Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Laboratory of Learning: HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Laboratory of Learning: HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow

Article excerpt

Laboratory of Learning: HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow by Sharon Gay Pierson. New York: Peter Lang, 2014, 308 pp., $159.95, hardback.

In Laboratory of Learning, educational historian Sharon Gay Pierson seeks to dispel the myth of inferior Black education prior to Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954) by highlighting the obscured history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities' (HBCU) laboratory schools. Examining Alabama State College's lab school, her work fits firmly within the tradition of scholars such as Vanessa Siddle Walker (1996) and David Cecelski (1994) who have also shown the value of Black institutions in the Jim Crow South. However, Pierson's work does not simply add another case study. It argues that laboratory schools had a broader impact on southern Black education that extended beyond their individual campuses.

The book is divided into two sections. Part one provides a context for the laboratory school by focusing on the growth of Black secondary education and pedagogical trends at the turn of the 20th century. Pierson noted that not only was southern education separate and unequal, but Black high schools were often nonexistent as Alabama saw little utility in providing anything more than an elementary education to African Americans. Until World War I, the few high schools available to African Americans were often found on the campuses of Black colleges. Alabama State's laboratory school offered its students a liberal arts education inspired by progressive theorists such as John Dewey, George Counts, and Harold Rugg. School administrators also deftly avoided the "industrial education" model, a remarkable feat as the philosophy's headquarters at Tuskegee Institute lay less than fifty miles away.

A particular strength of the book was its discussion of African Americans in the progressive educational movement. Far too often scholars pay scant attention to the ways African Americans contributed to or were affected by various currents in mainstream educational reform. As Pierson persuasively argues, the progressive movement's emphasis on exploring how democracy in the classroom could be used to battle societal inequality had a great appeal to African Americans. Alabama Sate championed this and other student-centered methods in their classrooms. These ideas were spread to a larger audience by the school's alumni, visitors who attended Alabama State's annual teaching institutes and other functions, and Black teacher organizations such as the Alabama State Teachers Association and the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. In this way, laboratory schools such as Alabama State influenced broader currents in southern Black education.

Part two of the book provides an institutional history of Alabama State and an in-depth examination of the laboratory school. Under the direction of Harper Councill Trenholm, the college's president from 1925-1962, the laboratory school flourished. As an indication of its stature, it achieved accreditation, a rare feat for southern Black schools at the time. Just as important was the affirmation the school received from its local Black community. The school's highly qualified educators developed a reputation of setting high expectations that students consistently met as evidenced by the large number of graduates who went on to pursue college degrees. …

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