Stand and Deliver

A one-teacher school in  Georgia (1941)
A one-teacher school in Georgia (1941) (Jack Delano / Library Of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
By Reviewed by James T. Patterson
Sunday, February 11, 2007


Black Teachers in

The Segregated South

By Adam Fairclough

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 533 pp. $29.95

Although few histories devote much attention to black teachers in the South between 1865 and 1965, these men and women were in many ways the backbone of the black middle class. The educational infrastructure that they painstakingly erected did a great deal to discredit Jim Crow, and the accomplishments of these unheralded educators were just as dramatic and important as those of better known heroes of the civil rights movement.

Adam Fairclough, a British historian who has written widely about that movement, tells this story very well. A Class of Their Own is a judicious exploration of a largely unstudied subject; it belongs on any well-stocked shelf of scholarly works on the Jim Crow South.

Many of the teachers were messianic. The president of the Alabama State Teachers Association, Rev. G.M. Elliott, issued a clarion call in 1888: "Teachers, you are the shapers of thought and the molders of sentiment, not of this age and of this generation alone, but of ages and generations to come." In 1935, Ambrose Caliver, the highest-ranking black employee in the U.S. Office of Education, proclaimed, "In the hands of the Negro teacher rests the destiny of the race."

Such inspirational rhetoric helped them confront formidable impediments, some of which stemmed from divisions within black society: freeborn versus freedmen, the light-skinned versus darker-skinned, Baptists versus Methodists, advocates of "industrial" versus "classical" education, and teachers from the North versus "preacher-teachers" from the South. The utter poverty of most Southern blacks, especially the rural majority, frustrated teachers. Black parents, needing their children as field hands, often pulled them from school. Some were hostile to black educators, who (relatively speaking) were middle-class. As a Virginia teacher complained in 1876, many working-class black people "don't like to see anyone of their rank get above them. They say I am stuck up, because I don't stand on the corner of streets and in store doors with them."

Whites, of course, posed the largest obstacles. Harsh political domination after 1890, resting on widespread disenfranchising of blacks, ushered in a grim era that lasted into the 1940s. "When you educate a negro," South Carolina Sen. Benjamin Ryan Tillman argued, "you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand." Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman added, "What the North is sending down [for schools] is not money but dynamite. This education is ruining our negroes. They're demanding equality."

Fairclough highlights the dreams of unsung black educators, many of them women, who sought to establish black private schools and colleges. Their efforts, though untiring, had mixed results. Even at their peak in the 1910s, these private schools enrolled only about 5 percent of black children in the South. Until the 1920s, black institutions of "higher education" concentrated on secondary schooling.

The larger world of black public schools was dismal. In the early 20th century, these educated only about half of black school-age children in the South. Black children in five Deep South states, where there was then no public funding for "Negro" high schools, rarely went beyond the fifth grade. School buildings were isolated, badly heated, crudely furnished and often without running water or indoor plumbing. As late as the 1930s, fewer than one rural school in 10 had electricity. Most black teachers, having been taught in schools such as these, were ill-trained. Earning even less than day laborers or cotton pickers, they had to moonlight. Their pay relative to that for whites worsened over time: In 1930, the average black teacher in the South earned roughly 45 percent of what a white teacher earned, compared to the 60 percent that he or she had earned in 1900. The deplorable condition of most rural schools for blacks, Fairclough writes, was "about the same in 1940 as it had been in 1870."

In the 1930s and '40s, black teachers began to organize more effectively. Litigation managed by the NAACP and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) helped to narrow salary differentials. Thurgood Marshall, head of the LDF, also championed cases to equalize the schools, only to conclude by 1950 that equalization would never truly develop within a Jim Crow system. The result was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which mandated the demolition of de jure school segregation. Though 15 years went by before civil rights law and subsequent court decisions finally did much to enforce the goals of Brown, the court's ruling in 1954 was nonetheless a milestone.

Fairclough emphasizes that many black teachers in the South, cherishing their all-black schools and worrying (accurately) that they would lose their jobs, opposed attacking segregation. Black college leaders were especially alarmed about the future of their institutions and did not play major roles in the civil rights movement.

Fairclough makes clear that the nostalgia of many African Americans since the 1960s for the Good Old Days of all-black schools is rose-colored. Only through desegregation could black children hope to attend decently funded public schools in the South. And yet A Class of Their Own demonstrates that the arduous struggles of black teachers "made it difficult, nay impossible, for whites to turn racial segregation into a full-fledged caste system." ยท

James T. Patterson, professor emeritus of history at Brown University, is the author of "Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy" and, most recently, "Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore."

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