Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina and the Fate of Black Schools in the South
reviewed by Scott Baker - 1995
Title: Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina and the Fate of Black Schools in the South
Author(s): David Cecelski
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 0807844373, Pages: 235, Year: 1994
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David Cecelskis Along Freedom Road examines one of the most pernicious consequences of school desegregation: the widespread closing of African-American educational institutions in the South. Whites in many southern communities managed to comply with constitutional commands in ways that obliterated black schools, but Cecelskis case study of desegregation in Hyde County, North Carolina, shows how African Americans saved two black educational institutions through a successful yearlong boycott of the local school boards desegregation plan (p. 57). What makes Cecelskis account significant and worthy of the attention of all those concerned with the issue of racial equality in public education is his argument that African Americans in eastern North Carolina used the Power of public protest not simply to preserve separate educational institutions but to create new multicultural ones that served whites and blacks on equal terms.
Cecelskis work is rich with irony. Although white leaders sought to use the schools to reinforce patterns of white supremacy and black subordination, African-American educators created a vibrant network of educational institutions that trained the activists whose direct-action protests forced whites to accede to black demands in the late 1960s. While the Hyde County School Board believed it could maintain segregation by upgrading black schools on the one hand and discouraging African-American students from seeking access to white schools on the other, this strategy heightened African-American faith in black institutions and helped create the protest movement that saved them.
While pressure from the federal government forced the Hyde County School Board to come up with a desegregation plan, Cecelski shows that it made the process a one-way street that placed the burden of change solely on African Americans (p. 57). By the late 1960s the courts had become increasingly impatient with such tactics and in a series of decisions ordered school boards to comply with Brown v. Board of Education by eliminating the vestiges of segregation. In Hyde County, whites-used such rulings to justify the closing of black schools, and officials in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) did not object, Cecelski argues, because they shared the boards assumptions about the inferiority of
African-American educational institutions. Cecelski is quite critical of HEW for its inflexibility, its indifference to black demands, and its approval of the boards plan to close black schools and bus black students to an already overcrowded white school. African-American schools in Hyde County were not closed because local blacks organized a yearlong boycott that forced whites to involve African Americans in crafting a new desegregation plan. Cecelski contends that the hostility that greeted the small number of black students who attended white schools and the boards plan to shut down black schools convinced African-American parents that desegregation was threatening rather than enhancing educational opportunities for their children (p. 59). Realizing that whites couldnt implement their plan without students, local activists organized marches, sit-ins, and a boycott of classes (p. 78). These-protests helped African Americans develop what Cecelski calls remarkable intellectual confidence, critical ability, and political sophistication that permanently altered traditional patterns of black deference and white supremacy and sparked a broader movement for civil rights and racial justice in the county (pp. 130-31). By forcing whites to treat African Americans as subjects rather than objects in the process of school desegregation, the boycott not only succeeded in saving the O. A. Peay and Davis Schools; it also assured that blacks would have a strong voice in the merging of white and black educational cultures and traditions (p. 160). While Cecelski acknowledges that blacks still face enormous obstacles to true equality, he argues that race relations in Hyde County have improved significantly, largely because of school integration (p. 165).
Cecelski has analyzed an important chapter in the history of school desegregation, but he might have situated his account of Hyde County in a broader historical and educational context. He makes a number of references to the mass closing of black schools, but offers almost no discussion of this process outside of eastern North Carolina (p. 7). Although Hyde County may have been a microcosm of school desegregation in the rural South, in many southern cities, the problem was not so much the closing of African-American schools but the construction of new segregated black institutions that accommodated the thousands of rural blacks who left places like Hyde County for urban areas in the South (p. 11). Cecelski acknowledges that school closings were part of a broader pattern of racism that marred school desegregation, but he devotes relatively little attention to the new, more sophisticated forms of segregation, discrimination, and inequality that replaced caste arrangements and that remain significant obstacles to meaningful desegregation in the region (p. 7). Still, Cecelski has written an important book that reminds us that school desegregation can succeed when whites and blacks share equally in its heavy burdens and wondrous benefits (p. 162).