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The Lessons We Can Learn from the Black Schools of the Past

They anchored their communities, and Black teachers taught their students that everyone could learn and succeed. We should keep these strengths in mind as we try to re-integrate public schools today.

Frederick Douglass High School
Frederick Douglass High School in Columbia, Mo., where Jabari Simama attended classes in the late 1950s when it was an all-black K-12 school.
Less than 70 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, we have witnessed the re-segregation of entire public school systems. Much of this is due to the fact that we still live for the most part in segregated neighborhoods, but it is also due to the reality that many middle-class families have opted to send their children to private schools, resulting too frequently in public ones primarily serving minority and underserved students.

I spent nearly 30 years working as an educator in urban settings. Of greater relevance, as a student I attended both all-Black and so-called “integrated,” predominantly white schools and learned firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of both. My experiences and insights — my personal story — might provide a lens through which public officials can better understand what is at stake in trying to re-integrate public schools today.

In the late 1950s I attended Frederick Douglass School, an all-black K-12 public school in Columbia, Mo. Columbia is a college town with a population at the time of about 50,000, 12 percent of whom were African American. Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced.

I received a strong primary-level education at Douglass not because of segregation but because of its superior Black teachers. They sincerely believed that every student could learn regardless of their background or circumstances. This belief was partially based on their experiences of only being allowed to teach Black students, but it was also based on their knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.

No matter the subject matter, my teachers always managed to sneak in a little Black history that helped me develop a historical perspective and sense of self-worth. We were told the stories of African American achievers such as Missourian George Washington Carver, who invented, among other things, crop rotation; Charles Drew, whose pioneering research on preservation of blood plasma saved thousands of lives in World War II; and Langston Hughes, who steeped his poetry in the rich folklore of African American life.

We also ran into Black teachers and administrators from Douglass at church, grocery stores, barber shops and salons. Perversely, there was an upside to growing up in a segregated Black neighborhood: It ensured that Black teachers lived in the same communities as their students. And neighborhoods where Black teachers, janitors and domestic workers all lived together contributed to an awareness of the value of mixed-income communities long before urban planners discovered the concept.

Constantly having to confront segregation in education and in life forced African Americans, for better and worse, to develop consciousness of the importance of self-reliance and economic independence — qualities that are often lost in today’s pluralistic society. But pluralism that is not backed up by equal opportunity does nothing to take away the sting of living under American apartheid; it adds to it. I painfully recall in Missouri the contradictions of whites opposing Black teachers moving into previously white-only neighborhoods after the public school systems were officially desegregated in 1963.

And the integration of public schools was not all apple pie. There were interracial fights; Black students were called the N-word not only by other students but also by teachers. It brought with it the loss of Black school culture — the high-stepping marching bands, black majorettes and Black homecoming queens and courts, and, most of all, Black teachers. Losing Black teachers never sat right with me because we always had a shortage of them. The Institute of Education Sciences reports that people of color today make up only 19 percent of all public school teachers in the United States, with less than 7 percent of them being African American. The National Education Association refers to the time when many Black teachers lost their careers as “a hidden history of integration.”

After completing elementary school at Douglass, I attended a predominately white junior high school the first year the school was desegregated, then I went on to graduate from David H. Hickman High School, the same school Walmart founder Sam Walton had graduated from in the 1930s and where former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a homecoming queen, graduated two years after me. Sadly, once I left Douglass, I never had another Black teacher in public schools.

Despite this, there were still lessons that I learned: I discovered that I could compete academically, hold my own, and sometimes come out ahead of my white student colleagues. My exposure to students from different racial, ethnic and social backgrounds showed me that though we were different in many ways, at our core was a common humanity that bound us together.

The color of our skins may have defined where we lived, how large a house our parents could afford — if they could afford one at all — and more. But race and class did not, at least in my case and that of many others, define the heights to which we could soar. I refused to allow the advantages of white students to prevent me from achieving my life’s goals.

In a sense, being educated with white students and witnessing their privileges up close heightened my desire to overcome the odds society had stacked against me. The idea that those odds could be overcome was probably instilled in me at an early age by one or more nurturing Black teachers. Even the notion that higher education was an option for me — a poor kid whose mother only finished high school and father dropped out before then — was probably established by my knowing that my Black teachers had attended college in the 1930s and 1940s, when things were much tougher than when I was growing up.

What lessons out of my experience might hold relevance for today?

First, I believe it is time to make schools the center of community life, as they were when I was in school. Schools today lock their doors by 5 p.m., denying public access to resources such as gyms, tennis courts and other athletic facilities, not to mention meeting space for community groups. Public schools must become community schools again.

Then, we need to do all we can to provide subsidized housing for teachers. This would make it possible for them to live in neighborhoods where they teach, and it also would allow them to better know their students and gain greater familiarity with the problems students bring with them to school.

I have already described the high cost that African American teachers paid in order for desegregation to occur. Now it is time to make right this “hidden history” by incentivizing Black students to enter the field of teaching and offering tuition grants — financial aid that students willing to major in education and work for three years in a public school upon graduation would not have to pay back.

Finally, integration the first time around ignored many important practices of Black schools. This time, care must be taken to ensure that Black culture and history are preserved because these were teachers’ secret weapons for getting students to learn.

I share the belief of many that future leaders may be better served by receiving diverse education in diverse learning environments. But this time around, as we attempt to re-integrate our schools, let’s do it in a way that honors Black teachers and illuminates the precious cultures from which they emerge.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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