One of the nation’s most significant milestones for civil rights also devastated the pipeline of Black educators, with consequences that are still being felt today.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court 68 years ago this week, afforded Black children access to the same educational opportunities as white children, ending the doctrine of “separate but equal.” But it also 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. Scholars say that the current lack of Black educators in the profession can be traced to the aftermath of the Brown decision. Prior to Brown, Black principals and teachers comprised 35 percent to 50 percent of the educator workforce in the 17 states with segregated school systems. Today, no state has anywhere close to those percentages, and nationally, just 7 percent of teachers, and about 11 percent of principals, are Black.
This month, Leslie Fenwick, the dean emerita and a professor at the Howard University School of Education, published a book about the displacement of Black educators, titled Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership. Fenwick spoke to Education Week about her research and the implications of the decimation of the Black teacher pipeline. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You share so many stories of Black educators who were dismissed, demoted, or forced out of schools, sometimes even with violent threats. Is there a story in particular that stayed with you while you were researching this book?
What strikes me more than any one story that’s most egregious is that the stories are very similar. The stories and narratives are the same. These are people who played by the rules—they were committed. They went North, they got their graduate education, they came back [and were] still underpaid. When you look at the pay scales, they were paid less than white teachers with [fewer qualifications].
I think what bothers me is that many of the principals in particular were established in NAACP chapters and working for voting rights. That was part of their community leadership. Part of the targeting of them was also payback for leading those efforts, which, particularly in the South, were deeply resented by the white power structure.
Your book explores how the consequences of dismissing and downgrading Black principals and teachers were so far-reaching, even beyond the Black educators themselves. There’s a quote that says “to downgrade [the Black principal] is to downgrade the Black community.” What did the fallout from Brown mean for the Black middle class?
One trauma certainly was the economic trauma in the Black community. A large percentage of the Black middle class—then and now—are educators. And so when these individuals lost their jobs, it had an economic impact on their family and on their community.
There’s one story: A gentleman loses a principalship and ends up having to go work in a factory. Very menial work, not a supervisor in a factory. He encounters some of his students who are working in this factory, whom he had encouraged to finish high school for all the obvious reasons. And now he’s working alongside them in a very menial job. The idea that education was not only this kind of euphemistic lever of uplift for you and your family and community, but that you would have some control over your destiny through education—that was lost.
Here are these people who got their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs. They can’t get graduate education in their own state, they travel North, they come back, they keep teaching in segregated schools even though they know this is wrong, and they still get captured by this arc of racism. It’s a deep and profound impact, not only on the person but anyone witnessing this.
It shook the notion that education is the great emancipator; education is the great accelerator; education is the lever for uplift. It deeply shook that ... in the Black community.
Brown made the case that Black schools were inferior, but your book argues that’s not entirely accurate. Could you talk about the educational excellence taking place in segregated Black schools?
I like to be careful: We don’t want segregated schools. We didn’t want them then, we don’t want them now. I think what my book is attempting to share is that if [Black school] facilities were deteriorated, looking at those facilities really didn’t tell the whole story because the power of the school was in the teachers. I think there’s evidence that the attorneys who were crafting Brown used this as a narrative that would accelerate the case. This is one of the reasons why the [Black] teachers’ credentials are not part of making the case—to make the case, you had to prove that separate was unequal.
The book calls the National Teacher Exam more powerful than the white principal in terms of declaring Black educators to be incompetent. Do you consider that to be still true today with teacher licensing and certification exams?
Yes, I do. I see them then, and I see them now as perpetuating a racist agenda to restrict primarily Black teachers from the profession, [although] I think they’ve captured other teachers of color. Black teachers with superior credentials were purged from the system, and by and large in the 17 states [that had segregated school systems], were replaced by white teachers who had less academic credentials, lower levels of professional licensure—no licensure in some cases.
What also happened was that as positions are being advertised in the newly integrating system, Black teachers with these credentials are subject to these newly instituted licensure exams. Even though they [already] have licensure, they must take these exams. The tests themselves were manipulated in terms of content and cutoff scores to keep Black teachers out and to keep them from applying for new jobs. In Florida, when Black teachers—even despite all of the maneuvering—outperform white teachers on the Florida version of the [licensing test], Florida drops the test. They stopped using it.
[Black teachers are] applying for these positions, and the test is a gatekeeper, and it continues to be a gatekeeper. And my question is that if we know that these tests have this history that has been, over and over and over again, litigated with clear findings, why are we still using them? ... We know that these tests continue to have a racially disparate impact, and we’re doing nothing about it. And we know that our prospective Black applicants are failing the entrance licensure exams by one to three points. That’s not statistically significant, and it requires that we interrogate how these cutoff scores are being set.
In addition to looking closely at certification exams, what else do you think could be done to help rebuild the pipeline of Black educators, nearly 70 years after Brown?
The number one thing that has to happen is the retelling of this story as a framer of why we are where we are. The issue of the underrepresentation of Blacks in the educator pipeline is not because of the myth that Blacks fled education to pursue other professions after Brown. We have to do a retelling of the story—we see that the cause for the underrepresentation of Blacks in the educator pipeline, whether we’re talking about teachers or principals or superintendents, is an issue of structural racism. It’s not an issue of personal choice in terms of the pursuit of education as a field.
The second is that this purging, the largest transfer of jobs from Black hands to white hands certainly in public education, took an economic toll on the Black community. And there needs to be some correction of that. I think there should be funding to HBCUs in large measure—not piddling funding, large, significant, substantive funding to recruit and prepare a new generation of Black educators. ... Many of us in the community are deeply disturbed by the lack of investment in HBCUs for teacher prep when we know that these institutions are strong engines for the production of teachers.
And then I think the third and most important thing is changing the state policies that require certain cutoff scores for teacher licensure. I am not saying we don’t want to assess and evaluate pre-service teachers. We want to do that, and there are many, many ways to do that. In fact, the National Research Council called for a portfolio assessment of pre-service teachers 20 years ago. ... We should have some test of students’ content knowledge before they go into the classroom. What we notice is on exit licensure examinations, [which candidates take after completing their preparation program], the score disparity between Blacks and whites is far less. In other words, the treatment of teacher education tends to equalize performance on licensure exams.
What is the main takeaway you hope people have after reading your book?
This book speaks to a racially divisive history. But we also have this racially triumphant history in our country. Part of the racial triumph is when groups come together—white and Black and other—to advocate for equity and change and equality. And part of the racially triumphant history is acknowledging truth. This acknowledgment of truth is so important to us moving forward. And these individuals, 100,000 individuals, who gave up their livelihoods so that schools could desegregate—they really should be acknowledged. In the book, there’s a page and a half where I just list some names. I did that because I wanted the reader to pause and acknowledge: This was real, and not that long ago.
The most powerful moment I had when I was writing the book [was when I saw] a copy of a memo that Thurgood Marshall wrote. He was writing this to some Northern philanthropists at large foundations because in 1952 or ‘53, he was establishing the NAACP teacher information and security department. He knew at the time, two years before Brown, if Brown was successful, given the racist structure of the border and Southern states, that Black teachers would lose their jobs, and they would need legal help to regain those jobs. He was gearing up for that.
When I was researching this, I had the question: These intelligent men—[Charles Hamilton] Houston and Marshall and [James] Nabrit who crafted Brown—they had to know this would happen. And they did, and they were making moves to protect Black teachers. I felt chills when I was looking at this memo that they knew this and were trying to protect Black teachers and Black principals from this eventuality.