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

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

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

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


Between the turn of the twentieth century and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the way that American schools taught about "race" changed dramatically. This transformation was engineered by the nation's most prominent anthropologists, including Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, during World War II. Inspired by scientific racism in Nazi Germany, these activist scholars decided that the best way to fight racial prejudice was to teach what they saw as the truth about race in the institution that had the power to do the most good-American schools. Anthropologists created lesson plans, lectures, courses, and pamphlets designed to revise what they called "the 'race' concept" in American education. They believed that if teachers presented race in scientific and egalitarian terms, conveying human diversity as learned habits of culture rather than innate characteristics, American citizens would become less racist. Although nearly forgotten today, this educational reform movement represents an important component of early civil rights activism that emerged alongside the domestic and global tensions of wartime.

Drawing on hundreds of first-hand accounts written by teachers nationwide, Zo Burkholder traces the influence of this anthropological activism on the way that teachers understood, spoke, and taught about race. She explains how and why teachers readily understood certain theoretical concepts, such as the division of race into three main categories, while they struggled to make sense of more complex models of cultural diversity and structural inequality. As they translated theories into practice, teachers crafted an educational discourse on race that differed significantly from the definition of race produced by scientists at mid-century.

Schoolteachers and their approach to race were put into the spotlight with the Brown v. Board of Education case, but the belief that racially integrated schools would eradicate racism in the next generation and eliminate the need for discussion of racial inequality long predated this. Discussions of race in the classroom were silenced during the early Cold War until a new generation of antiracist, "multicultural" educators emerged in the 1970s.


In Germany today, even the scientist can teach only those things which
agree with Hitler’s ignorant prejudices. There is no excuse, however, for
ignorance or prejudice in our educational world, which is free to teach
the truth.

—Franz Boas, 1939

[Teachers] need to see that, in spite of its terrible potency in the world
today, racism is vulnerable.

—Ruth Benedict, 1946

The cure for prejudice is scientific investigation, straight thinking, and
proper education.

—English Teacher, 1947

Just before Christmas break in 1943, eighteen elementary students from P.S. 6 in Manhattan assumed their places on stage for the musical Meet Your Relatives. Catering to incessant government demands for tolerance education, the purpose of this play was to popularize the anthropological definition of human race and its message of racial equality. As the curtain opened, twelve “eminent scientists” dressed in cap and gown stood in two rows on either side of an illustrated chart mounted in the center of the stage. Six children, wearing folk costumes from around the world, stood in front of the scientists and recited their opening lines:

FIRST CHILD: You have heard many ideas since you were born on the question
of Race, Religion, and Nationality. We all know Hitler’s pet ideas on the
superior, super-duper Aryan race. I don’t have to tell you what he thinks of
you or me —or DO I?

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