HM - Nov. 2013 - Brown

The History File

The Truth before Brown V. Board of Education
by Millicent Brown
Associate Professor of History
Claflin University, SC
Project Director and Senior Research Fellow "Somebody Had to do It"

The increasingly accepted historical narrative about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court decision may be summarized as:
  1. All Black schools, especially in the South, were woefully under-resourced;
  2. Education attained at such institutions provided inferior training to their students;
  3. In spite of initial, publicly expressed white resistance to desegregation, the process eventually allowed Black students access to a higher quality education.
Such sentiments ignore important ramifications of the decision and allow an incomplete and often inaccurate interpretation of one of the most significant social shifts of the mid-twentieth century and beyond.  Fueling this interpretation may well be the urge to get past the horrific events associated with resistance to post-World War II extensions of Constitutionally granted rights of citizenship to United States citizens of color (particularly African Americans).   For many, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge the local, state and federal acts of terrorism exacted against those who organized peacefully, non-violently, albeit persistently, in order to gain recognition and treatment as equal human beings.  The lynchings, bombings, burnings, child murders, fire-hosing, job dismissals, economic reprisals of the first sixty or so years of the twentieth century have yet to be fully documented and punished.  Instead, intermittent, sporadic attention has gained some degree of public attention to the trials and seeming triumphs of a few activists, with much of the emphasis placed on individual charismatic leaders and their appeal to the morality and conscience of racial segregation’s defenders.

Whether the historical amnesia is deliberately plotted or a result of unintentional myopia, the results are virtually the same.  Teachers of twentieth century United States history lack a fully articulated model of the Black liberation struggle around the globe, and particularly throughout the nation.  Educators are offered names and incidents representing heroic acts of courage on any given day like toasted “pop-ups,” but rarely are these connected over time to an on-going struggle for full inclusion, participation in and sharing of what we often call “the American dream.”  Consequently, there emerges a superficial view of that dream from the Black perspective, conflated with the inaccurately idyllic portrayal of the words offered at the 1963 March on Washington, and leaving a view that assumes a supposed deliberate goal of “wanting to be with” the then-majority white society.   Missing is an acknowledgement of the community assets already in place and the fundamental demand merely for removal of constraints restricting minority groups and their constituents.

Consequently, current interpretations of Brown convince us of the nation’s noble attempts to be inclusive of Black children’s desire to be full-fledged Americans, escaping their deficient, separated schools and communities.  A more correct analysis of segregated schools paints a very different picture.  Alison Stewart’s 2013 monograph, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School, describing one particular high-performing District of Columbia school, serves as an important example of academic excellence and expectations fortified in pre-Brown low- and mixed-income, single-race settings.  An even earlier work, Initiative, Paternalism and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute (1990) by Edmund Lee Drago recalls a Deep South example of the same values and educational methodologies extending from the post- Civil War era until the 1950s.  Most urban centers heavily populated by Blacks have legacies fortified by such institutions, forgotten in the hasty desire to explain the rationale for school desegregation.  Those of us dedicated to the telling of a more factual narrative will want to familiarize ourselves with and share such perspectives to accurately address the complicated and sometimes conflicting events of the modern civil rights movement regarding public education.  Failing to do so, we find ourselves echoing the ante-bellum, pro-abolitionist sentiment suggesting that only through freedom could people bodily enslaved for hundreds of years in the new world gain their “humanity.”  A similar misrepresentation of what it means to be subjugated, segregated and vilified occurs after Brown because of the need to see those left outside the margins of white society as having nothing of value of their own.  An often-drawn false conclusion is that it is only through being with whites that Black children will prosper.

To discredit Black institutions (and their respective communities) because of impoverishment, separation, diminished facilities and the like is eerily similar to negating the strength of Black slave communities, their inherent recognition of self-worth, viability of strong female slave networks and myriad other facets of humanity preserved, maybe even encouraged, during the most dire of outwardly imposed distress and negative treatment.   Great care should be taken to describe the evil deeds and circumstances of a given historical period without condemning or negating the resourcefulness oppressed and suppressed people utilized while all the while striving for a better political, social and economic condition. Readers are reminded of the work of both John Blassingame and W.E.B. DuBois who attempt to differentiate resistance to a state of oppression from the claiming of one’s cultural and emotional “wholeness.”
If all-Black schools had all THIS to offer, one might query, then why all the fuss about desegregation? The answer lifted up most frequently in communities of color all over the nation is: access to resources.  Long-fought legal strategies leading up to 1954 were nearly always based on the desire for equality of resources.  Black parents and other taxpayers resented and ultimately demanded that their contributions to the public coffers get channeled more fairly to support their children’s right to ample books, transportation and facilities.  Even Linda and Cheryl Brown’s father represented his daughters’ argument on the basis of having to provide transportation beyond his own neighborhood, both an economic and scheduling hardship, not any illusion that she needed to sit next to white children to prosper.  Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice: The History of Brown vs. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (1975 and 2004), the seminal treatise on the history of the Brown case, explores these themes for anyone wishing to understand all the dynamics involved in the five cases brought together under the banner of the Topeka ruling.

Ironically, reallocation of resources became the last manipulation to thwart desegregation in states such as South Carolina, where lawmakers anticipating an affirmative decision in Brown enacted the state’s first-ever general sales tax (1951-54) to fund a massive school building campaign intended to create “separate but equal” Black schools. (See ).  Many of those active in the civil rights organizations advocating an end to segregation faced the dilemma of practicality versus conscience.   Should opportunities for equalization overshadow  demands  for equal access?   For some, placing children in the less-than-loving arms of hostile teachers and administrators was too high a price to pay, even as Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed that the very act of segregation conveyed negative connotations in support of racial inferiority.  Too many Black children, and certainly most white ones, believed in the inherent inequality so long supported by monolithic European standards of beauty and worth.  The legal end to school segregation was, for the most optimistic of either race, the conduit for dismantling negative stereotyping of Black children’s intelligence and potential. Prescient Blacks feared not only mistreatment and physical abuse, but loss of a coherent Black communal structure that nurtured children and their parents.  Brown suggested an opening up of opportunities for some, but a terrific end of affirmation for others.

A full critique of Brown’s impact is unfolding in the scholarship of historians, political scientists, and various educational specialists as we approach the sixty year anniversary of the ruling. Multiple interpretations are emerging, and history instructors at all levels will find themselves searching for ways to explain its history, conflicts, contradictions and ramifications for twenty-first century educational policies and practices.  But most assuredly, we must avoid the simplistic suggestion that a community long denied legal and economic parity could “overcome” such challenges by gaining access to previously all-white schools. The role of parents, community members, teachers and administrators who believed in the inherent value of Black children was superior to that of pre-1954-era schools. They offered models of success and emotional/psychological support in recognition of their color and its history of derision, not in spite of it.  That the walls of segregation were destroyed is a positive action not to be argued.   But what was done to the memory of intact Black institutions and their participants is less to be admired.

As all-Black schools closed, merged, transformed, etc.; trophies, awards, yearbooks, school logos and mascots disappeared.  Memories of high educational standards insisted upon by some of the best-prepared teachers excluded from other professions because of their race fell victim to impressions that “all-Black” meant “ghetto”, i.e. lacking. Many inner city communities absorbed the full financial burden that had once been shared by all levels of income, and even in segregated Black areas, middle class Blacks left the circle to live and learn in new mixed-race neighborhoods and schools.   Our responsibility to all children, and to the accuracy of teaching race relations and civil rights struggles, demands an acknowledgement of both gain and loss.  Children, steeped in a tradition of affirmation, were used as social change agents in a country forced to rid itself of centuries-old problems and prejudices.  We dishonor their youthful sacrifices by assuming they automatically benefited in the new environs.  Present-day teachers will be well served in exploring  –  what is the truth before Brown?

The author, chief plaintiff in the class action case that desegregated South Carolina’s public schools in 1963, is a founder of the “Somebody Had to Do It” project The oral history project’s principal goals include a) collection of first person narratives from those who, as children, were the first to desegregate schools throughout the nation; b) encouragement of interest and research among scholars in multiple humanities and social science disciplines to explore immediate and ongoing consequences of school desegregation; and c) promotion of more nuanced interpretations of the impact Brown has had on individuals and communities of color.