Law & Courts

65 Years After ‘Brown v. Board,’ Where Are All the Black Educators?

By Madeline Will — May 14, 2019 10 min read
Mrs. Ella J. Rice talks to one of her pupils, all of whom are white, in a 3rd grade classroom of the Draper Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C., September 13, 1954. This was the first day of non-segregated schools for both teachers and pupils in the District of Columbia public school system. Mrs. Rice was the only black teacher in the school.

Sixty-five years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

That decision for the first time afforded black children access to the same educational opportunities as white children. Although many schools remain de facto racially segregated today, the decision is still heralded as one of the country’s most significant milestones for civil rights.

But Brown also had an unintended consequence, the effects of which are still felt today: It caused the dismissal, demotion, or forced resignation of many experienced, highly credentialed black educators who staffed black-only schools. After the decision, tens of thousands of black teachers and principals lost their jobs as white superintendents began to integrate schools but balked at putting black educators in positions of authority over white teachers or students.

For instance, in 1953, one year before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, teacher Darla Buchanan received a letter from the Topeka, Kan., superintendent, Wendell Godwin.

“[T]he majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ Negro teachers next year for white children,” Godwin wrote. “It is necessary for me to notify you now that your services will not be needed for next year.”

Shortly after the Brown decision, the Moberly, Mo., school district closed a segregated black school, which led to the dismissal of 11 certified black teachers, including at least one who had a Ph.D. Some of the white teachers in the district who kept their jobs had fewer classroom experience or college credits than the black teachers who were dismissed, according to court documents.

Seven of the dismissed black teachers sued the school district, claiming they lost their jobs because of their race. The courts sided with the district, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In the book The Lost Education of Horace Tate, author Vanessa Siddle Walker tells the story of a black man in north Georgia who had been a principal for 14 years. Once the school district began to integrate, administrators transferred half of the principal’s students and half his teachers and docked $3,000 from his salary. Eventually, the principal lost all his students and was transferred to the superintendent’s building. He was given a windowless room in the attic as an office—where he turned in his resignation, humiliated.

These types of stories were common. Today, many scholars say the persistent lack of black teachers in the profession can be traced to the aftermath of the Brown decision.

“We decimated the black principal and teacher pipeline, and we’ve never rectified that,” said Leslie Fenwick, the dean emeritus and a professor at the Howard University School of Education. “It is the unfinished promise of Brown that we have not integrated our faculty and school leadership.”

Prior to Brown, in the 17 states that had segregated school systems, 35 to 50 percent of the teaching force was black, said Fenwick, who has researched the displacement of black educators for her upcoming book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: Public Policy and the Near Decimation of Black Educational Leadership After Brown.

Now, no state has anywhere close to those percentages of black teachers or principals, she said. According to the most recent federal data, about 7 percent of public school teachers, and 11 percent of public school principals, are black.

“Not having these models of intellectual authority and leadership in schools is detrimental to children,” Fenwick said. “All children deserve to have diverse models of intellectual authority in the classroom via their teacher, or diverse models of leadership in schools.”

‘What We Lost’

Before Brown, the segregated black schools were underresourced and underfunded compared to the white schools. In some places, black students were forced to travel long distances to school without provided transportation. Black teachers were often paid less than their counterparts in white schools, and taught with outdated textbooks that were handed down from the white schools in the district. Some of the black school buildings were crumbling, with inadequate heating and cooling systems.

Despite these challenges, most of the black teachers and principals in segregated schools pre-Brown had better credentials than white educators, Fenwick said.

Though they were barred from attending many Southern, segregated institutions of higher education, many black educators received tuition scholarships to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at integrated universities like Columbia, Michigan, and New York, she said.

“That’s what we lost,” Fenwick said. “We lost these credentialed, qualified people who had experienced integration in educational environments, who had played by the rules and come back [to teach in the South].”

Black educators were also advocates for their students, said Walker, a professor of African-American educational studies at Emory University, who extensively researched the records of black educators during this time period for The Lost Education of Horace Tate.

There was an entire network of black educators who organized efforts to desegregate schools and provide equal access to transportation and school resources, even though they knew their efforts could result in job loss and even threats of violence, said Walker, who is also the president of the American Educational Research Association.

And inside the classrooms of segregated schools, there was a focus on civics and the democratic ideals. Black children were taught to aspire to greater things than the status quo of segregation, Walker said.

“They taught these children not to believe the wider societal messages, but to really believe they could be full participants in American democracy,” she said. “Rather than being victimized by what America is not giving them, they are literally teaching these children to live in a world that does not exist.”

That purposeful education—including strong interpersonal relationships between teachers and black students—went away when black schools were closed, and “you got rid of the people who knew how to do it,” Walker said.

“The losses were so much greater than just the individual teachers,” she said. “It matters that they lost their jobs, but the loss we need to contend with in this era is so much broader. ... Yes, we need more diversity with teachers, but we need that and more. We need to reclaim that additive model of what it means to educate all children.”

A growing body of research has found that black students benefit from having a black teacher, both academically and socially. Black students are more likely to both graduate from high school and enroll in college when they have just one black teacher in elementary school.

And black students are more likely to be placed in gifted education programs if they have a black teacher, and less likely to receive suspensions, expulsions, or detentions from black teachers. Research has found that black teachers have higher expectations for black students.

“I think in general, black students benefit from working with teachers who deeply understand and are invested in their educational progress and success,” said Rich Milner, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University. “With the decline of teachers post Brown, we see that these students are often underserved and are not supported in ways that would be advantageous to their academic and social success.”

A Continued Diversity Gap

Increasing teacher diversity has been at the forefront of advocates’ and some policymakers’ agenda for some time now, especially now that about half of public school students are nonwhite. Indeed, over the last 30 years, the number of nonwhite teachers has gone up faster than the number of white teachers, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

However, that growth has been driven by a significant increase of Hispanic and Asian-American teachers. The number of black teachers has increased by about 34 percent over the past three decades—a smaller increase than any other group of teachers, except for Native American teachers (whose numbers have decreased over this time).

And black teachers are not evenly distributed across jobs. According to 2012 federal data, half of black teachers work in urban public schools, while 27 percent work in suburban schools. Nearly 70 percent of black teachers teach in high-poverty schools, Ingersoll said, and only 1 percent of black teachers work in predominately white schools.

One barrier to recruiting more diverse candidates into the profession is the licensing test that states require teachers to take. Like with other standardized tests, black and Hispanic candidates have lower scores on average on certification tests than their white and Asian-American counterparts. Some experts attribute that discrepancy to a lack of strong preparation and test anxiety. (Licensure exams are often expensive to take and retake, an additional burden.)

Linda Tillman, a professor emerita of educational leadership in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said after the Brown decision, standardized tests were used to “deny black educators the opportunity to teach.” States implemented certification measures that led to black teachers being fired or to school districts not renewing their contracts, she said.

Between 1984 and 1989, about 21,500 black teachers were displaced because of new requirements for teacher education programs and certification, she said.

Another challenge for the teacher diversity gap today is retention: Black teachers are more likely than their white peers to quit teaching. Milner attributed that in part to the additional responsibilities that are often placed on black educators’ shoulders—for instance, many black teachers report being pigeonholed as disciplinarians.

And one possible reason for the continued diversity gap is that children of teachers are more likely to go into teaching themselves, according to a recent study.

“This actually can explain a lot about the persistence of the white overrepresentation in teaching,” said study co-author Seth Gershenson, who is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Overall, children whose mothers were teachers were 9 percentage points more likely to become teachers than other children. That holds true for both the sons and daughters of white female teachers, and the daughters of black female teachers.

A Lasting Impact

Today, public schools are still deeply segregated, with large numbers of black and brown students being taught in schools that are predominately nonwhite and often have fewer resources. As the country’s attention turns to the 65th anniversary of the Brown decision—and how far schools still have to go to be truly racially integrated—scholars hope there’s also a reckoning on what happened to the black educators of the time period and their legacy.

“We really need to not just sit around and think about Brown and clap for Brown and then go on as business as usual,” Walker said. “This anniversary needs to be a summons to action.”

And that action should be twofold, she said: Policymakers need to focus efforts on diversifying the teaching ranks, but also schools should embrace the rich pedagogy and practices that were common among black teachers in segregated schools.

But the legacy of those black educators still exists in schools today. For instance, Pamela Benford, a regional superintendent for the DeKalb County school district near Atlanta, was mentored by her former principal, who grew up in the pre-Brown era of segregated schools. That educator carried the pedagogical practices of the black teachers in black schools into her own instructional philosophy, and imparted those lessons to her staff, including Benford.

“I think the biggest thing I learned from her was the way she encouraged and modeled ... what it means to be student-centered,” Benford said. “She understood that it’s really all about the child.”

Benford’s principal had high standards and expectations for her students and employees, but it all came down to making sure children had everything they needed to succeed, she said.

“I saw her exemplify that, and I did strive to be like her,” Benford said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2019 edition of Education Week as Thousands of Black Educators Lost Jobs After Brown v. Board

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