"We Got the Best of That World": A Case for the Study of Nostalgia in the Oral History of School Segregation. (1)

Article excerpt

Nostalgia. [NL, fr. Gk nostos return home + algos pain, grief] 1: HOMESICKNESS 2: wistful yearning for something past or irrecoverable. (2)

Recent histories of school segregation raise questions about oral history and the reliability of people's recollections of the past. As historians of education have begun to examine prevailing views about the inferiority of segregated black schools based on oral histories with former students and teachers, it is essential to consider the function of nostalgia in oral history narratives. (3) In studies by David Cecelski, Vanessa Siddle Walker, Van Dempsey, and George Noblit, common themes emerge about the "good" qualities of segregated schools from the narratives of former students, parents, and educators who affectionately recall the family-like atmosphere of all-black schools, dedicated and caring teachers, and a community discipline that made both schools and neighborhoods safe havens for children. (4) My current research on the history of historically black high schools and the closing of these institutions during desegregation in Hillsborough County, Florida uncovered strikingly similar find-ings. These case studies reveal that many former students and educators from both urban and rural areas have fond memories of growing up and going to school despite the economic and social marginalization and exploitation imposed by segregation.

In this paper, I examine the meanings embedded in the nostalgia for segregated schools among former students and teachers of Middleton and Blake Senior High Schools, two historically black schools in Tampa closed as a result of the 1971 court-ordered desegregation plan in Hillsborough County, Florida. My analysis of these testimonies and testimonials suggests ways the study of nostalgia can enhance, rather than diminish, the use of oral history for understanding how we use historical consciousness to make sense of and comment on the present. Former students' and teachers' romanticized memories of their school experience create an artful critique of the discriminatory aspects of the school desegregation process. Through nostalgia, former students and teachers capture the value of black school traditions devalued by a school desegregation plan, which was largely and painfully designed to accommodate white interests. In their nostalgia for Middleton and Blake, however, former students and teachers are not claiming African Americans benefited from school segregation, but rather, they are pointing to the ironic legacy of desegregation and the tension between community control and integration. Although segregation within and among schools and communities remains the historic and fundamental source of race-based educational inequalities in Tampa, as African Americans continue to meet head-on challenges imposed by economic isolation, educational failure, and family dislocation, they turn to what they remember as making a difference in their lives during the era of segregation: the black community, its teachers, and its schools.

Rethinking Nostalgia in Oral History

Historians often consider nostalgic recollections of the past unreliable data, which potentially distort the historical record. The nostalgia for historically black schools in particular raises interpretative and political dilemmas for historians documenting African Americans' experience during segregation and desegregation. (5) Nostalgic recollections about the good qualities of segregated schools may gloss over the gross inequalities and political disenfranchisement imposed on African Americans during the Jim Crow era. In addition, with the increasing movement to end court-ordered desegregation in many school districts across the U.S., the nostalgia for segregated schools may cater to the notion that "separate but equal" is a viable alternative to school integration. (6) As Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton argue, critics of desegregation "compare their memory of the best of the old black schools with the worst problems in the desegregated schools and assume a decline" in black achievement without looking at evidence that reports otherwise. …