional Model of Education Excellence: Dunbar High School of Little Rock, Arkansas.”
Segregation imposed a unity of circumstance and purpose on black Americans. “It was clear if you didn’t want to be a domestic servant or manual laborer, you had better learn something,” says Jones-Wilson, now retired outside Washington, D.C., where for a quarter-century she was a professor of education at Howard University.
Segregation was meant to limit black advancement, and the schools were supposed to do their part. But Siddle Walker says the black schools were tied together by a tight, if nearly invisible, national network of black educators, sharing ideas and strategies. The very neglect of the white powers allowed them unusual freedom. The genius of these schools, she says, was their ability to use that freedom to rewrite the debilitating script of segregation into one of uplift.
Blake recalls how Risley High School students built their own gymnasium. It was an act of self-help, he says, but also of cunning.
What the white superintendent and school board would see in that handmade gym were young blacks being trained for lives of manual labor. But, Blake says, “They were never brought into the main building where the laboratories were and where Mrs. Mollette was teaching Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. They never saw any of that.”
Risley High School, Blake says, was “doing college prep undercover.”
And the stunting of black career opportunities lavished riches upon the ranks of black educators. Of the first nine principals of Dunbar, seven had degrees from Harvard, Oberlin, Dartmouth or Amherst, including the first black woman to receive a college degree (from Oberlin) and the first black man to graduate from Harvard. Carter Woodson, the renowned historian, taught at Dunbar.
Even in little Beaufort, N.C., some 80 percent of the teachers at Queen Street High School held master’s degrees, according to Lenwood Davis, a historian at Winston-Salem State University, who in 1996 wrote about the school, from which he graduated in 1957.
By 1950, Siddle Walker says, black teachers in many Southern states were better educated than white teachers. And because these Southern states paid for the graduate education of black students who went north to school, rather than admit them to their state universities, she found that many black educators returned home with Ivy League degrees.
Unfortunately, says Siddle Walker, that rich, coordinated network of able black educators no longer exists. “You can’t go back,” she says.
In Brown, the Supreme Court unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In the public mind, black schools were judged inferior.
How, then, to explain the vibrant alumni groups formed by aging generations of graduates from Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington and Abraham Lincoln high schools in communities across the country, and their remarkably consistent memories of educational oases that each thought was a unique preserve?
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.”
Jones-Wilson’s book was born in her curiosity about whether others shared her warm memories of Dunbar. They did.
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.”
Instead, black children were scattered across 11 different high schools. (In recent years, new Middleton and Blake high schools were opened in response to demand from Tampa’s black community.)
In his 1994 book, “Along Freedom Road,” historian David Cecelski told the story of how blacks in coastal Hyde County, N.C., boycotted schools for a year in the late 1960s to protest a desegregation plan that would have closed their community’s two historically black schools.
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.”
Blake today lives in Washington, D.C., where he remains active on issues of educational equity. “You look at any high school in this country,” he says. “You will see that the faculties in those high schools do not believe that black children are as capable as white children.”
He continues, “If we had kept control of all those high schools in the South there would have been no way that 20, 30, 40 percent of the students would have been classified in the lowest tracks, in special education and as mentally retarded.
“I mean, there is no way you can put an educator of my generation and those who educated me and those who we educated in a classroom and classify that many students as unable to meet the standards.”
Sarah Willy Mollette, whose literature classes were undercover college prep at Risley High, knew better. So did Naomi Borroughs, Blake’s fourth grade teacher.
“In Mrs. Borroughs’ class, if a boy persisted in making too many errors, his punishment was being taken in the girls’ bathroom, drop his pants and get 10 licks from the paddle,” Blake recalls. “No boy ever was unable to get his act together to avoid that.”
In high school, Blake, whose parents died when he was young, worked the night shift as a bellboy at the best hotel in town. His only ambition was to get one of those better-paying jobs on the hotel day shift. But Risley’s principal, J.S. Wilkerson, saw his potential and conspired with his grandmother to make sure he applied to college, was accepted and received a scholarship.
And, when Blake played away his first semester at Paine College in Augusta, Ga., Wilkerson brought him home and warned him, “You cannot be up there embarrassing me and your grandmother and damaging the prospects of future students we send up there.”
“I graduated as valedictorian of my class,” Blake says. “That man saved my life.”