Education and Race in the 20th Century

By Catherine A. Cardno — February 28, 2012 4 min read
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I know we’re nearing the end of African-American history month, but I wanted to let you know about two books that have recently crossed my desk that deal with education and African-American history and look particularly interesting.

The first is Zoë Burkholder’s new book, issued by Oxford University Press, Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954. In the book, Burkholder—an assistant professor in the department of educational foundations at Montclair State University—draws upon hundreds of first-hand accounts written by teachers. She uses the accounts to trace the influence of anthropological activism—a movement to treat race in scientific and egalitarian terms in the classroom—on the way that teachers understood, spoke, and taught about race in the first half of the 20th century.

The movement, which predated the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision to end segregation in schools in the United States, included lesson plans, lectures, courses, and pamphlets designed around the concept of human diversity as learned habits of culture, rather than innate characteristics. As Burkholder writes in the book’s introduction, “in 1939 America’s most prominent anthropologists became convinced that they could wage a deliberate campaign to undermine racism in the United States.” Their campaign—which Burkholder terms “one of the most audacious antiracist initiatives ever undertaken in American history"—took place during World War II as educators and anthropologists joined together to revise what they called “the ‘race’ concept.”

As Burkholder writes, “the anthropologists, educational administrators, and teachers described in this book...were early civil rights warriors who took great risks and tremendous leaps of faith to promote lessons on scientific racial equality to young children, years before the height of the popular civil rights movement.” Burkholder places this wartime movement against the backdrop of a discussion of the social construction of race in American classrooms from the turn of the century to the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling.

While Burkholder looks at the shift in how race was conceptualized and taught in American classrooms, the second book— John L. Rury and Shirley A. Hill, The African American Struggle for Secondary Schooling, 1940-1980 (Teachers College Press, 2012)— takes a close look at the specific experiences of African-American students. The book draws on oral histories and quantitative datasets to explore regional variations in high school attendance across the United States. As the authors write, “in this book, we examine the factors that eventually led to expanded access to high schools, more integrated education, and, ultimately, to realizing the limits of racial equity in secondary schooling.”

The Rury and Hill volume looks at the experiences of African-American students from 1940— roughly a decade and a half before the Brown v. Board decision— and then takes the story up through 1980. In 1940, only 14 percent of African-American teenagers (versus 46 percent of white students) graduated from high school, the authors write in the introduction. By 1980, 64 percent of African-American students were graduating high school, compared to 78 percent of their white counterparts. Although the gap had not closed completely, the authors write that the extent to which it shrank during the forty years covered by the study “marked an instance in recent history when an immense racial disparity in educational attainment was largely closed, an accomplishment clearly linked to the subsequent social and economic success of African-Americans.”

Rury is a professor of education and (by courtesy) history at the University of Kansas and Hill is a professor of sociology and a graduate director at the University of Kansas.

If you’ve had a chance to read one, or both, of the books let me know what you think. As for myself, I’m particularly intrigued in seeing how the optimistic view of the early 20th century classroom that Burkholder explores in the pre-Brown v. Board period meshes with the reality of students’ experiences that Rury and Hill examined in the post-Brown v. Board period.

If you are interested in finding out more about Brown v. Board, or about how to incorporate documents related to it in your classroom, the National Archives has put together a useful Brown v. Board resource collection, including background on the decision, original documents, biographies, standards correlations, and lesson plan resources.

The crucial details:

Zoë Burkholder, Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954(Oxford University Press, 2011).

John L. Rury and Shirley A. Hill, The African American Struggle for Secondary Schooling, 1940-1980: Closing the Graduation Gap (Teachers College Press, 2012)

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.