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70 Years After Brown, Schools are Still Segregated

A new book by Leslie T. Fenwick explores the stark inequalities that have plagued schools for decades, and in some cases, have worsened since the 1954 Supreme Court decision.

Eleanor J. Bader Sep 8

The momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision issued by the Supreme Court in May 1954 had a lofty goal — integrate white children and children of color in every public-school classroom in the country. Sadly, this ideal has yet to be realized nearly 70 years on. We know that education remains highly segregated by race and class.

But what is less known is this: In the aftermath of Brown, Black-led schools in 17 southern and border states were closed and their teachers, principals and support staff were pushed out of the institutions they had created, sustained and nurtured.  

White people have dominated the “unified school system” ever since.

The results have been dire. As Leslie T. Fenwick writes in Jim Crow’s Pink Slip, we’re now seeing  “a tremendous demographic mismatch between the nation’s public-school personnel and the student population it serves.” To wit, only 7% of today’s teachers are African  American. Nationally, she reports, 91% of teachers in urban settings are white. Equally appalling, this is also true in inner-city schools, where 73% of teachers and 89% of principals identify as white. “Fewer than three percent of the nation’s nearly 14,000 school districts are led by African American superintendents,” Fenwick adds.

This imbalance, she argues, can be traced to the intentional dismissal of Black educators following Brown. All told, she writes, between 1954 and 1972, 31,584 Black teachers and 2,235 Black principals found themselves out of work. What’s more, those who were retained were typically demoted, forced to teach lower-level or vocationally-oriented classes. “Almost always,” she writes, “they lost positions as department heads.”  

Some of those who were retained found themselves with new job titles, but no actual tasks. Others were given menial work. In one case, Fenwick writes, a Louisiana principal named Fred McCoy was offered only a part-time janitor job before he finally found work teaching elementary school math — at a far lower salary than he’d earned as principal.

The reason for this, of course, is racism. “In the new unitary system controlled by whites, Black principals were not to be heads of schools with white teachers and white children, nor were they to lead schools with Black teachers and Black children.” 

Between 1954 and 1972, 31,584 Black teachers and 2,235 Black principals found themselves out of work.

Clearly, the idea of African-American authority rattled white supremacists and led to a virulent and enduring backlash. 

Most galling, Fenwick writes, is the fact that in the decades before Brown, most Black educators held master’s and doctoral degrees from top-tier institutions. And while academic credentials do not necessarily equate with teaching proficiency, they are nonetheless nominal indicators of competence and subject-area proficiency. But this apparently did not matter to the white-controlled bureaucracy that began cementing itself into place after desegregation was mandated.

The upshot — Fenwick calls it “a clear and deliberate undermining of the desegregation process” — has had long-lasting implications for both students and educators. For one, students have lost professional role models of color. In addition, Fenwick writes, “With the decimation of Black teachers and principals came the elimination of school buildings named for Black notables of national and local significance, as well as disregard for all awards and trophies earned by Black students for state and district science fairs, oratory contents, and athletic competitions, leaving a painful void and a negative (and erroneous) impression in integrated schools that Black principals, teachers and students had achieved nothing of note prior to entering the new, integrated schools.”

Furthermore, it is a grotesque distortion of U.S. history that makes it seem as if white control is both natural and necessary.  

Fenwick ends Jim Crow’s Pink Slip with several suggestions for empowering people of color in educational leadership, adding that it is not too late to do something concrete and affirmative to bolster their efforts and fight racism. 

We can obviously do better. Indeed, we know that all children benefit from exposure to diversity.  “The work of generating knowledge, expressing creativity, solving the world’s problems, and leading into a new future belongs to all people,” Fenwick concludes.

Why not accept this and get on with the desperately-needed work of repairing our troubled body politic? 

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