The Undiscussed Backlash to Brown v. Board: The Sidelining of Black EducatorsRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, school integration, School Desegregation, Brown v. Board of Education, education history
Leslie T. Fenwick, PhD, is author of Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2022). She is dean emerita of the Howard University School of Education where she is a tenured professor of education policy. A former Harvard University Visiting Scholar, she also serves as Dean in Residence at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).
Today, most Americans think about the segregation-shattering 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in one of three ways. We may think about Linda Brown, the plaintiff in Brown, a little girl forced to walk miles to a segregated Black school instead of attending the white school down the block. We may remember the famed Norman Rockwell painting featuring 6-year-old Ruby Bridges escorted by U.S. Marshals past a wall splattered with tomatoes and a racial slur. Or we may recall the tumult of busing in the South — Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia… and even much further north of the Mason-Dixon Line in South Boston, too.
But there is plenty that we have not been taught about Brown, which turns 68 today, or how it continues to impact us. We know about Linda Brown and Ruby Bridges. But we don’t know about Pressley Giles, Mary Preyer, Virgil Coleman and Jewel Butler. They were among the 100,000 exceptionally credentialed Black principals and teachers illegally purged from desegregating schools in the wake of Brown.
In the years following the Supreme Court ruling, and well into the 1970s, white resistance to the decree decimated the ranks of Black principals and teachers. In large measure, white school boards, superintendents, state legislators — and white parents — did not want Black children attending school with white children. And they certainly did not want Black teachers educating white children and Black principals leading schools and supervising white teachers. The scheme devised to quickly eliminate Black educators: the closure of Black schools. Even prior to Black school closures, black principals and teachers received letters from district superintendents erroneously telling them that the desegregation decree was responsible for their firings, dismissals and demotions. Less-qualified white teachers, many of whom didn’t have credentials, were hired in their stead.
As early as 1952, NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall knew that Black educators’ jobs would be threatened given the racist strictures and customs of the Southern and border states. He was correct. After Brown, the NAACP litigated thousands of cases on behalf of displaced Black educators and pressured the Nixon administration, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the FBI and Congress to investigate and remedy the illegal and discriminatory treatment of Black principals and teachers. Though some litigants prevailed winning back pay and reinstatement, most never got their jobs back.
Today, the nation, not to mention our public education system, is still living with the fallout: traumatized Black school children; roughly $1-2 billion in salary losses and the largest orchestrated brain drain ever experienced in the U.S. public education system. What’s more, many of the beliefs and levers that were used to eliminate Black principals and teacher leadership after Brown are still in effect today. When I read and watch contemporary news accounts of (mainly white) parents objecting to the teaching of Black history and a more truthful accounting of American history; threatening to burn books; and physically intimidating school board members, I think about resistance to the Brown legal decision. The tactics being used now come from the exact same script.
In conducting research for my new book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership, I discovered the purging of Black educators happened even though Black principals and teachers were more qualified than the white educators who replaced them. Proven Black principals and teachers were replaced on a near one-to-one basis with whites who held fewer or no qualifications. Even in segregated all-Black schools, Black educators were more likely to hold bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, certification, and higher levels of licensure than their white peers. Yet after Brown, they were deemed unfit to teach white students for racist reasons, losing both their jobs and their ability to directly influence education policy and practice.