The Inversion (Part Two): African Americans and Education — The Equalization and Desegregation Era
Please click here or in the box below to read the first part of this story- The Inversion (Part One): African Americans and Education, for background on African American education heritage from Reconstruction through the 1950s
The Inversion: African Americans and Education (Part One)
African Americans, particularly in North Carolina, sacrificed more to build schools than any other group. Despite this…
Please click here to view my documentary Under the Kudzu, which traces of the history of two historic African American schools and relates experiences of their alumni, streaming for free on Amazon Prime Video
In The Inversion (Part One): African Americans and Education, I argued that “African Americans, particularly in North Carolina, sacrificed more to build schools than any other group. Despite this, many educators accept the myth that African American families are less interested in education than others. Historically, nothing could be further from the truth. I call this damaging stereotype ‘the inversion.’”
In this article, I look at some experiences of equalization schools and school desegregation in North Carolina (please note: full citations of sources are at the end of this article).
“When Brown v. Board of Education was first delivered few, least of all the Supreme Court, saw the administrative problems that lay ahead. It was assumed most school districts would promptly dismantle their segregated school systems.” (The Yale Law Journal)
During the 1950s, southern school boards looked at the legal rulings about segregated schools-most importantly, of course, the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation ruling (Brown v. Board of Education)- and created a strategy of delay. They built “equalization schools” for African Americans, rather than commit to desegregation. In a deliberate warping of time, southern school systems responded to the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy mandate of “separate but equal” rather than to the 1954 Brown desegregation ruling. Equalization schools were typically utilitarian, one-story buildings, often without the amenities of libraries or gyms. Many of these buildings are still in use today.
In southeastern North Carolina, the equalization schools appear to have operated largely as modernized settings for a continuation of the culture of their predecessor schools, which were the Rosenwald and other schools that had been constructed partially through funds that African American families raised over and above the taxes they paid. The faculties and administration of these schools continued to be dominated by African Americans. In contrast to the stereotype presented by some history textbooks that teachers in historic African American schools were poorly prepared, by 1944 North Carolina’s African African teachers had, on average, higher qualifications than their European American counterparts. In addition, in North Carolina both school systems used the same course of study. That question was settled in 1924 by the progressive Nathan Carter Newbold, North Carolina’s longtime Director of the Division of Negro Education. Industrial education courses were offered as electives (Thuesen )
Dr. Richard Newkirk attended Pender County’s Halfway Branch Rosenwald school from first through fifth grades. He recalls that students there were actively involved in all aspects of the school. He states: “Consequently, teachers taught; they did no yard duty or any kind of supervision of students outside the classroom. They taught us what to do, made assignments and it was done. We understood them when they said: ‘You’re Black (Colored/Negro) and always will be. You may be expected to know twice as much to get the same job for half the pay. We are not here to listen to your complaints, we are here to teach you how to access the system and make a difference.’”
Dr. Newkirk continues, “So when the one, two, three and four rooms schools were consolidated in 1958 at the brand new school, West Pender School, students were continually involved in all aspects of the school. Because we had been taught to appreciate what we had, taking care of a new facility with indoor restrooms and a cafeteria was simply part of being grateful.”
As part of our presentation “Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools: Appreciating African American School History and Pedagogy,” Dr. Newkirk explains that while his schools were under-resourced, he received a rigorous education because of the expectations set and maintained by his teachers and administrators. He says “they prepared us for success in school and in life.” Dr. Newkirk was well prepared for college and graduate school. During more than four decades of his life spent in service to others, Dr. Newkirk has been an officer in the Air Force and an educator who has held many leadership roles.
In retrospect, it’s easy to assume that the equalization schools were a stepping stone on the pathway to desegregated schools. That was not necessarily the assumption educators made at the time, however. Dr. John T. Daniel, Jr., said that his father, the longtime principal of Pender County Training School (PCTS), was surprised by the Brown decision. Daniel said his father didn’t think he would live to see a “colorblind” society (Under the Kudzu).
The Daniels: Leaders in Excellence at a NC Rosenwald School
Although under-resourced, historic African American schools produced many professionals and civic leaders
In southeastern North Carolina school boards mostly chose to focus on equalizing elementary school facilities, which still left a significant gap in high school access. For example, despite having a student body that was roughly half African American, from the 1920s Pender County operated five high schools for European American students, versus one (PCTS) for African Americans.
High school access improved in Pender County when, in 1939, the school system took over operation of the C.F. Pope school, an historic African American school founded in 1896 and discussed in part one of this series. Still, African American parents on the eastern side of the county were told that if they wanted their children to attend high school, they would need to raise 50% of the cost of a bus. (Like their contributions to school building, these funds were to be made over and above the taxes they paid.) So the families raised 50% of the cost of a nice bus. However, when it arrived at the county bus garage, someone thought it would be all right to switch it out and give those families an older bus. Apparently a big argument ensued, which the families eventually won. Dr. Ida Daniel Dark told me that her father, the PCTS principal, almost lost his job over advocating for the families to retain the bus they had helped to purchase. This story, which I heard from several people, is documented at the start of Dr. Melton A. McLaurin’s 2009 book The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines
The strategy of delaying desegregation and asking African American families to contribute money in addition to their taxes for basic school infrastructure might have continued indefinitely. However, the federal department of Health, Education and Welfare was charged in 1965 with implementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This created a financial pressure on rural southern school districts, as they were told that in order to continue receiving federal funds they had to desegregate.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that school boards that invested so heavily in maintaining segregation would eventually implement desegregation in a way that meant African Americans were shut out of important educational decisions. Certainly there were many individual educators and school board members who worked hard to smooth the transition to desegregated schools. In 1966, Carrie Mae Sharpless Newkirk was one of the first African American teachers to desegregate a faculty in southeastern North Carolina. In my 2015 documentary Carrie Mae: An American Life she tells a story about asking for biographies of prominent Americans at the school library, so that her students could write reports. She recalled that the librarian grew more and more flustered when she was able to provide books about important European Americans, but none about African Americans. Ms. Newkirk said that when she came to school the next morning, the principal had left a stack of the requested books on her desk. She received the books as evidence that the principal wanted her to feel welcome, and that her priorities were important.
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Carrie Mae: An American Life is now available, click here to stream on Amazon Prime Video! Carrie Mae: An American Life…
Yet, the collective effect of administrative moves that were presented merely as neutral logistical decisions meant that African Americans mostly had to watch from the sidelines as school boards abruptly closed their schools and/or downgraded high schools that had been the pride of their communities. As Mary Royals Faison said about desegregation in my film Under the Kudzu (click to view film), “that wasn’t our goal.. to be shut out.”
In his book Along Freedom Road (1994), historian David S. Cecelski gives a riveting account of the school strike in Hyde County, NC. Parents there were fighting to hold onto some of their school traditions and leadership. Cecelski notes that in North Carolina between 1963 and 1972, the number of African American principals was reduced by 84% and teachers by 21 %. (Cecelski)
Families lost schools they had supported for generations, with no acknowledgement of the sacrifices they had made and no voice in the desegregation process. Williston Senior High School in Wilmington, NC was a school founded during Reconstruction. It occupied many buildings over the years, and for several decades it was housed in one of the last Rosenwald Fund schools (the building burned in 1936, but was rebuilt on the same plan. It still stands today, now in use by Gregory Elementary).
Dr. Hubert A. Eaton spearheaded a lawsuit that resulted in the construction of an equalization building for Williston students in 1954. In his 1984 memoir Every Man Should Try, Dr. Eaton noted that Williston had a tradition of excellence 50 years longer than that of New Hanover High School. (Eaton) Despite this venerable history, and the fact that its building was newer, no serious consideration was given to retaining Williston as a high school. The decision was made, without community input, to turn Williston into a junior high. This decision sent shockwaves through the community, resulting in unrest and the eventual wrongful conviction of the “Wilmington Ten.” (Hines)
This story, of cherished schools being closed or downgraded, was repeated in various iterations throughout North Carolina and across the South. In Pender County, one alumna related to me that her parents watched as central office workers pulled a dumpster up to South Pender High (previously Pender County Training School (PCTS)). Trophies, academic awards, records — their history was literally thrown in the trash.
In my documentary Under the Kudzu, Mary Royals Faison tells the story of going to prepare her classroom at PCTS in August, 1968, only to find people from across the district were carrying equipment out of the home economics building. That was how Mrs. Faison learned that her school was being closed. However, the equipment hadn’t been purchased by the school system. In line with the long tradition of African American communities raising funds to mitigate the fact that their schools were chronically under-resourced, shop students had helped to construct the building, while their families had donated the equipment.
Look into the background of North Carolina’s African American leaders who are age 60 and over, and you will likely find that their careers were shaped by attending historic African American schools. The ethic of these schools is well expressed by the motto of Winston Salem State University (founded in 1892 by the African American community as Slater Industrial Academy): “Enter to learn. Depart to serve.”
My purpose is certainly not to wax nostalgic for the era of segregation and underfunded schools, but simply to say we should acknowledge our African American students’ incredible education heritage, and learn from the teachers in those historic schools.
Looking back at the way things unfolded, Dr. Newkirk points out that “integration means that I take from you and you take from me… there is an exchange and a respect. That didn’t happen.” As an educator of European American heritage, my approach to teaching and my relationships with my neighbors have been profoundly affected by learning about historic African American schools. Many of the practices of educators in those schools have since been validated by research. They made for effective teaching and community building. The two are inextricably linked, and we need both.
Bring "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools" to Your Campus or Organization
Bring the "Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools: Appreciating African American School History and Pedagogy" to your…
Far from being “ancient history”, what happened in our school systems affects relationship dynamics today. Families may feel alienated. We have a dearth of African American teachers and administrators. Teachers, though well intentioned, may misunderstand students due to a lack of cultural awareness. Most teachers are not aware of the sacrifices the families of their African American students made for education.
These dynamics can change, but it will require a willingness to hear what many European American educators have not heard thus far: That being “colorblind” is not helpful. That our African American students have an education heritage that continues to enrich our state and our country. That the stereotype about African American families not being invested in education is an inversion of the truth.
Journal/ Website Articles/Interviews:
Case Topics “Separate But Equal” Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court https://www.landmarkcases.org/cases/plessy-v-ferguson Accessed 2 Feb. 2020
“The Courts, HEW, and Southern School Desegregation.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 77, no. 2, 1967, pp. 321–365. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/795081. Accessed 1 Feb. 2020
“Desegregation Rules.” CQ Almanac 1966, 22nd ed., Congressional Quarterly, 1967, pp. 477–81. CQ Almanac Online Edition, 9 Feb. 2020, library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal66–1301831.
Pfaff, Eugene 10/14/1979 Oral history interview with Joseph McNeil archived at UNC Greensboro digital collection http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/ref/collection/CivilRights/id/865 Accessed 9 Feb. 2020
Cecelski, David S. Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South. University of North Carolina Press, 1994. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807860731_cecelski. Accessed 1 Feb. 2020.
Eaton, Hubert A. Every Man Should Try. 1st ed., Bonaparte Press, 1984.
McLAURIN, MELTON A. The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807898628_mclaurin. Accessed 9 Feb. 2020.
Thuesen, Sarah Caroline. Greater than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919–1965. University of North Carolina Press, 2013. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469609706_thuesen. Accessed 2 Feb. 2020.
Sharecrop (2017, Stack Stories LLC)
Under the Kudzu (2012, Stack Stories LLC)
Carrie Mae: An American Life (2015, Stack Stories LLC)