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Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954

reviewed by Michael Fultz - September 15, 2006

coverTitle: Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954
Author(s): Davison M. Douglas
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521607833, Pages: 334, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

It is unfortunate that the catch phrase in the title of Davison Douglas’s noteworthy new book, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954, is such a palpable misnomer. The phrase subtly reinforces one of the myths which Douglas deftly unmasks: the “gentle conceit of northern people,” as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “that race prejudice is a vice peculiar to the south” (p. 134). Most decidedly, Jim Crow, in its multiple manifestations, did not “move North”; it was there all along (see Berlin, 1998; Melish, 1998). And it has stayed there, varying, of course, in time and place, but basically demonstrating a sturdy and robust Yankee durability. Research in 2003 from the Harvard Civil Rights Project, for example, indicates that three northern states--New York, Illinois, and Michigan--had the nation’s highest percentages of black students in 90-100 percent minority schools, and conversely, led six states (add California, Maryland, and New Jersey) with the lowest percentages of white students in schools attended by the average black student (Orfield & Lee, 2006, p. 18, 26). Thus, separate schools have stubbornly prevailed in the North despite legislative mandates and court decisions prohibiting racially based student assignments and affirming the right to attend school on a nondiscriminatory basis, which in some cases date back 150 years.

Jim Crow Moves North starts to fill a major void in African American educational historiography. Though there are some fine state-specific and city-specific studies (see Franklin, 1979; Meier & Rudwick, 1967, 1979; Wright, 1941), the general absence of comprehensive narrative histories on African American social, economic, and educational struggles in the North is more than just an academic issue. As historian James Anderson has remarked, and as Douglas clearly concurs, “this gap contributes greatly to America’s failure to understand why modern reforms in behalf of constitutional equality have failed to destabilize the political and institutional mechanisms of racially segregated schooling” (Anderson, 2006, p. 30). As Douglas puts it, “This book explores the reasons for this dissonance between legal rule and educational reality and seeks to provide insight into the broader question of how legal rules affect racial change” (p. 8).   

Douglas makes clear that the extent and persistence of school segregation in the North—both legal and illicit—has been consistently underplayed. Prior to the Civil War, only Massachusetts had outlawed school segregation by state statute. That 1855 legislative decree, however, was issued in a unique political context in which immigration briefly trumped race as a perceived social problem and due to the aftermath of an 1850 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the Roberts case, which upheld the municipal authority of the Boston School Committee to mandate segregation (In its 1896 Plessy decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Roberts precedent, one of several examples of school segregation used to establish the “reasonableness” of de jure segregation.). While African American education did modestly advance during the common school reform movement of the antebellum period, restrictions—and often outright denial of public funding—shaped the modal black experience. Ohio, for example, excluded all African American children from public schools until 1848, when it permitted separate schools to be established if sufficient taxes could be raised from black families. Even then, resistance in southern sections of the state, highlighted by notorious intransigence in Cincinnati, remained strong. Iowa limited its public schools to white children until 1857; Kansas until 1862; Illinois until 1869. Although there were some longstanding traditions of publicly funded schooling for black students in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia, in 1854 the state legislature enacted guidelines permitting school segregation by local option and mandating segregation in districts with more than 20 black students. New York had enacted similar legislation in 1841, and between 1843 and 1845 passed legislation requiring school segregation in several of the state’s larger cities, including Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, and Brooklyn.

The central questions Douglas seeks to address start to arise in the postbellum period. As a result of a variety of factors, including various forms of black agency (boycotts, petitions, legislative lobbying), an often “calculated desire” to win the new black vote, and widening support for public schooling throughout the nation, between 1866 and 1887 “every northern state except Indiana that had previously required or permitted school segregation by law enacted legislation that either explicitly or implicitly prohibited the continued operation of segregated schools” (pp. 83-84). Moreover, with the sole exception of the New York State Court of Appeals, state supreme courts upheld the anti-segregation directives. Yet, all too often, these state laws had little or no effect. Enforcement mechanisms were weak or nonexistent; legislators knew that compliance would be discretionary and therefore unlikely. Attaining legal writs of mandamus was an expensive process and even if obtained, the writs were routinely interpreted as applying only to the children of the individual black family who might file suit; class action litigation was a thing of the future.

Opinion was divided within African American communities. Throughout the book, in fact, Douglas does a superb job of explicating the ongoing debates within black circles over the advantages and disadvantages of integrated versus single-race schooling, be it in the antebellum or postbellum periods, or at various points in the 20th century. An important thread of this conversation concerned the valued role of black teachers as nurturing, supportive role models, and as skilled classroom instructors.  The often adamant refusal to allow African American instructors opportunities to teach in racially mixed schools played a part in these considerations. Springfield, Ohio, for example, fired all of its black teachers after passage of the state’s anti-segregation legislation in 1887; from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century the city of Pittsburgh had no black teachers, and Philadelphia refused to allow black teachers to instruct white children. Not surprisingly, support for the employment of black teachers was framed as more than a mere pedagogical matter, and often trumped other, more idealistic commitments.

For some within the African American communities of the North, the value of single-race schooling grew in reaction to mounting discrimination across the first three decades of the 20th century. During these years, even the limited, symbolic gains of the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods were frequently ignored and gutted in both urban and rural areas alike. As black migration grew, so too did white hostility; as de facto and de jure housing segregation mounted, so too did visions of building black institutional infrastructures, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. W.E.B. DuBois’s 1935 manifesto, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools,” stands as an articulate reminder of an integrationist dream tired of hitting its head against a wall (From the opening editorial of the Crisis in 1910 through the early 1930s, DuBois had been a passionate defender of the ideals linking integrated schooling with the fulfillment of American democracy.). As DuBois’s NAACP colleague James Weldon Johnson summed up the mounting frustrations: “There come times when the most persistent integrationist becomes an isolationist” (pp. 202-203).

But the slumbering dream of inclusion sprang to perhaps unprecedented life in the late 1940s, again advancing in the aftermath of a bloody war in which racial ideologies played a prominent role. A concerted African American drive to end racial segregation in the North and South, spearheaded by an increasingly popular NAACP, found white allies. Again, a postwar black vote was a factor not to be ignored. Through the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, northern state legislatures put new pressures on segregating communities in the southern sections of Ohio, Illinois, and New Jersey. Even Indiana, the one holdout among northern states, which still allowed school segregation by local option, formally outlawed the practice by statute in 1949 (Of course, Kansas, abiding by a 1879 legislative statute, continued to permit segregation in elementary schools in “first-class” cities such as Topeka, those with over 15,000 population, until the Brown decision in 1954.).

Yet, as Douglas highlights, even as the final vestiges of “obvious and explicit” forms of racially based pupil assignments were being targeted by activists and legislators, racial separation in the North, especially in housing and therefore in schools, was on the increase. White flight swelled ongoing patterns of suburbanization, and although racial covenants were declared unenforceable in the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court decision, federal loan and local real estate practices, along with racially gerrymandered school district borders, assured separation. Douglas’s assessment is blunt: “This general acceptance of racially gerrymandered districts reveals the limits of postwar racial liberalism–explicit forms of racial separation were disfavored, but racial separation caused by residential patterns or by creative line drawing did not offend the equalitarian sensibilities of most White northerners” (pp. 217-272).

And so, the question lingers: how can our nation’s legal system justify the “dissonance”–some would call it base hypocrisy—between established legal and legislative precedents and the ongoing historical legacy of widespread racial isolation in schools? The answer seems to be that it can’t. Although he might have provided more in-depth review and assessment of the work of critical legal scholars and race theorists, Douglas draws from the works of Mark Tushnet and especially political scientist Stuart Scheingold to argue that the “‘myth of rights...be exchanged for a more complex framework, the politics of rights,’ which takes into account the contingent character of rights in the American system” (p. 276, emphasis in original). Said alternatively, legal rights should be conceptualized as formulated in and largely dependent upon an intricate context of sociocultural and sociopolitical support, with race proving to be “remarkably resistant to change in this country’s history” (p. 274). Eminently readable and thoughtfully constructed, Jim Crow Moves North is a welcome addition to the literature.


Anderson, J. D. (2006). Still desegregated, still unequal: Lessons from up north. Educational Researcher, 35, 30-33.

Berlin, I. (1998) Many thousands gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Franklin, V.P. (1979). The education of Black Philadelphia: The social and educational history of a minority community, 1900-1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Meier, A. & Rudwick, E. (1967). Early boycotts of segregated schools: The Alton, Illinois case, 1897-1908. Journal of Negro Education, 36, 394-402.

Melish, J. P. (1998). Disowning slavery: Gradual emancipation and "race" in New England, 1780-1860. Ithaca : Cornell University Press.

Orfield, G. & Lee, C. (2006). Racial transformation and the changing nature of segregation. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Wright, M.T. (1941). The education of Negroes in New Jersey. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 15, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12714, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:26:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Fultz
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL FULTZ is Professor and Chair, Department of Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the history of African American teachers in the South. Among his recent publications is "The Displacement of Black Educators Post-Brown: An Overview and Analysis," History of Education Quarterly, 44(1), Spring 2004, 11-45.
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