Paradise Lost? Teachers' Perspectives on the Use of Cultural Capital in the Segregated Schools of New Orleans, Louisiana

Article excerpt

W. E. B. Du Bois, in one of his most controversial essays 'Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?" published in 1935, concluded that what the Negro needed was neither segregated schools nor mixed schools, rather "What he needs is Education." (1) This education, to which Du Bois alluded, is what black students received in segregated schools, as opposed to the schooling that was received in mixed settings.

[A] separate Negro school, where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black in the year of salvation 1935, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers, whose sole claim to superiority is the ability to kick "niggers" when they are down.... What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning black folk, is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, poor salaries, and wretched housing, is equally bad. (2)

Anna Julia Cooper, a progressive African American educator at Washington Colored High School in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, believed that because of desegregation, African American children would no longer be taught racial pride. (3) Ruby Forsy the, one of the "Elder' teachers interviewed by educational anthropologist Michelle Foster in her study of black educators, saw another threat to achievement coming from mixed or integrated schooling. "Instead of seeing black children winning prizes for their achievements, you see them all in special education classes.... Instead of being taught to lead, they are being taught to follow." (4) With regard to teacher behaviors after school desegregation, Everett Dawson, another "Elder' in Foster's study, recalled that "The [white] teachers made it clear that blacks were not welcome.., a lot of young black brothers get into the classes of white instructors who went into the class saying... these black kids can't make it." (5)

Psychologist James Jones noted that many black teachers thought of their students as "apt and intelligent," related well to them, and employed a type of pedagogy that was beneficial to their cognitive and social development. (6) African American educators in New Orleans who worked in separate black schools during the late 1950s and early 1960s report that they and their colleagues felt the same way toward their students. These educators sought to create academic excellence in their teaching of African American children of New Orleans. in a segregated society they engaged in activity fostering social justice and providing important services as did many other African American professionals of that time. This is particularly true in the case of African American middle-class professional women who preceded them in history. These educators and other professionals made use of the "cultural capital" that was made available to them by parents and community leaders who shared the cultural value that education was the path to freedom.

Educational historian Vanessa Siddle Walker described "valued segregated education" in her book Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South (1996). She found that traditional educational research on segregated schooling in the South tended to focus primarily on the inferior facilities available in separate all-black schools. Her research on the Caswell County schools, however, demonstrated that while failure may seem inherent in academic settings that were underfunded and poorly equipped, those who attended the "black school," as well as the other members of the community, found great value in the local educational institutions. The focus for them was not on what these schools did not have, rather its students and community members focused on what they did provide--excellent professional services from teachers who lived and worked in the community, an education focused on individual and collective group advancement, and community pride. …