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School Segregation in the North

Mrs. Nettie Hunt, sitting on steps of Supreme Court, holding newspaper, explaining to her daughter Nikie the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision banning school segregation. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-127042

Don’t little Maddie and Connor just deserve the best education, by which I mean not having too many of those kids in class with them? I can’t imagine anything as important as that…..

Of course, that usually leads to the replication of racism and segregation in the schools. This has been just as big a problem in the North as in the South and remains so today. After all, for all we celebrate Brown, the nation’s schools have never really integrated, regardless of region. They may not be 100% white anymore, but the “best” schools still have very few Black or Latino or Native students in them. Zoë Burkholder has a new book about this that she previews at History News Network. It would be useful for people around here to read and take seriously, for it should impact your actions today.

School integration as a strategy to achieve Black equality took center stage as the Black civil rights movement expanded in the post-World War II North. During this period Black families, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fought for and won an end to race-based school assignments. School integration enjoyed overwhelming support from northern Black communities through the 1950s and 1960s, but a rapidly growing northern Black population and state-sponsored residential segregation and illegal gerrymandering of school assignments meant that school segregation increased, even as Black support for integration reached a crescendo. By the late 1960s, as court orders rolled through the region with the active encouragement of the NAACP, many Black families reconsidered the relationship between school integration and equal educational opportunities.

In some northern towns, Black educational activists envisioned an alternative route to educational equality: community-controlled schools. As Waverly Yates, a Black educational activist in Norwalk, Connecticut put it, “In the white neighborhood schools, the white parents have a lot to say about how things are run. But not the Black parents, because their power is diluted among many schools and because the schools the Black kids go to are often several miles from home.” Yates worked to dismantle his town’s school desegregation plan to achieve the goal of a majority Black school where Black families and teachers would call the shots. 

Black power activists in the late 1960s insisted school integration had failed to achieve its primary objectives of improving educational opportunities and reducing prejudice. What is more, they believed Black students bore the brunt of the burden of school integration through long bus rides to hostile, majority white schools. In contrast, they argued community-controlled schools would build strong Black institutions, prepare children of color to thrive in a hostile society, and promote Black social and economic development. Importantly, as the example from Norwalk demonstrates, community-controlled schools only worked if Black children were not bused to distant majority white schools for the purpose of school integration.

Debates in northern Black communities over the merits of school integration versus separation have continued straight through to the present day, where we find avid integrationists like student activists in New York City as well as those who prefer charter schools with dedicated Afrocentric curriculum and pedagogy.  

In the American political imagination, civil rights battles over school integration unfolded through dramatic conflicts in the South for two decades following the historic Brown ruling. My new book underscores that the struggle for school integration has been a defining and consistent feature of Black civil rights activism in the North since the 1840s. Always present in this northern struggle was a dynamic tension between Black educational activists who advocated school integration and those who preferred separate, Black-controlled schools within a legally desegregated system. Courageous activists on both sides possessed a remarkable faith in the potential of public education to secure democracy, support Black civil rights, and advance the larger objectives of the civil rights movement.

Perhaps the most essential lesson of this long and fraught history is that real change is possible when citizens organize, name racist practices, and work together to demand specific reforms. Educational reform must be connected to larger structural reforms designed to remedy racial injustice, uproot white supremacy, and secure Black dignity and freedom. This history serves as a solemn reminder of the unfinished battle for Black educational equality, and as an impassioned call to action for all those who believe in the promise of public education to advance equal opportunities, civil rights, and justice for all.

But I’d rather listen to Emily Oster use DATA!!!! to determine what is best for my children! Give them that MBA training early, forget about listening to Black people!

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