Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965

Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965

Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965

Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965

Synopsis

During the half century preceding widespread school integration, black North Carolinians engaged in a dramatic struggle for equal educational opportunity as segregated schooling flourished. Drawing on archival records and oral histories, Sarah Thuesen gives voice to students, parents, teachers, school officials, and civic leaders to reconstruct this high-stakes drama. She explores how African Americans pressed for equality in curricula, higher education, teacher salaries, and school facilities; how white officials co-opted equalization as a means of forestalling integration; and, finally, how black activism for equality evolved into a fight for something "greater than equal"--integrated schools that served as models of civic inclusion.
These battles persisted into the Brown era, mobilized black communities, narrowed material disparities, fostered black school pride, and profoundly shaped the eventual movement for desegregation. Thuesen emphasizes that the remarkable achievements of this activism should not obscure the inherent limitations of a fight for equality in a segregated society. In fact, these unresolved struggles are emblematic of fault lines that developed across the South, and serve as an urgent reminder of the inextricable connections between educational equality, racial diversity, and the achievement of first-class citizenship.

Excerpt

And the children of the white race and the children of the
colored race shall be taught in separate public schools; but there shall be
no discrimination made in favor of, or to the prejudice of, either race.
—Amendment to Article IX of the
North Carolina State Constitution, added in 1875

[The Negro’s] educational development may be temporarily retarded by
unconstitutional and unchristian legislation, but his citizenship is a fixture.
The Progressive Educator, the organ of the North Carolina
Teachers Association, 1888

The new choice, it seems, is between separate but equal [schools]
and separate but unequal.
—Journalist James Traub, on the occasion of
Brown v. Board of Education’s fortieth anniversary, 1994

Like many children of the post-1960s South, I was first struck as a student of history by the profound difference that one generation can make. My mother began public school in South Carolina in 1943, at the height of racial segregation. When she began her senior year of high school in North Carolina in 1954, the Supreme Court had just ruled “separate but equal” schooling unconstitutional, yet another two decades would pass before the region’s schools desegregated on a meaningful level. By contrast, I began my public school career in North Carolina as levels of school integration were approaching their historic peak. In 1980, the year I completed the first grade, North Carolina could boast of having the most integrated schools in the South and some of the most integrated schools in the nation. Yet not quite two decades later, another sea change was emerging. As journalist James Traub concluded in 1994, “The new choice, it seems, is between separate but equal [schools] and separate but unequal.” Two years later, Time magazine headlined a cover story, “Back to Segregation.” By the end of the decade, Charlotte, North Carolina, was taking center stage in this national debate over the future of school integration. When a 1999 court decision allowed that district to suspend busing plans designed to achieve racial balance, the local schools quickly resegregated. By Brown’s fiftieth anniversary in 2004, similar trends could be found across the nation, and countless observers tempered their tributes to the ruling’s architects with data indicating America’s rapid retreat from its goals.

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