What Is the Future of Predominantly Black Urban Schools? : The Politics of Race in Urban Education Policy

By Morris, Jerome E. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1999 | Go to article overview

What Is the Future of Predominantly Black Urban Schools? : The Politics of Race in Urban Education Policy


Morris, Jerome E., Phi Delta Kappan


The true barometer for gauging whether the vision of the Brown decision has actually been realized is the quality of the education received by low-income African American students who remain behind in predominantly African American schools in the inner cities, Mr. Morris points out.

IN 1986 I graduated from Phillips High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Phillips High was an all-white high school until the early 1960s; it has been all black since the early 1970s.1 The school is located near downtown Birmingham in the middle of the Metropolitan Gardens Housing Projects (formerly known as Central City), where my mother reared me, along with my five older brothers and my younger sister. We were zoned to go to Phillips after we attended Powell, the K-8 elementary school, which was directly across the street from where we lived. Both Phillips and Powell had almost all-black student populations during the years I was enrolled. In fact, throughout my K-12 educational experiences from 1973 to 1986, there were no more than two white students in any of my classes. In high school, I remember only one white student in the entire school. Today, Phillips and Powell are virtually 100% African American; my nieces, nephews, and cousins now attend them.

To understand why the public schools I once attended are still all black, one needs only a general understanding of the demographic patterns in urban areas throughout the nation. A pattern of white flight from urban areas escalated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education; urban areas and urban school systems increasingly became less and less white and more and more black. After efforts were stepped up to enforce Brown through the desegregation of public schools, many white Americans made no secret of their feelings about living near African Americans and attending schools with them. They made their feelings clear not only verbally but by moving to suburban and outlying communities. In many instances, these actions were facilitated and encouraged by white communities and realtors through race-steering and other means of deterring African Americans from moving into "their" neighborhoods. Furthermore, to maintain the status quo in education, many southern states & including Alabama & used public funds to support "segregated academies" for white students.

As I reflect on my experiences growing up in a low-income housing project and attending all-black schools in Birmingham, I am reminded of the advice I received from my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Turrentine, prior to entering high school. A few of the "academically talented" students at Powell were encouraged to consider enrolling in one of two academically enriched high schools that had a substantial population of white teachers and students. But Mrs. Turrentine advised me and Vanessa, a fellow student, to think about attending the neighborhood high school: "You two need to consider Phillips High School because many of the "white' schools want to take the best and the brightest black students from the "black' schools. You can get a good education in the black schools. Many of our schools suffer because any time the white schools notice a "good' black student, they want the student to come out to their school to integrate it. They have to know that good students also can come out of the black schools."

Mrs. Turrentine reminded us that, because almost all the students and teachers who attended and taught at the outlying schools were white, those schools were considered "better" than the predominantly black inner-city schools. Her advice has been with me ever since, and it laid the foundation for my understanding of the dynamics of educating low-income African American students in cities across this nation. At an early age, I became aware of the politics involved in educating me and other students from Central City. While attending schools in Birmingham, I realized that many outsiders perceived our all-black schools negatively. …

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