Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954

By Zoë Burkholder | Go to book overview

4
Race as Color, 1939–1945

Indeed, the normal community in the United States is made up of
people with many different cultural experiences. Of our one hundred
and twenty-five millions, some thirty millions are only one generation
removed from Europe, and many more millions are from the black and
yellow races.

—Intercultural Educator, 1938

Well, I believe that the members of this class are as grievously unin-
formed about our Negro population as I am. I have questions I’d like to
have answered. For instance, what is the difference between Negro and
white blood?

—Teacher, 1945

They are just like us, only their skin is colored.

—Student, 1944

Writing in the popular English Journal at the start of World War II, a high school teacher reported, “There are in my city a number of racial groups gathered into neighborhoods, as one finds them everywhere: Syrians, Italians, French, and a large number of Germans and Jews, as well as three distinct communities of Negroes drifted up from the South.” Noting that Terre Haute, Indiana, was “as typically American as any section of the country, more American than most,” Margaret Gillum was troubled when Carl, one the more popular boys in the class, made “a sneering remark about ‘Hunkies.’” When the teacher reprimanded the young man for his outburst, he shot back, “Well, they’re all dirty foreigners!”1

Reflecting on her personal experience of watching “queerly attired foreigners making their entrance into the new world” in New York City as a child, Gillum knew she had to do something to make her students understand that their “attitude of antagonism and unfriendliness toward the newcomers” had a direct impact on American democracy. The next day Gillum walked into her

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