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Laboratory of Learning: HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow

reviewed by Kim Tolley - February 09, 2016

coverTitle: Laboratory of Learning: HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow
Author(s): Sharon Gay Pierson
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 143312307X, Pages: 308, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Sharon Gay Pierson’s Laboratory of Learning: HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow makes an important contribution to the history of African American education in the southern U.S. A familiar narrative in this history depicts the public schooling of African Americans in the Deep South as uniformly and abysmally poor during the decades after the Civil War. Pierson argues that while this portrayal has "raised awareness of the fraudulent funding practices in public education in the South" (p. 116), it also overlooks the evidence of academically strong liberal arts laboratory high schools that existed in historically Black colleges and universities, and provides "an inaccurate and incomplete historical portrait of Southern Black schooling that remains in the minds of many today" (p. 116). Pierson investigates the history of laboratory high schools at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), focusing on one institution in particular—the Laboratory School at Alabama State College—to address this problem.

Pierson's extensive archival research draws from the Alabama State University Archives, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Robert W. Woodruff Library Archives Research Center and special collections in Atlanta, Georgia, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, and other online digital sources. She additionally conducted more than 50 oral history interviews with former students and teachers affiliated with Lab High.

The book is organized in two parts—the first presents an overview of laboratory schools in historical context, and the second analyzes developments at the Alabama State College Laboratory High School. Appendices include the evolving names of the institution currently known as Alabama State University, brief descriptions of buildings belonging to Lab High, and a list of accredited Black high schools published in 1932. The book also includes notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.

The first chapter opens at the close of the nineteenth century, when southern politicians took steps to undermine the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. State constitutions legalized segregation and passed Jim Crow laws diminishing the rights of African Americans and promoting white supremacy. Much of the data in this chapter will be very familiar to historians because the dominant historical narrative of the post-Reconstruction era has been one of white backlash and black repression. But African Americans continued to push for education of their people despite the emergence of these laws, and unequal funding for their schools as Pierson points out. In Alabama, all-White boards of education often left the management of segregated all-Black institutions of higher education to their Black presidents. Black leaders like John William Beverly, President of Alabama's State Normal School for Colored Students from 1915 to 1920, took advantage of this relative independence to develop academically rigorous programs in the laboratory schools associated with their teacher training programs. Many newspaper and journal articles presented a portrait of African American schools as uniformly inferior during this period. Pierson argues that this was not entirely accurate because "the laboratory schools, which served as the exemplar in the period for secondary education, were not included in these profiles" (p. 46).

In the second chapter, Pierson demonstrates that Black laboratory schools implemented progressive educational theories and methods from 1920 to 1940 that "proved to be influential channels for advancing secondary education for African Americans" (p. 50). Most histories of education have focused almost exclusively on the influential White leaders at Teachers College, Columbia University, such as John Dewey, William Heard Kilpatrick, George Counts, and others, as playing a critical role in the expansion of progressive education. Pierson revises and expands this historical narrative by showing that Southern Black educators like George Washington Trenholm, W. A. Robinson, and Harper Councill Trenholm, among others, "interconnected with the progressive educational theories espoused by the great education leaders from Teachers College to influence Black education" (p. 50). Contemporary research on the Black laboratory high schools reveals that they shared a college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum and "experiences of democratic, cooperative teaching approaches" (p. 79).

The remaining chapters provide an in-depth case study of the origins and development of Alabama State College Lab High. The Alabama legislature passed a bill on December 6, 1873 establishing The State Normal School and University for Colored Students and Teachers. The school initially offered courses at the elementary and intermediate level, but the curriculum quickly evolved to include more advanced subjects under Black leadership. By 1885, the institution included a model laboratory school to provide practice teaching for students at the senior level. The school provided students a high-level liberal arts curriculum throughout the 1880s, despite "continued pressure from the powerful White legislators, philanthropists, and the 'Wizard of Tuskegee,' Booker T. Washington, to emphasize industrial arts for African Americans" (p. 107). By 1915 this laboratory school—Lab High—was a four-year degree-granting high school with a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum. Under the leadership of Harper Councill Trenholm, the school organized major lyceums—consisting of lectures, recitations, concerts, dramas, and exhibitions—as well as an array of extracurricular activities and student clubs. In 1929, Lab High was the first Black public high school in Alabama to earn "Class A" regional accreditation (p. 157).

The final chapter draws from oral history interviews of Lab High alumni that attest to the school’s rigorous curriculum, high expectations of students, student pride, and affirmation of African American culture and heritage. Pierson writes that "Expectations were high, not only to do well academically, but to commit to making a difference in society" (p. 211).

Pierson's Laboratory of Learning extends our knowledge of educational history by illustrating the important role HBCU laboratory schools played in providing rigorous, progressive forms of schooling to southern Black citizens during the Jim Crow era. Historians and graduate students will be particularly interested in the book's conclusion, which lays out several avenues for future research. Laboratory of Learning belongs on the bookshelf of every scholar interested in the historical development of public schooling in the American South.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 09, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19408, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:24:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Kim Tolley
    Notre Dame de Namur University
    E-mail Author
    KIM TOLLEY is a historian of education and Professor at Notre Dame de Namur University. She is the author of Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 (2015) and The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective (2003). She is co-editor (with Nancy Beadie) of Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727 1925 (2002) and editor of Transformations in Schooling: Comparative and Historical Perspectives (2007). Tolley has served on the editorial board of the History of Education Quarterly and on the board of the History of Education Society and currently serves as Network Representative for the Education Network in the Social Science History Association.
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