400 Years Blog #38 – Sacrificing for Education

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In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, about half of all Black professionals were teachers.  They were respected members of the Black community and committed to the collective task of racial equity. Ambrose Caliver, who studied the effects of racism while at the U.S. Office of Education in the 1930’s, explained, “In the hands of the Negro teachers rests the destiny of the race.”

John Lewis knew that his own destiny hinged on education. As he explains in his memoir, many Black Americans saw education as an “almost mythical key to the kingdom of America’s riches, the kingdom so long denied to our race.”  As the Supreme Court declared this kingdom open to all, Lewis “was obsessed with learning all I could about the world beyond the one I knew….”

Ironically, Black teachers paid a great price for integration.  As documented in Adam Fairclough’s article, The Costs of Brown: Black Teachers and School Integration, many lost their jobs as racist power structures staffed the newly integrated schools with mostly white teachers.  This is when Black students began to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

The “Little Rock Nine” were some of the first to be abused for trying to attend their local high school.  One of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled scanning the ugly crowds. When she spotted an older woman who seemed friendlier than the rest, the woman spit in her face. Another, Melba Pattillo, had acid thrown in her eyes and flaming paper dropped on her while on the toilet. After Governor Orval Faubus chose to close schools rather than teach Black teenagers, the families of the nine students were blamed for the loss of school time. Their parents lost their jobs and vandals attacked their homes.

Few were as heroic as Ruby Bridges, who at age six single-handedly integrated William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans.  At first, mistaking the angry crowds for a Mardis Gras celebration, Ruby showed no fear and “marched along like a little soldier” according to a Federal Marshal protecting her.  Each morning one woman would threaten to poison Ruby and another would thrust a baby doll in a coffin at her. The backlash for her efforts hurt her family: her father lost his job, they were banned from their local grocery store, her grandparents were thrown off their sharecropping land, and her parents separated due to the strain. Their sacrifices deserve our anti-racism commitment.

  • Lesson #186: Ambrose Caliver’s work brought to light the overwhelming lack of opportunities for secondary education for African-Americans in the first three decades of the 20th century.
  • Lesson #187: John Lewis did anything to be at Dunn’s Chapel Elementary School, a school with 70 Black students, one teacher, and no running water.  He would hide when called to help on the family farm, sprint to the school bus, and spend the day in school instead.
  • Lesson #188: The “Little Rock Nine” were Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Teerrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals. There were, however, hundreds of other Black students that challenged segregation, whether at integrated schools, lunch counters, or movie theaters.
  • Lesson #189: Ruby Bridges Hall still lives in New Orleans and is chair of her Ruby Bridges Foundation, dedicated to promoting, “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” She writes, “racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”  Robert Coles donated the royalties from the sale of his book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, to the foundation that provides resources for New Orleans school children caught in poverty.
  • Lesson #190: Too often the price paid by those on the front lines of racial justice work are overlooked by our common narratives that we prefer to be neat and uplifting.  We must learn how to better share the burden of this work.
  • Lesson #191: Even today the burden of racism weighs too heavily on Black educators in higher education. Schools that have historically locked out students of color are now trying to be more diverse, but often the faculty does not reflect racial inclusivity.  As a result, many Black professors report that they must put in many more hours mentoring and advising students of color struggling with navigating “white spaces.” Not only should this extra labor be valued and compensated, we need more robust support structures for students and faculty of color.
  • Lesson #192: There are 101 public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States that have played an important role in supporting racial justice activism and deserve greater recognition.
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