Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972

By Fultz, Michael | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972


Fultz, Michael, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972. By R. Scott Baker. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 280; $39.95, cloth.)

Is standardized testing a more "rational" mechanism to perpetuate racial stratification than de jure segregation? Certainly white political and educational authorities in South Carolina thought so. As R. Scott Baker reveals in Paradoxes of Desegregation, officials in the Palmetto State were among the first southerners who realized the potential in using standardized test scores to undermine the impact of mounting African American drives for integration and equality. First, through the use of the National Teachers Examination (NTE), which softened the blow of the NAACP's salary-equalization campaigns in the late 1930s and 1940s, and later through the implementation of policies requiring test scores for admission to the state's public colleges, universities, and law schools, South Carolina's leadership sought to perpetuate racial hierarchy in ways they believed were more legally and socially defensible. It was not coincidental, for example, that two weeks after the Brown decision in 1954, the University of South Carolina became the first public university in the South to require standardized tests for admission. As its president proudly commented in 1958 when he resigned to run for governor, under his leadership South Carolina had "pioneered in protecting our southern way of life" (p. 134).

Paradoxes of Desegregation is a somewhat uneven, but credible and often illuminating, history of protest, resistance, and the limits of reform. It presents a multilayered account, providing a historical narrative from the "bottom up" that highlights black school and community activism where, Baker rightly notes, the civil rights movement was rooted, as well as from the "top down," in the halls of power in Columbia and Charleston. Its title is misleading: the "paradoxes or desegregation" that Baker affirms-chiefly that the dividends of desegregation have not been evenly distributed across the African American class structure-are not the central themes of the book. Moreover, as Baker reminds us, the deleteriousness of segregation was not evenly distributed, either. On another note, although A very Institute and Burke High School often figure prominently in the story early on, as do concerns over citywide white flight and the creation of the tracking system in later chapters, readers expecting an in-depth focus on the city of Charleston per se will be mildly disappointed. Longtime city school superintendent A. B. Rhett, whose superannuated views of vocational education for African Americans were a major barrier to reform during his term in office (1911-1946), is mentioned only on occasion, while the growth and development of black schooling citywide is barely glimpsed. Similarly, the desegregation of the College of Charleston in 1968 is not discussed.

Still, overall, Baker provides a thoroughly readable, comprehensive account. His narrative begins with burgeoning African American elementary and secondary school enrollments, nurtured by black teachers' messages of strength and persistence at places like Mamie Garvin Fields's rural school on James Island. Cascading demands for higher education and equal opportunity evolved, overtures that could not be satisfied even with vast improvements at South Carolina State College. Simultaneously, and even more worrying to the white authorities, the NAACP initiated its salaryequalization and integration campaigns. These forces converged, sometimes through persistent, conscious determination (John Wrighten, for example, sought to integrate the College of Charleston in 1943 and the University of South Carolina Law School in 1946) and sometimes inadvertently (as when Avery was summarily closed in 1954, impelling black elites to close ranks with others in Charleston's African American community through common attendance at Burke High School). …

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