"Getting It Straight": Southern Black School Patrons and the Struggle for Equal Education in the Pre- and Post-Civil Rights Eras

Article excerpt

In the years of "separate but equal," Southern Black community members strove valiantly to enhance the inferior educational opportunities counties and states provided for their children. Their actions in attaining new school buildings, high school grades, bus transportation, extending school terms, providing learning materials, and maintaining school facilities were critical. Their dedicated commitment to improving their children's education provides inspiration for Black parents faced with different, but just as serious, impediments to equal educational opportunities for Black children today.

Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research. When you see you have problems . . . examine the historic method used . . . by others who have problems similar to yours. Once you see how they got their's straight, then you know how you can get yours straight. (X, 1963/1991, p. 190)

Nearly 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) attempted to provide Black children with equal educational opportunity by ruling school segregation unconstitutional, Black education is in crisis. Black children are often alienated from school, unable to translate the "values-spoken" by the adults in their lives of the importance of education into the "values-lived" of performing in school as if education is truly important (M. Philipsen, 1999).1 Black parents, too, often do not feel a sense of ownership of their schools, contributing to a lack of involvement on their parts that in turn weakens their ability to influence institutional accountability and student achievement. There are complaints that many teachers appear not to care about their students as people, with scant patience for those who cannot keep up with the lesson and little interest in the children's nonscholastic needs. These factors, themselves the results of a complex causality, have contributed to a situation where Black student achievement is below that of Whites, regardless of socioeconomic status, the racial make up of the school, or whether the setting is urban, suburban, or rural.2

Many remedies to the daunting problems surrounding the education of Black youth today have been suggested, including better teacher training, school vouchers, and Afrocentric curricula. Excellent work has been done on the strong, caring Black teachers in segregated schools who not only taught their subject matter but also interacted with students in ways that nurtured, inspired, and boosted the self-esteem of Black children (Foster, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Morris & Morris, 2000; Walker, 1996). Interested teachers of today, Black and White, can model their interaction with Black students on these lessons from the past. Teacher training programs, too, can use such studies to train teachers to teach Black children more effectively. Just as careful analysis of the historic role of Black teachers can play a part in improving the interaction of teachers and Black students today, this article suggests that those concerned with the education of Black children may also benefit from an appreciation of the pre-Brown struggle of Black school patrons to address the educational crises of that time.3 By detailing the efforts of one community over time, the present endeavor builds on James D. Anderson's seminal work (1988) on the grassroots campaigns that started and sustained many Southern Black schools.4 It also contributes to the growing body of literature critiquing school desegregation and questioning the conventional wisdom that unequal funding, physical plants, and teaching materials necessarily led to a wholly inferior education (Bell, 1980; Cecelski, 1994; Foster, 1997; Foster & Foster, 1993; Jones, 1981; Morris & Morris, 2000; Rogers, 1975; Sowell, 1974, 1976; Walker, 1996).

Using the example of Prince Edward County, Virginia, this article offers an historical analysis of the valiant, incessant efforts of economically, politically, and socially oppressed Black communities across the segregated South to give their children the best education possible. …

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