Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972
reviewed by Jayne R. Beilke - December 20, 2006
Title: Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972
Author(s): R. Scott Baker
Publisher: University of South Carolina Press, Columbia
ISBN: 1570036322 , Pages: 248, Year: 2006
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R. Scott Baker has written an engaging and revealing history of the ways in which racial policies disguised as educational policies were used to preserve the status quo of race and class in South Carolina by resisting school desegregation. The first systematic challenge to the southern caste system occurred in the late 1930s when activist educators joined with the NAACP in campaigns to equalize the salaries of white and black teachers. The response was the adoption of standardized tests to maintain salary differentials that could no longer be based solely on race. The new system, which was based on scores on the National Teacher Examination (NTE), was approved by the legislature in 1945. Other southern states followed this lead, making teacher testing part of the new and, according to Baker, more rational and durable educational order that replaced the caste system in the South. At the level of higher education, new admission requirements were instituted at the level of professional education such as law school. By 1948, all graduates of the law school had to pass a written bar exam before they were allowed to practice law in South Carolina.
In a move that would later be emulated at the elementary and secondary school levels, the College of Charleston was privatized in 1949 in order to forestall desegregation, which left South Carolina State as the only public institution in the state that offered opportunities for advanced studies to blacks. Although they had been ruled illegal in Gaines v. Canada (1938), out-of-state tuition scholarships forced blacks to travel to northern institutions for graduate and professional study. Assisted by an all-too-willing Educational Testing Service (ETS), South Carolina was the first southern state to require that all applicants for admission to public colleges and universities submit Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. School authorities adopted this policy on May 27, 1954, less than two weeks after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education was rendered.
The Charleston school board resorted to the same tactictuition paymentsto allow parents to enroll their children in private schools to avoid desegregation in 1963. By this time, however, growing numbers of middle class blacks had also moved to the suburbs and enrolled their children in predominately white schools. Originally adopted to equalize teacher salaries in 1945, in 1969, the State Board of Education raised the minimum NTE score that teachers had to attain to earn certification. Baker points out: Teacher tests have been used in South Carolina for almost sixty years, longer than any other state in the nation (p. 179). He argues, [T]he NTE has done more to perpetuate patterns of racial and class discrimination than raise the caliber of the states teaching force (p. 179).
Baker also explores the role of federal policies in drawing both new teachers and students into schools during the New Deal through programs such as the National Youth Administration (NYA). Established in 1935 to combat youth unemployment, the program funded part-time jobs for school, college, and graduate students between the ages of 16 and 24 so that they could continue their education. The Federal Relief Administration (FERA) funded teachers in southern states, resulting in the growth of the number of African American educators. According to Baker, by 1940, teaching became one of the few occupations where opportunities for African Americans expanded during the Depression(p. 11). Not only was teaching significant as an occupational choice, but teachers also contributed to the resistance movement that brought pressure to bear on school authorities for equalization and eventual desegregation.
The topic of school desegregation necessarily includes legal history. Much of the text focuses on the litigation efforts of the NAACP which joined with educational activists in the campaign for the equalization of teachers salaries, desegregation of higher education, and elimination of state-sanctioned segregation in the public schools. In this regard, Baker states: It is a story that begins not just in the NAACPs New York offices, as important as litigation would become, but also in schools and colleges that generations of institution building had done so much to develop (p. xv). Readers may be somewhat confused by the conflation of the NAACP as a more broad-based civil rights organization with that of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, however.
Although Baker argues that the institutionalized use of teacher testing, college admissions policies, and student tracking represents a more rational approach, the social construction of race in the United States has always been purported to be rational (that is, scientific), based on the categorization of physical characteristics and a belief in mental inferiority. Interestingly, a rational argument was also employed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during its campaign to desegregate education. Drawing on Kenneth and Mamie Clarks psychological studies, NAACP lawyers argued in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education that segregation adversely affected the self-esteem of black children by subjecting them to prejudice and assigning them to an inferior status.
Despite the books subtitle, it is not limited to the city of Charleston. Although the author does not address it explicitly, Charleston represents a unique historical case as the result of a large free black population that emerged (according to E. Horace Fitchett, 1940) very early in the eighteenth century. The black aristocracy of Charleston differed greatly from the freed black slaves who populated the low country and rural South Carolina. As a result, Charlestons free persons of color separated themselves in status from blacks that were freed after the Civil War. The author does, however, argue that Charlestons class-conscious elites were able to circumvent racial segregation somewhat by the maintenance of academically rigorous separate schools such as Avery.
By expanding the book beyond Charleston, Baker provides a more generalized study of southern white resistance to school desegregation. Baker concentrates on the following four educational institutions: a rural elementary school located at Society Corner, on James Island; Burke Industrial School, a combination vocational and academic high school in Charleston; Charlestons Avery Normal Institute, a private college-preparatory institution; and South Carolina State College, the African American land-grant college located in Orangeburg. The reader may question whether or not a school located on one of the Sea Islands was representative of rural South Carolina. Residents of the Sea Islands were able to preserve their cultural heritage due to physical isolation and lack of acculturation. Importantly, this heritage included the use of Gullah, a Creole language. According to sociologist Charles S. Johnson, this forced students to learn Standard English as a second languagea condition that would not have applied to all rural blacks.
The author draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, historical and contemporary, and his arguments proceed logically from the sources. The incorporation of personal interviews conducted by the author and others lends itself to the personal quality of the narrative. Stories of the isolation suffered by black students who left the nurturing environment of black institutions in order to further the cause of desegregation, and of black teachers and administrators who were fired from their posts, reveal the true cost of school desegregation in very human terms. They also remind us that educational equity is an unfinished task. By 1996, states the author, eighteen states, thirteen of which sanctioned segregation before 1954, required students to pass standardized tests to earn a diploma (p. 180).
Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Fitchett, E. H. (1940). The traditions of the free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina. Journal of Negro History, 25, 139-152.
Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).
Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).