The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hidden heroes of the civil rights movement

In classrooms across the nation, black teachers worked as “intellectual activists"

At the Warren County Court in Virginia in 1958, black families filed a lawsuit that forced the county high school to admit black students. (Pete Marovich for The Washington Post)

On June 19, African Americans across the United States will celebrate Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that marked the end of slavery in Texas, and with it, the complete abolition of the practice in the United States. On this day, we realize the moment when the ideals of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reached every state. While the holiday represents a relatively unknown marker in American history, it is a powerful reminder in the African American community of the strides that we and our ancestors have taken to realize the ideals of racial equality, freedom and justice.

But Juneteenth is not only a day of celebration. It also sheds light on the national struggle to fully realize these ideals, marked by recent tragedies in Ferguson, Mo.; Charleston; and Charlottesville. In grappling with the challenge of ongoing racial violence and inequality, we should consider the often forgotten work of educators who taught during one of the most racially turbulent and democratically challenging periods in recent history — the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Much like Juneteenth, their work is largely unknown. But in recent years, historians have begun to identify these educators as “hidden provocateurs,” “intellectual activists” and promoters of democracy who helped push the movement forward. Through their experiences, we can see how educators use watershed moments in history, alongside present-day touchstones, to galvanize young people to engage with issues of freedom, democracy and equality.

There is Johnnie Fullerwinder, a native of Spartanburg, S.C., who became the first African American teacher to integrate George Washington High School in Danville, Va., in 1966. While faculty and students initially resisted her arrival, Fullerwinder steeled herself to be the best educator she could be, “showing that black teachers were capable” of doing “an effective job of teaching students regardless of what color they were.”

Listen to the Voices of the Movement podcast: Stories from civil rights leaders who changed America

Fullerwinder offered a clear vision to her students, expressing that “her focus is going to be on education. It would be nice if you choose to like me. If you don’t, that does not matter. But my goal is to do everything I can to teach you, so all I want to do is invite you to let me teach you.” Over time, her demand for excellence and her engaging, experiential teaching style endeared her to fellow educators and students alike.

Then there is LaVerne Spurlock, a former teacher at Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, who remembered how her teachers at all-black Armstrong High School in the 1940s used black history to prepare their classes for the future struggles of black people. Spurlock recalled how one of her teachers taught black history through lecture, discussion and use of incisive texts such as Carter G. Woodson’s “The Story of the Negro Retold.” In the decades to follow, Spurlock emulated her teachers by “not sitting behind a desk,” but rather building connections with students and inspiring dialogue.

Finally, there is James Wright, who, as a history teacher at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, S.C., during the post-civil-rights period, drew his inspiration from college professors at South Carolina State College who inspired him to teach “Blackness and the Black experience and African American studies and Black studies” to his students.

With the support of his principal, Wright parlayed those lessons into a course on minorities in American history, which included lectures and quiz games on African American history. By prominently including African American leaders and other minority icons from history in his curriculums, he could embrace his role as a teacher activist, promoting unknown histories and engaging with difficult issues of race and justice.

In the decade following the civil rights era, black and white teachers taught in desegregated classrooms, grappling with students over the struggle for equality and democracy. Nancy Samuels, a white English teacher at Maggie Walker High School, recalls the moment when the television miniseries “Roots” aired in 1977. The show prompted black and white students alike to express anger about the treatment of enslaved black people that millions of viewers saw splashed across their television screens. Samuels used the powerful feelings “Roots” evoked as a teachable moment, the start of an intensive discussion about the legacies of slavery and the ways students could work together to address enduring issues of inclusion and justice.

These represented forms of activism in an era when too many individuals still questioned whether black children had the right to an equal education — and overlooked the need for curriculums that focused on black history. Given that some school systems now require courses on black history and studies, their work is perceived as visionary and foundational to all students’ success.

Growing up in Rock Hill, S.C., I not only heard stories of legendary civil rights era teachers, but also had the privilege to learn from some of these iconic educators. Take William “Dub” Massey, a member of the Friendship Nine, a group of black student activists from local Friendship Community College who staged a sit-in at the segregated McCrory’s lunch counter in 1961 and adopted the “jail, no bail” strategy, choosing to serve time in the York County jail rather than pay bail to leave it.

And consider the inspiring example that Cynthia Plair Roddey offered for students across the Carolinas, taking the leap to become the first black student to enroll in Winthrop College — and symbolize a sea change of educational equality and opportunity for African Americans.

Even today, I continue to learn from these and many other teachers as part of Teachers in the Movement, a project that has taken me, along with a team of researchers, to cities and small towns throughout the South to collect these stories of teacher activism. We have learned so much from educators about how they grappled with issues of freedom, democracy and equality in their pedagogy and curriculums and equipped students with the tools to do the same, especially amid moments where these values were called into question.

Their example encourages teachers today to grapple with the historical impediments to democracy and equality through primary and secondary sources, leveraging a variety of syllabi and resources on the subject. They urge teacher preparation programs and professional development providers alike to offer educators hands-on, practical opportunities to engage with these ideas in their classrooms. And they encourage today’s educators to serve as the next wave of activists and visionaries, partnering with local leaders to offer opportunities to engage in democratic social movements in their communities — and empower students to shape contemporary social movements for justice and equality.

As we remember Juneteenth this year and engage with the powerful issues that it raises, let’s recognize the people in our communities who, decades and centuries after freedom, still seek to realize the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens. Let’s also acknowledge the many teachers who have committed themselves to forms of pedagogical activism, ensuring their students can learn from the experiences of past generations to realize these elusive ideals.

In the spirit of Juneteenth, let’s empower today’s teachers to continue this tradition and serve as educational liberators for our students.