Years of Entrenched Inequality

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Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., in the 1920s, the historian John Hope Franklin attended the city's "separate schools." As cut off as he was from his white peers, though, Franklin was by no means unaware of how his segregated schools stacked up.

For student productions requiring a sizable stage, he remembers, youngsters from his all-black high school sometimes borrowed the white school's auditorium. At those times, the disparities in the two facilities were on full display.

"It was not at all ambiguous to me," says Franklin, now a professor emeritus at Duke University and the chairman of the advisory board for President Clinton's Initiative on Race. "I knew we were disadvantaged. I felt it."

In 1909-10, the average school term for black students stood at 101 days in the 11 former Confederate states and Kentucky, a full 17 days less than the average for whites. "It was not reasonable to suppose that the Negro children were so smart that they could learn as much as white children while going to school for a much shorter period of time each year," Henry Allen Bullock observed in his 1967 book A History of Negro Education in the South: From 1619 to the Present.

Salary Gap Dramatic

Discrepancies in educators' salaries were no less glaring. In 1928-29, for example, white teachers in the 11 former Confederate states earned a typical monthly salary of more than $118, but black teachers received less than $73. And in some states, the disparity was far greater. In South Carolina, black instructors' salaries were less than a third those of whites.

Most of those African-American teachers, moreover, were themselves products of inadequate schooling. During the 1930s, a third of the black teaching force in the South had not even completed high school, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom reported in their 1997 book America in Black and White: Race in Modern America.

On the facilities front, black students in the South attended schools that were typically worth less than a quarter of those of whites. Given such gaps, it is not surprising that the bottom lines of black and white schools' budgets were grossly unequal.

By the late 1920s, per capita spending on black students throughout the South averaged about a third that spent on whites, according to Bullock. And in some states, the picture was even bleaker. Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi each invested more than five times as much in their white students as in blacks, while South Carolina spent more than 10 times as much.

The disparities began to narrow in the 1940s, as courts began signaling that Southern states would have to start addressing the "equal" half of the "separate but equal" doctrine.

In response to lawsuits--or to head them off--many Southern states began raising spending on black students at a faster pace than for whites.

By the 1949-50 school year, a survey of six states in the Deep South found that per-pupil spending in black schools stood at 65 percent of that for whites, up from 41 percent a decade earlier.

Efforts to close the gap accelerated as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund launched an all-out assault on segregated education. In 1951-52, per-pupil spending for blacks in those six states had climbed to nearly three-quarters of that in white schools, according to the Southern Education Reporting Service, a Nashville-based agency that is now defunct.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregated schooling served as a further spur to equalization, as states sought to forestall desegregation.

Bittersweet Memories

As black Americans look back at segregated schools from a greater and greater distance, some say it is important to remember the good things that happened in them--despite their manifold disadvantages. Franklin, for one, recalls outstanding black teachers who expressed unwavering faith in him and his classmates. "They spent a lot of time making us feel that we were somebody--that despite the inequalities that existed that we were as good as anybody else," he says.

Franklin regards the educational segregation that shaped his youth as "a bittersweet kind of thing."

"On the one hand, it protected us from antagonisms and hostilities of people who didn't want to be with us," he observes. "On the other hand, it deprived us of equal opportunities, equal facilities, equal everything."

PHOTO: A teacher reads to pupils attending an all-black school in Uno, Va., in 1947. White students attended a separate school in nearby Orange.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 31

Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Years of Entrenched Inequality
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