I just picked up the new book by Adam Fairclough titled A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South (Harvard University Press, 2007). I’ve only read through part of the introduction, but I am already hooked. We tend to generalize about the conditions and challenged faced by black Southerners during segregation. No surprise that when you get down into the history a much richer and more complex story emerges. One of the most significant distinctions that needs to be made is that between non-professional and professional. In the case of the latter, Tom Ward’s Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South explores the unique challenges faced by black doctors in medical schools, hospitals, and various professional associations.
Fairclough examines black teachers from Reconstruction through to the 1970’s. I first became interested in black teachers after reading about the Readjuster movement here in Virginia which led to a dramatic increase in the number of black students and black teachers. Apart from this aspect of Virginia history and the steps taken during Reconstruction to improve education in the South this is a subject that I know little about. What hooked me in the introduction was a brief comment that Fairclough made in reference to the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As many of you know part of the argument hinged on the assumption that separate schools based on race encouraged feelings of inferiority among black students. The author suggests – and I assume will elaborate in detail in the book – that this claim is false. After reading that sentence I immediately thought that I had misread it. Whenever I teach the case I take it for granted that the psychological assesment was true and have never questioned it. Fairclough argues that while the physical conditions of the schools were inferior black teachers succeeded in teaching their students self-respect. The question of whether any psychological data was relevant to the merits of the case continues to be debated by legal scholars. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argues that Brown has been misunderstood by the courts. This passage is from Missouri v. Jenkins (1995):
Brown I did not say that “racially isolated” schools were inherently inferior; the harm that it identified was tied purely to de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. Indeed, Brown I itself did not need to rely upon any psychological or social-science research in order to announce the simple, yet fundamental truth that the Government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race…
Segregation was not unconstitutional because it might have caused psychological feelings of inferiority. Public school systems that separated blacks and provided them with superior educational resources making blacks “feel” superior to whites sent to lesser schools – would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether or not the white students felt stigmatized, just as do school systems in which the positions of the races are reversed. Psychological injury or benefit is irrelevant…
Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. (…) Because of their “distinctive histories and traditions,” black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.
I tend to agree with much of what Thomas says here. At around the time of the Brown ruling Stanley Elkins’s view of slavery as on par with WWII Concentration Camps was being debated. To determine the effects of bondage upon the slaves themselves, Elkins compared them to Holocaust survivors and drew upon studies of mass psychology in the concentration camps, arguing that the brutality of slavery was much like that experienced by victims of the Nazis. He asserted that the horrors of the Middle Passage stripped slaves of any previous cultural values or expectations, allowing masters to completely rebuild slave’s personalities in a manner that suited them. This dependent role made it difficult to understand the ways in which individual slaves understood and constructed a sense of their own humanity and purpose. The direction of slave historiography quickly evolved to a point where historians like Eugene Genovese were able to show how both slave and master engaged in a reciprocal relationship based in part on the implicit acknowledgment that slaves were not simply an item on a property list.
It’s interesting that in the case of slavery I have no problem conceiving of slaves as actively engaged in crafting an identity in the face of violence and other hardships associated with the “peculiar institution.” I guess I am surprised that I was unable to do the same in the case of black schools.