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

By Zoë Burkholder | Go to book overview

1
Race as Nation, 1900–1938

I think one of the worthiest things the history teacher can do is empha-
size the good that has come from other races than our own.

—History Teacher, 1909

How then, ebony Narcissa Larkins and blond Helma Pekkarrinnen, are
your junior high school teachers to lead you gently but firmly and
kindly toward peace and harmony and even brotherly love within the
four walls of your classroom?

—English Teacher, 1933

Writing in the first issue of The History Teacher’s Magazine in 1909, Dr. William Fairley, a teacher at Commercial High School in Brooklyn, described his progressive efforts to relate the study of ancient history to the modern lives of the students before him. He presented human history as a prolonged struggle from the earliest days of brute savagery to the enlightened state of contemporary American society. He elaborated, “The great development of civilization among the peoples we are to study, of course implies long preparatory ages of slow and bitter struggle upward from savagery.” According to Fairley, while many groups had progressed from the lowest developmental stage of savagery to the highest stage of civilization, others remained mired in an unseemly state of savagery and were not worthy of academic study in American high schools. “Why do we begin west of the Indian peninsula, and ignore the Hindoos, the Chinese, and Japanese?” he asked rhetorically. “Because these peoples are out of the great stream of development. The progressive life of to-day’s world owes little to them, if anything.”1

Drawing on dominant racial paradigms of the day, teachers like Fairley believed that certain races, such as Anglo-Saxons, were biologically endowed with the intelligence and resourcefulness to evolve to higher levels of civilization, while others lacked these inherent capabilities and thus remained hopelessly

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