Sixty years ago Saturday, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. In a unanimous decision, the Court struck down the concept of “separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools. It was a catalyst that invigorated the Civil Rights Movement and its quest to end the inequality of Jim Crow laws, affecting everything from lunch counters to buses.
With the Brown case pending, Black teachers waited anxiously for the ruling on school segregation, with thoughts fixed firmly on their Black students. Would the case solve the wide racial disparities in facilities, funding and resources? Would Black students’ sense of ethnic identity and cultural solidarity suffer from desegregation? And lingering in the back of Black teachers’ minds: Would they be the collateral damage in the battle to integrate schools?
A hint of this suspicion is found in the excerpt from an oral history conducted in 1991 with a former teacher in a segregated school:
“…we were under such a terrible strain because when they wanted integration they never considered the effect that it would have on the Black teacher who was very qualified. Practically all of them [Black teachers] had their masters…they put such a terrible strain on the Black teachers.”
Dr. Alfred Roberts remembers this period well. He taught at segregated Pearl C. Anderson Middle School in Dallas and weathered the transition during desegregation. But the path was not so smooth for Black teachers throughout the state.
“I’m from a small town near College Station named Somerville,” said Roberts, co-founder of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Black School Educators. “The high school had grades 1-12 in one building. When they combined the schools, they sent all of the high school students to the White school, and they made the high school an elementary school. In your smaller cities, I’m quite sure there were a lot of [Black] teachers displaced.”
The data bears this out, revealing a widespread practice across the South. In 1954, there were 82,000 Black teachers. In the 11 years following the Brown decision, the ranks of Black teachers plummeted: more than 38,000 Black teachers and administrators in 17 Southern states were out of a job. Black teachers were suddenly expendable due to all-Black schools shutting down and newly integrated schools shutting the door in their face.
Charles Bolton in The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi documents the systematic firing of Black teachers in one of the last states to desegregate after the Brown decision. Between 1970 and 1973, the number of white public school teachers in Mississippi increased by almost nine percent, while Black teachers fell by almost 12 percent. White administrators weeded them out as “poorly qualified” – even with impeccable credentials – and moved to rid their districts of Black teachers who supported the civil rights movement.
The displacement and dismissal of Black educators post-Brown is well-researched, supported by evidence, and would be a footnote in history except for the fact that like the resegregation of America’s schools, everything old is new again.
In the country’s largest urban districts, mass school closings are the education policy du jour. From New York and Chicago to New Orleans and Philadelphia, school leaders are targeting schools that disproportionately serve Black students. Startling data from the U.S. Department of Education shows a consistent trend. While 43 percent of Chicago students are Black, they accounted for 87 percent of affected students in schools marked for closure. The same pattern is seen in Philadelphia and New York City, and in every case Black teachers are caught in the crossfire, as they tend to be heavily concentrated in schools with predominately Black student bodies.
In Chicago, three Black teachers sued for discrimination, citing the disparate impact on Black staff from the district’s school closure plan. Like students, a marked difference was evident. Black teachers made up less than one-third of the tenured staff in Chicago Public Schools yet represented more than half of tenured teachers pushed out by closures and turnarounds.
The loss of Black schook staff in urban centers is impossible to ignore, though the decline of Black teachers can’t be blamed solely on this course of action. Approaching the Brown anniversary there’s renewed interest in closing the large and growing diversity gap between public school students and teachers.
Conventional wisdom holds that the answer is filling the pipeline – even as data show that efforts to recruit more minority teachers and place them in disadvantaged schools are working. Recruitment has been very successful, but it’s only half of the equation.
Richard M. Ingersoll, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on teacher turnover, points to the culprit: Black teachers fleeing the poor working conditions that prevail in their schools. Simply filling the bucket isn’t the answer, says Ingersoll. The real challenge is to plug the leaks. “We’re hiring more minority teachers but also losing more of them,” he told Pacific Standard magazine. “…minority teachers are not more likely than white teachers to stay in those tough places. They’re more likely to get jobs there, but when it comes to the decision to leave, the demographics seem to be a nonfactor. What’s really driving the turnover is that these are jobs with problems.”
Whether it’s too little support and too much testing, or Black teachers feeling underpaid and overworked, the result is the same. Committed and effective teachers are leaving the classroom, frustrated and discouraged. The problem is compounded by issues of seniority in layoffs and the system of “last hired, first fired” negotiated by many districts and teachers unions. Retaining teachers of color, regardless of how many years they’ve worked in the school system, would mean foregoing the traditional system – a high but not insurmountable hurdle.
Sixty years after Brown v. Board, the loss of Black teachers remains a failure of will, not a failure of means. It’s an unforgivable failure because race matters in the classroom.
“It matters because the curriculum is usually so focused on white people that children (of all colors) get the impression that the stories that matter, and education as a whole, are not for children of color,” explains José Vilson, a New York City middle school teacher, writer and author. “Having a person of color in front of the classroom says the curriculum they're learning is for everyone.”
Black-Latino male teachers are rare. In his new memoir, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, Vilson shares his journey to the classroom and goes deeper into why Black and Latino children need teachers that look like him:
We have high expectations for the children sitting in front of us because we were once them. We can tell the difference between a kid not knowing how to add fractions and not knowing how to say the word “fraction,” because many of us were once English language learners. We don’t take “Yo, what up, teacher?” or “Hey, miss!” to be a sign of illiteracy, but a sign that they want to connect with us as human beings. Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people of color as multidimensional and intelligent, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.
Melinda D. Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her at @mdawriter.