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Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools

reviewed by Jeanne M. Powers

coverTitle: Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools
Author(s): Michelle A. Purdy
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 1469643499, Pages: 258, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

How do we understand private schools in the South during the first two decades after Brown? Were all private schools in the South alike? What were black students’ experiences in elite private schools in the first decades of desegregation? Michelle Purdy’s compelling and award-winning history of Westminster Academy, an independent school in Atlanta, Georgia, seeks to answer these important questions. Purdy combines a detailed institutional history of Westminster Academy with the stories of the first cohorts of black students through the early 1970s. In the process, she connects the local history of a single institution with the broader histories of desegregation, federal education policy, the Civil Rights Movement, and the personal histories of key players in these spaces.


Independent schools are historically white elite private schools that in many cases continue to serve as the training grounds for business and political leaders. While most prominent independent schools were founded in the late 19th century, Westminster is a relatively new member of this group. Founded in 1951, Westminster was not a segregationist academy or a private school established for the purpose of allowing white families to avoid desegregation. Westminster Academy is an interesting case because in the years after Brown it was careful to distinguish itself from the growing ranks of segregationist academies in the South and did not overtly resist desegregation. Yet its enrollment expanded considerably in the late 1950s through white families’ efforts to avoid desegregation in Atlanta Public Schools and other Southern school systems. Eventually, Westminster instituted policies aimed at discouraging such enrollments, such as enrollment caps in the high school grades. Yet Westminster also underwent a process of being nudged toward desegregation under the leadership of Dr. William Pressly, the school’s founding leader. Pressly was one of the few Southern leaders in national associations of independent schools such as the National Council of Independent Schools (NCIS), which merged with another organization to form the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).


The book has two main parts. First, Purdy documents the process that led Westminster to desegregate in 1965. She places this analysis in the context of debates within national associations of private schools about how to respond to desegregation in public schools. Second, Purdy documents the experiences of the first cohorts of black students, whom she describes as the “fearless firsts.” While Westminster was willing to open its doors to a small number of highly selected black students in the late 1960s, there was very little effort to change an institutional culture “birthed in the vestiges of the Old South” that was organized around white privilege at best and overtly racist at its worst (p. 117).


Purdy’s analysis is based on a careful examination of archival materials and interviews with the “fearless firsts,” white alumni, and black and white independent school leaders. She situates her analysis of the school’s founding within the context of Atlanta in the years after Brown. White city leaders adopted a gradualist approach toward desegregation aimed at maintaining the city’s economic standing as the major business and financial hub of the region. Yet the state government was dominated by rural leaders who “did their best to thwart any possibility of desegregation” (p. 27). In the years prior to Brown, state lawmakers passed a law requiring the state to terminate funding to all public schools in Georgia if one black student was admitted to a public school. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, the state legislature passed bills aimed at supporting the development of segregationist academies. In this context, independent schools were not immune to the political pressures generated by the Civil Rights Movement and by the changes in the private school landscape generated by Southern states’ resistance to desegregation.

Pressly assumed leadership positions in national organizations for independent schools during this volatile period, including being named the chair of the NCIS in 1957. During Pressly’s tenure, which also coincided with an expansion in federal involvement in education through the National Defense Education Act, NCIS monitored federal legislation and its implications for private schools. One of the major contributions of Purdy’s analysis is her use of the Westminster case to illuminate how private schools were not insulated from the debates about desegregation in the public school sector. For example, private schools did not have to pay taxes on revenues because of their federal tax-exempt status and donors were able to claim deductions for charitable gifts to private schools, both of which were called into question as the federal government began to throw its weight behind desegregation after the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964.


As public schools in the South slowly and fitfully began to desegregate, enrollment at historically white elite private schools increased alongside the proliferation of segregationist academies. Black parents, including civil rights leaders, also looked to these schools as options for their own children. Historically white elite private schools outside the South were also recruiting and providing scholarships for black students with the support of foundations and federal programs. In this context, independent school leaders began to consider the implications of losing federal aid to private schools if their schools remained segregated. Purdy situates the debates about desegregation and the admission of black students at Westminster and other historically white elite private schools alongside a discussion of how state politicians in Georgia realized that massive resistance to desegregation was not viable and instead advocated for a more limited approach to desegregation that would maintain “a high level of segregation” (p. 62). During this period, a number of civic groups in Atlanta were promoting desegregation at a range of institutions, including public and private schools. White city leaders were also at least partially supportive of desegregation because they were interested in maintaining the city’s position as the economic center of the region. Some of these city and civic leaders served as Westminster board members.


In the early 1960s, Pressly rebuffed a number of efforts to admit black students; while black students could be tested for admission to other schools and colleges, they were not allowed to formally apply to and enroll at Westminster. Yet as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded, the school’s admissions policy was harder to maintain. By 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, the March on Washington, and the assassination of Medgar Evers propelled civil rights to the center of national political debates. Atlanta Public Schools were slowly desegregating, and other private schools in Atlanta admitted black students. In November 1965, Westminster announced that during the following academic year (1966-67) it would consider the applications of “any and all” applicants, which made it the first non-sectarian institute in the South to desegregate (p. 91). The first cohort of black students entered Westminster in the fall of 1967.


Purdy documents the activities and perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders. For example, she uses articles in the school newspaper to highlight the contradictory practices and attitudes about race held by the white students attending Westminster in the years before the school desegregated. While the school maintained racist traditions, some white Westminster students participated in the civic groups supporting desegregation and grappled with the meaning of race and racism in articles and editorials written in the school newspaper. Beyond Westminster, Purdy also provides an account of the important work done by the first black leader in NAIS, William Dandridge, to center equity in NAIS’s activities, and the network of black independent school leaders and allies he created and fostered.


While Purdy’s main goal was to provide an institutional history of Westminster, I found myself wanting to know more about the experiences of the “fearless firsts,” who were the focus of the last two chapters of the book. In her opening chapter, Purdy makes the important point that black communities like those in Atlanta were both vibrant and terrorized by whites under Jim Crow, often with violent and deadly consequences. The first cohort of black students who desegregated Westminster were imbued with the belief in and commitment to education that was nurtured in these communities within and beyond the South. While few in number, these black students changed the experiences and perspectives of their white colleagues. Black workers had long been part of school life and many white students had been raised by their black housekeepers. When the “fearless firsts” entered Westminster, white students encountered blacks as their peers. Purdy’s account also highlights the courage of the black students who entered a setting that was not ready to fully welcome them. These students had to negotiate a contradictory environment. Some teachers were supportive, the curricula in some upper grade classes was expanded to include black literature and history, and the school brought prominent black leaders in as speakers. Yet all of these students reported experiencing racial microaggressions and overt racism, and school events often glorified white supremacist Southern culture. Despite these barriers, the “fearless firsts” persevered and thrived within and beyond Westminster.


Purdy’s valuable and comprehensive analysis of the desegregation of Westminster highlights the incremental and halting nature of progress. As Purdy observed, while Westminster chose to desegregate, it also declined to integrate. Her fine-grained history of Westminster also makes it clear that private school settings are not immune to larger debates about schooling in the United States. Finally, Purdy provides yet another window into how much of the burden of desegregation was shouldered by black students who were willing to go into unwelcoming school spaces that opened their doors to them without changing their school cultures to foster the full participation and inclusion of all students.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2019, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22930, Date Accessed: 7/16/2019 12:45:43 PM

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