Separate Schools and the Legacy of Brown

In his 1903 masterwork The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote movingly and incisively about the educational systems he encountered as a student, teacher, scholar, and activist. As a child in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a college student at Fisk, a graduate student at Harvard, and a college professor at Wilberforce and Atlanta University, Du Bois experienced both marginally integrated and deeply segregated schools. Although not representative of black education in his time, Du Bois’s formative educational experiences defined the scholar-activist he became. Due in part to the complexity of his educational background as well as his research as a sociologist and historian, Du Bois held nuanced views about integration. In 1935, he argued that although integration accompanied by full racial equality was a desirable ideal, the reality in the United States was such that “most Negroes cannot receive proper education in white institutions.” [1] Du Bois’s perspective offers a challenge not only to our reading of the history of school desegregation but also to the circumstances of our educational system in twenty-first-century America. As a society, we continue to wrestle with both the persistent problem of segregation in schools and the failure of integrated institutions to offer satisfactory educational experiences for many students of color.

George W. McLaurin, 1948. Gelatin silver print. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (47) Digital ID# cph 3c16927 Courtesy of the NAACP.
George W. McLaurin, 1948. Gelatin silver print. Visual Materials from the NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Digital ID# cph 3c16927. Courtesy of the NAACP.

Viewers of the Library of Congress’s online exhibition “With an Even Hand”: Brown v. Board at Fifty would do well to keep Du Bois in mind as they explore images and documents from the long fight to integrate schools in the United States. This 1948 photograph of George McLaurin in a marginally integrated, but clearly still segregated, classroom at the University of Oklahoma symbolizes the struggles of African Americans seeking educational opportunities at all levels. McLaurin’s successful challenge to the university’s policies as he pursued a graduate degree in education was one of several important cases that paved the way for the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. At the same time, the photo illuminates how ostensibly integrated educational settings can be unsettled by racial inequalities.

Tracing the course of school integration from the nineteenth century through “The Aftermath” of Brown, the exhibition showcases the history of segregation, the NAACP’s legal campaigns, and related civil rights struggles. Photographs of key players, such as Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, and scans of critical documents dramatize the exhibition’s narrative of the court cases that led to Brown and the broader context of segregation in American society.

Save Brown v. Board of Education, 2003. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (220).
Save Brown v. Board of Education, 2003. Poster.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Fittingly, for an exhibition created to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, “With an Even Hand” celebrates the remarkable accomplishments of the civil rights activists who challenged segregation in schools and public accommodations. It only hints, however, at the struggles that continue to plague the American educational system. Since 1990, the trend is toward more, rather than less, segregation in schools in the United States. Today, sixty years after Brown, its legacy is deeply in doubt. Without a renewed commitment to desegregation and high-quality integrated education that is inclusive of all students, the gains rightfully trumpeted in the Library of Congress’s exhibition will become only a distant memory.

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” The Journal of Negro Education 4, no. 3, The Courts and the Negro Separate School (July 1935): 328-329.

3 thoughts on “Separate Schools and the Legacy of Brown

  1. My entire question about preserving the legacy of Brown comes from the school boundaries that the districts set. Sometimes school district might be gerrymandering their own area since the areas are heavily polarized. Should the school district consider the background of their students to be diverse when setting the school lines? How can this work without coming off as we need a certain number of students of this background?

    I was reading the Brown at 60 article and the line of “separate is inherently unequal” popped out to me. If that was the precedent from Brown v. Board of Education, then how come American with Disabilities allow the separation? I understand the importance of giving individualized attention but that only applies to schools (once the child becomes an adult, ADA helps only so much) and the doctrine is applied a little too often for “problem children.” How can education be equal to all?

  2. Reading DuBois certainly made me think about issues of inequality, segregation, and integration. I completely agree with DuBois that integrated schools are the ideal, but that’s extremely difficult to carry out in practice. When I looked at the linked exhibit on Brown v. Board, I wondered about the quality of education students like Ruby Bridges received while being harassed, threatened, and segregated from classmates. It certainly points to the truth of DuBois’s statement that “most Negroes cannot receive proper education in white institutions.” It reminds me of recent debates on same-sex schools; many people argue girls get a better education in female-only schools, because of the safe and supportive environment. It might have been the same for African-American children.

    However, integration is needed in today’s society; if students are segregated in their education, they will never learn empathy, tolerance, and respect for people different from them. At the same time, teachers and administrators have to work to become more tolerant and inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds. We must pay attention to the lessons of Brown v. Board and work toward high-quality education for all students.

  3. While I agree that all students ought to receive high-quality education, I wonder how effective school integration tactics are when weighed against external factors, such as geographic location and economic situations. For instance, a school may develop some sort of inclusive programming, but students will continue to learn habits (and prejudices) from their families and communities. I think that a more intentionally integrated classroom is an important stepping stone, but a comprehensive cultural overhaul is necessary in order to create a productive learning environment.

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