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Research, Ideology, and the Brown Decision: Counter-narratives to the Historical and Contemporary Representation of Black Schooling

by Jerome E. Morris - 2008

Background/Context: Most narratives of Brown v. Board of Education primarily focus on integrated schooling as the ultimate objective in Black people’s quest for quality schooling. Rather than uniformly assuming integration as Black people’s ideological model, the push by Black people for quality schooling instead should be viewed within the contours of Black political thought, which encompasses multiple ideologies (of which integration represents only one).

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: As Black people searched for quality schooling for their children, many knew that, though legally segregated, some of their segregated Black schools were effectively educating Black children. Unfortunately, the representation of predominantly Black schools in the historical literature is narrow and, as has been noted, primarily focuses on the fiscal inequalities between segregated Black and White schools. Yet, some scholars who have conducted historical research on Black schools during segregation have gone beyond such truncated representations of segregated Black schools. This article investigates an important, but often ignored, intellectual trend in the historical and contemporary scholarship on Black schooling. This trend offers a counternarrative to the representation of predominantly Black schools and the experiences of Black people before and after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Research Design: The research design for this article is an analytic review and essay that highlights key works on African American schooling during legalized segregation, and suggests directions for research on contemporary African American schooling.

Descriptions of main findings: A major theme from this analytic review and article has been the emergence of a cadre of scholars over the past three decades—most of whom are African American—who have provided a counternarrative to the master-narrative representation of Black schools before the passage of Brown. In this article, I illustrate how this group of scholars has challenged the pervasive notion that all the segregated Black schools, and the educators who worked in them, were inferior in all respects. This counternarrative is becoming evident in recent historical literature of segregated Black schooling, as well as present in a limited capacity in contemporary sociological research on African American schooling. Collectively, this body of scholarship raised poignant questions concerning (1) the efficacy of desegregation as the primary means to implement Brown, (2) how desegregation policies ignored the sociocultural and historical contexts of Black schooling, and (3) the need to address Brown’s second promise of quality schooling for low-income Black children.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The article concludes with implications for contemporary educational policy and reform, and for the scholarly investigation of African American people and institutions.

May 17, 2004, marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, arguably the most significant U.S. Supreme Court case of the 20th century. During that year, scholarly conferences, events, and publications remembered this momentous casea case that eradicated legalized racial apartheid and altered almost every aspect of the public sphere of U.S. society. Numerous celebratory events reflected on the accomplishments of Brown for society in general, and for schooling in particular. In terms of racial equality, these events and celebrations enabled American society to assess how far it had come and in which direction it hoped to go. Amid this commemoration, however, we still have to take a critical look at the history and the legacy of this landmark decision to learn from its successes and shortcomings. For example, to what extent have the promises of Brown been realized, particularly for low-income Black children? Could Brown have been implemented in a way that respected the social, cultural, and historical value of predominantly Black schools to their communities and the families of the children who attended these schools?

The above questions are of paramount importance when considering the contemporary social class and racial patterns of central cities. In many urban areas of the United States, African American students represent the majority population; some urban school systems enroll student bodies that are 80%90% African American.1 Given the contemporary social context in which many low-income African American students are schooled, how can the promises of Brownthat is, (1) its promise of racially integrated schools and (2) its promise of a quality education for Black childrenbecome realized more than 50 years after its passage?

Most narratives of Brown primarily focus on its promise of racially integrated schooling rather than also considering the promise of quality schooling for Black children (Philipsen, 1994). Within this narrative, there exists a mythic and almost uncritical notion that the passage of Brown represented a steady path toward racial progress in the United States (Crenshaw, 1988; Dougherty, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2004), although in most instances, Brown was not even implemented until more than 15 years afterward. The path, according to this narrative, was demonstrated by legally removing segregation in public schooling, thus providing Black people legal access to integrated schooling. There exists the generally accepted notion that Black peoples ultimate educational goal throughout history has been for their children to attend integrated schools, which is not totally accurate.

Contrary to this master-narrative interpretation of Brown, Black people did not embrace this one-dimensional desire for integrated schooling that has often been portrayed by some scholars who have written about this pivotal court case. For example, in his book, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, James T. Patterson (2001) presented a one-dimensional portrait of African Americans struggle for quality schooling as one that primarily focused on the pursuit of integrated schooling, rather than also including African Americans belief in equal resources for their existing all-Black schools. Patterson ignored the fact that many African Americans valued their Black schools and failed to critique how Brown overlooked the cultural dimensions involved in the schooling of Black children (also see the critique by Dougherty, 2004). There was more than one struggle for quality schooling for Black people, before and during the modern civil rights movement (Dougherty).

Rather than uniformly assuming integration as Black peoples ideological model, the push by Black people for integrated schooling should be viewed instead within the contours of Black political thought, which encompasses multiple ideologies (of which integration represents only one) and is influenced by geography, time, and Black peoples particular experiences. The political scientist Michael Dawson (2001) further illustrated this point in his book, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies. In the book, Dawson described other ideologiesbesides integrationthat were embraced within the broader Black community.2 When Black people departed from traditional integrationist ideology, they often embraced elements of disillusioned liberalism, which maintained skepticism toward Whites true efforts to create a truly egalitarian schooling for Black children, and/or Black nationalist thinking, which believed in the maintenance and support of Black schools in a way that reaffirmed Black culture and identity.

In this article, I elucidate an intellectual trend in the historical and contemporary scholarship on Black schooling. Led primarily, but not exclusively, by African American scholars (e.g., Du Bois, 1935; Hamilton, 1971; Irvine & Irvine, 1983; Johnson, 1954; Jones, 1981; Shujaa, 1996), this trend offered a counternarrative to the representation of predominantly Black schools before and after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and noted the significant role of Black schools for African American people. I situate this counternarrative within a chronological context, which provides the reader with a sequential understanding of how this body of research began to offer a different view of Black schools. Afterward, I specifically highlight key writings that illuminated this counternarrative. However, it is first important that we understand that Brown transcended schooling and dismantled a system of legalized racism in the United States.


Brown v. Board of Education was part of a broader legal strategy initially led by Charles Hamilton Houston, who laid the legal foundation to the case but passed away before Brown was argued. Consisting of Thurgood Marshall, Constance Motley Baker, and Robert Carter, the Brown legal teams ultimate goal was to dismantle legalized segregation in society and education and to create a nation in which all were equal under the law (Ogletree, 2004). Hence, schools became a part of the strategy of this dismantling, not merely for educational purposes but also for broader social change within the United States of America (Dudziak, 2000; Klarman, 2002).3 To accomplish this, however, these lawyers would have to mount a legal argument against the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that there was no violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, so long as equal facilities existed for Black and White people. For more than half a century after its passage, the Plessy decision etched in stone the notion of separate but equal.

The Brown legal team was attacking an entrenched system that had a long history of Black peoples subordination, a history that included the complete disenfranchisementpolitically, socially, economically, and educationallyof enslaved African people (Anderson, 1988; Smith, 1999). And although slavery was abolished in 1865, White supremacy organizations like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black people, and Jim Crow laws and practices kept Black people in a subordinated state (Irons, 2002). Legally, Plessy was the symbol and culmination of this disenfranchisement.

Decades leading up to the passage of Brown, Black people continued to witness the wholesale denial of their civil rights in virtually every public sphere. Other than segregated public parks and water fountains, schools were the most visible manifestation of Jim Crow. Therefore, the strategy by the Brown legal team to mount the challenges to Jim Crowvis-à-vis public schoolswas logical from a legal perspective. The passage of Brown in 1954 brought about a renewed sense of hope for Black people in the 20th century, eliminating legalized segregation in U.S. public schools and offering promises of equal education. However, the challenge would lie in how to implement this court case in a way that ensured a higher quality education for Black children.

Desegregation (the legal formation of racially balanced public schools) became the primary method by which Brown was implemented. Rooted in the cultural deprivation paradigm that was advanced during the 1960s (see Passow, 1963; Riessman, 1962), the conceptualization and implementation of public school desegregation was guided by the presumption that (1) improved racial relations would result from Black and White children attending schools together; (2) Black studentswho were deemed culturally deprivedwould adopt White middle-class culture and values as a result of their contact with White students and teachers; and (3) Black students would receive greater access to resources and information networks in middle-class, predominantly White, schools, consequently having opportunity paths and outcomes similar to those of White middle-class students. Embedded in these presumptions was (a) an ignorance of the value of African American culture and institutions in the sustenance of Black people, (b) the notion that White culture had much to offer Black people in terms of culture and values (and that the reverse did not hold true), and (c) a miscalculation of White resistance to public school desegregation.


Black people have possessed an enigmatic perspective on whether to send their children to all-Black or integrated schools. For example, in Boston, Massachusetts, during the early 19th century, Black children were allowed to attend the Boston public schools, but few parents enrolled their children because of prejudice on the part of White teachers. Separate schools were then established for the Black students. Some of the Black parents protested the actions of the Boston public school system, which segregated Black children from White children. In 1849, a group of Black parents, in what became known as Roberts v. the City of Boston, fought for integrated education because they felt that separate tax-supported schools were inferior in quality (Bell, 2000; Tyack, 1974).

Black peoples efforts to ensure quality schooling for their children transcended time and place. For instance, Dougherty (2004) captured the Black communitys 60-year quest for quality schooling for their children (19301960) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For example, in the 1930s, activists for quality schooling for Black children focused more on increasing the numbers of Black teachers for Black children; the proponents of this model did not equate all-Black schools with inferior teaching. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, integration predominated as the main thrust within the movement, whereas the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the emergence of school vouchers and Afrocentric schools, respectively.

These multiple struggles by Black people for quality schooling demonstrate the conundrum that they have historically faced. Yet, Black people have always understood the precarious predicament of favoring one position over the other. If one pushed for Black children to attend schools with White children, the loss of community control of schools and the chances for Black children and their culture to be totally ignored in the curriculum and the culture of the school were great. If reserved to attend all-Black schools, concerns remained about the lack of resources, the lack of exposure to rigorous academic curriculum, and the lack of facilities. Although the conventional view suggests that Black people overwhelmingly believed that integrated schools could lead to effective schooling for their children, such a view was not unanimous within the Black community, as illustrated above, or among Black scholars, as noted below.

For instance, in a 1935 article published in the Journal of Negro Education, Does the Negro Need Separate Schools? W. E. B Du Bois vehemently challenged the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACPs) integrationist approach toward creating educational equality for African Americans. As the following excerpt illustrates, ideally, Du Boisarguably the most influential scholar on race and society of the 20th centurysupported the mixed or integrated school as the optimal school setting for any child. However, given the social conditions during the time in which he was writing the article, Du Bois exhibited little confidence that such schools would be in the best interest of Black childrenemotionally or educationally. Contrary to recent interpretations of Du Boiss belief on this issue (e.g., see Wells & Crain, 1997), he argued that separate schools for Negro children should also be considered in the overall quest for quality schooling4:

The Negro needs neither segregated nor mixed schools. What he needs is education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning Black folk is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, poor salaries, and wretched housing is equally bad. Other things being equal, the mixed school is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youths. It gives wider contacts; it inspires greater self-confidence; and suppresses the inferiority complex. But other things seldom are equal, and in that case, Sympathy, Knowledge, and Truth, outweigh all that the mixed school can offer (Du Bois, 1935, p. 335).

Du Bois once believed fervently in integration and was one of the founders of the NAACP, but he broke from the organization in 1934 because of ideological differences.5 In his analysis of the separate Black school/mixed school paradox, Du Bois raised a major point about the significance of Black culture and social support in the educational experiences of Black students (Alridge, 2002). Although all-Black schoolsbecause of racist practices and policies from White school, district, and government officialslacked the necessary resources to optimize Black students education, Du Bois asserted that Black schools employed educators who were committed to educating Black children. Furthermore, he concluded that the cultural sustenance of Black schools and teachers, for Black children, should not be ignored in the overall effort to eradicate legalized segregation in U.S. society.

For the most part, Black scholars perspectives on education such as Du Boiss were marginalized, particularly when their views challenged the prevailing negative perceptions of all-Black schools at the time. Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University was virtually ignored in the scholarly discourse surrounding the merits of public school desegregation. In his article published in the Journal of Negro Education, Johnson (1954) accurately predicted that desegregation by racially balancing schools would result in the massive decline and demotion of Black educators.6 Although Johnson believed that Brown was necessary for eradicating legalized segregation, he questioned its implementation, which he suspected would place the arduous task of desegregating on Black educators, schools, and students.

Finally, Charles V. Hamilton, at the time a political scientist at Columbia University, questioned the merits of racially balanced schools as the sole means to implement Brown in his statement in 1971 before the United States Senates Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity. Hamiltons view differed from that of other expert witnesses, such as Julius Chambers of the NAACPs Legal Defense Fund, who believed that the focus of Brown 17 years after its passage should still be the elimination of racially identifiable schools. The following excerpt captures the essence of Hamiltons testimony:

But, it is not sufficient to say that one must always expect this and that an all or predominantly Black school cannot be a quality school. If a school system simply will not provide funds and resources to Black schools then the problem is far more serious than mere busing will remedy. In another instance, the Court talks of remedy. A pre-1954 remedy was to end de jure segregation. But now we must think of the term remedy in the context of developing quality education. Busing as a device to effect a remedy for a pre-1954 condition is substantially irrelevant. I submit we should be concerned essentially with quality education, and not with the superficial bringing together of Black and White students. The results we apparently wanta viable pluralistic societyare probably better achieved in the long run through other developments in the society. (Hamilton, p. 5418)

During the questioning phase at the hearing, Hamilton noted that these other developments would have to entail the federal government also dealing with restrictive measures and policies that contributed to de facto segregation in housing patterns and thereby further resulted in segregated schools and neighborhoods.

How did Brown become synonymous with the creation of racially balanced schools rather than also including the support of existing and viable all-Black schools? Part of the reason might lie in the fact that although Brown dismantled legalized segregation, how to implement this court case would be another matter. Brown II, passed in 1955, stated that all deliberate speed should be employed in adhering to the mandates of Brown. However, Brown II gave White resisters the opportunity to mount strategies to delay or circumvent the implementation of Brown (Ogletree, 2004). In essence, implementation was left in the hands of local White school boards that often resisted the decision, and when compelled to implement desegregation measures, they did so in a way that protected the interests of White people.

Regarding whether the scholarly and policy communities heeded the above scholars voices, Derrick Bell asserted that the race of the scholar, especially when the scholarship focuses on race, matters when determining which voices are considered most credible. To illustrate this, in his book, Race, Racism, and American Law, Bell (2000) discussed the exclusion of minority scholars from meaningful participation in the Bakke v. Board of Regents court casea case that focused on minority admissions in higher education. Bell noted that Justice Powell, who presided over the case, only cited law review articles written by well-known White professors even though scholars from other racial and ethnic groups had also published law review articles that focused on minority admissions in higher education. As Bell noted, the rationale often presented was to obtain the best scholars we could get.7

Likewise, Du Bois, Johnson, and Hamiltonprolific scholars despite the biases toward Black scholars within the larger research communityideologically resisted a narrative that viewed Black institutions and people as incapable of effectively educating Black students. Consequently, the larger scholarly community, maybe because of the perceived radical aspect of such a perspective, did not necessarily welcome these scholars views. Whereas Du Bois, Johnson, and Hamilton represent a group of scholars who anticipated the unintended consequences of desegregation for Black students, educators, and communities, over the past 30 years, we have seen the emergence of a body of scholarship that challenges the historical depiction of Black schools and affirms the significance of these institutions in the overall social, cultural, and academic development of Black students.


Over the past 30 years, some key scholarly publications on African American schooling have provided a paradigmatic shift to the historical and contemporary representation of African American schooling. The publications that I focus on build on one another, resulting in a thematically consistent body of work that illuminates edifying aspects within predominantly Black schools, before and after Brown.

In her book, a Traditional Model of Educational Excellence, Faustine C. Jones (1981) noted that Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, represented a beacon for African Americans in the city. It was the only Black high school in the city from 1930 to 1955. The school, though not highly selected, prepared students who went on to lead successful lives and careers. From her survey of 402 alumni and interviews with former administrators and faculty in the school, Jones found that the Black community supported the school and the school supported the community. In particular, many of the teachers were from Little Rock and knew its citizens and parents. They lived in the community, attended its churches, and participated in its civic association. . . . There was little teacher turnover which meant stability and continuity in the instructional process as well as in the school environment (p. 69).

In 1983, Russell Irvine and Jacqueline Jordan Irvines article The Impact of the Desegregation Process on the Education of Black Students: Key Variables was published in the Journal of Negro Education. In the article, Irvine and Irvine (1983) explained how the multidimensional effects of desegregation were usually ignored in efforts to measure the effectiveness of desegregation for Black childrens achievement. The authors put forth three units of analysisinterpersonal, institutional, and communityregarding the impact of desegregation on Black schooling. Irvine and Irvine noted how desegregation introduced race as a confounding factor in the schooling of Black children, particularly in terms of teachers expectations of Black children: For Black children, desegregated schools and teaching staffs necessarily meant that teacher-pupil interaction relationships changed from an essential two-way interaction, i.e., pupil ability and class, toward a three-way interaction of pupil ability-social class-race interaction (p. 413). They further described how the desegregation process affected Black schooling at the institutional level, resulting in the closing of Black schools and the dismissal of thousands of Black educators. Though segregation was imposed on Black people, the authors highlighted how Black schools and educators functioned in a way to meet the needs of Black people.

Irvine and Irvines (1983) thesis, with respect to the impact of desegregation on Black institutions and the Black community, was extended in Vanessa Siddle Walkers historical case study of a Black school in the segregated South. Siddle Walkers (1996) book, Their Highest Potential, which was based on her study of Caswell County School in North Carolina, presented a neglected perspective of Black education during the segregated South. Specifically, Siddle Walker asserted that the historical record of segregated Black schools, with its heavy emphasis on the disparity in resources between Black and White schools, was incomplete and ignored those affective traits that were present in some of the all-Black schools. For example, she illustrated how one Black school, although handicapped by legalized racism and social and economic neglect, still played a pivotal role in the lives of African American students, families, and the community. Her study documented how this all-Black school in the segregated South was embedded in the Black community. For example, members of the community offered assistance to the school for student and school supplies. When they did not have the financial resources, they donated time, prepared and served food at school events, donated their vehicles, and contributed physical labor. The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges also accredited the Black school, although the local White high school was not accredited.

In 1996, an edited book entitled Beyond Desegregation: The Politics of Quality in African American Schooling was published. The editor, Mwalimu Shujaa, centered the various chapters on African Americans quest for quality education in the schooling of their children. The book presented qualitative and quantitative research studiesfrom Black and White authorsthat in general critiqued the implementation of desegregation policies as a quality of schooling variable for African American children. Much of the authors analyses moved beyond arguments for racially balanced schools and focused instead on creating quality educational environments for Black children, whether in public or private educational settings. The various chapters included the critical examination of desegregation as a quality of schooling variable (Tate, Ladson-Billings, & Grant, 1996; Watkins, 1996); exploring the politics of the implementation of public school desegregation (Beaumont, 1996; Failer, Harvey, & Hochschild, 1996); making a case for the support of African American immersion schools, which explicitly focused on the sociocultural and historical experiences of African American students (Faltz & Leake, 1996); and examining the impact of desegregation on African American community life and schools (Dempsey & Noblit, 1996; Edwards, 1996).

Michele Fosters (1997) book, Black Teachers on Teaching, highlighted Black educators perspectives on the politics of race in segregated and desegregated schools by specifically foregrounding the voices of Black teachers, who were second only to preachers in terms of their importance to the Black community. Fosters life-history interviews with different generations of Black educators from various parts of the United States provided a voice for a historically marginalized group. Within the book, she noted how Black educators embraced varying views on the pros and cons of school desegregation. Many of these educators spoke about the value of the teaching profession within the Black community and how desegregation disrupted this symbiotic relationship between the Black community and Black educators.

In their book, The Price They Paid: Desegregation in an African American Community, Vivian Gunn Morris and Curtis L. Morris (2002) highlighted an overlooked aspect of the implementation of Brown, specifically the impact of desegregation policies on the institutional nature of Black schooling. The book was based on their study of Trenholm High School in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the second oldest Black high school in the state. Morris and Morris detailed how desegregation policies disrupted a symbiotic relationship that once existed between the Black community and Black schools and educators. Following an 11-year period of White resistance to the mandates of Brown, Black access to the White school in 1965 meant the inevitable closure of Trenholm High School in 1969. Once Black children began to attend Deshler High Schoolthe predominately White high schoolthey no longer felt connected to their school and experienced hostility from the White teachers. In the now desegregated school, Black children, history, and culture were relegated to the margins.

Derrick Bells scholarship (1980, 1987, 1992, 2000, 2004) can also be placed within this counternarrative. Bell, a former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer, is a pioneer of critical race theory, which was a direct response to neoconservative and liberal ideologies that permeated political and legal discourse in the postcivil rights era.8 Bell argued that desegregation measures ignored the fact that legalized segregation was about maintaining White control of education. In his recently published book, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, Bell (2004) described how the passage of Brown was not solely about preventing discrimination against Black people, but instead was directly related to the nations Cold War concerns and its desire to reinforce its image as democratic, as a champion of freedom, and as anticommunist (also see Dudziak, 2000; Klarman, 2002). Bell termed this an interest convergence covenant: a decision in which Black peoples rights are recognized and protected when and only so long as policymakers perceive that such advances will further interests that are their [Whites] primary concern (p. 49).

The commonly held view of Black schooling as negligent and deficient in all respects did not end with the eradication of legalized segregation, nor is it reserved to the historical record on Black schooling. Contemporary views of Black schooling in many ways resemble the dominant view of Black education during legalized segregationdepictions filled with images of dilapidated buildings, secondhand textbooks, and inferior teaching. For example, based on my extensive and intensive sociological research in the urban South and Midwest, I described how two predominantly African American schoolsone located in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other in St. Louis, Missouridefy the disasters portrayed in the media about urban and contemporary predominantly African American schools. Over the past four decades, contrary to the pervasive contemporary view of urban schools as inept, the schools that I studied have been renowned for connecting with African American families and their nearby respective Black communities, and for educating the primarily low-income African American students who attended the schools (Morris, 2004). Just as was the case in the historical scholarship on Black schooling, I noted how there exists a continual scholarly neglect of the multifarious nature of urban and predominantly African American schools, families, and communities. Although many urban and predominantly Black schools face a myriad of challenges when it comes to providing quality schooling for Black children today, some of these schools defy this pervasive pattern. We need to learn from these successful Black schools, rather than depict them as anomalies.


In the above passages, I highlighted how African American scholars have been at the forefront of offering this counternarrative to the historical and contemporary representation of Black schooling. I do this not to dismiss the scholarship by other scholars, but to give primacy and legitimacy to the voices of African American scholars. A number of White scholars work (such as Dougherty cited in this article) resonates with this body of work. For example, in his book, Along Freedom Road, David S. Cecelski (1994) chronicled African American citizens in Hyde County, North Carolina, protesting a desegregation plan during the 19681969 academic year that required closing two historically Black schools. One of the most sustained civil rights protests in North Carolina, the school boycott was a microcosm of African Americans ambivalence toward the merging of Black and White schools in the South, which often entailed the closing of Black schools and the dismissal or demotion of Black educators. Moreover, George Noblit and Van Dempsey (1996), in their reconstruction of a cultural narrative of a historically Black school, found that the school was once the center of a close-knit African American community. Desegregation resulted in the closing of the Black school, and African American children were sent to a historically White school, resulting in the separation of African American children from their community and culture.

Another key point to note from this article is that key publications presented by the various scholars cited in this article (e.g., Du Bois, 1935; Johnson, 1954; Irvine & Irvine, 1983), were published in the Journal of Negro Education, which historically served as an important intellectual venue for African American scholars, particularly when mainstream academic journals as a whole ignored or dismissed the scholarship and the views of these scholars. A major scholarly implication to derive from this article is how a greater presence of African American scholars voices in the scholarly construction of Black peoples experiences can bring to the research endeavor diverse and contrastive ideological perspectives.

The insights and analyses offered by the above scholars, Black and White, represent a scholarly tradition that historically challenged mainstream perspectives on African Americans social and educational experiences (Franklin & Collier Thomas, 1996). Overall, this body of work captured how Black people were able to create functional institutions and maintain a sense of dignity and integrity within an oppressive structure, and also how Black educators, schools, and communities affirmed Black students culture. Collectively, the scholars profiled offer a counterweight corpus of scholarship that presents a more complicated view of the experiences of African American people during segregation than that which existed, raised poignant questions about the efficacy of desegregation as a quality of schooling variable for African American children, and challenged the notion that an all-Black school was of little value to African American students, families, educators, and communities.

It is not inaccurate that many urban schools struggle to provide an effective education for the millions of low-income African American children who attend these schools. It is also not wholeheartedly agreed upon that the solution resides in transferring these students into predominantly White schools, where many of them are academically tracked into low-level classes, marginalized, deculturalized, and disproportionately disciplined.9 Obviously, the issues are complex and require creative and multifaceted solutions beyond the arena of education (see Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedescleaux, 1999; Rothstein, 2004). For these reasons, the challenge before the research and policy communities is how to conduct scholarly investigations of urban and predominantly African American schools, stimulate effective urban educational reform, and foster equality of educational opportunity without such efforts being predicated on negative and deficit-ridden portrayals of low-income African American people, African American educators, or predominantly African American schools in the process.


During the 1960s and 1970s, the primary method to implement Brown was the creation of racially balanced public schools. From White resistance to court-ordered desegregation throughout the South after the passage of Brown, to White northerners resistance to desegregation during the 1970s, to African Americans efforts to control schools and communities during the 1960s and 1970s, debates on the most effective method to implement Brown have created political and racial strife across cities and states. Today, the questions before policy makers should focus on how to implement Brown in the existing social context in which millions of low-income African American children are schooled.

Peter Irons (2002) and Gary Orfield and John T. Yun (1999) have thoroughly documented a trend toward race (and class) segregation of U.S. schools, caused in part by Whites (and some middle-class African Americans) departure from urban schools and a reversal in policy by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts. The Supreme Courts 5-4 ruling in June 2007 against the use of race to promote desegregated schools is further evidence of this reversal in policy. In the meantime, however, a great number of low-income African American children will continue to attend urban schools. Therefore, devising effective strategies to ensure equitable schooling for these children (at the moment) is paramount to maintaining the integrity and spirit of Brown v. Board of Education. Creating quality schooling for low-income Black children in the urban centers of the United States is complex and requires creative and multifaceted solutions.

As we reflect on the passage of Brown a little more than half a century ago, it is imperative that these conversations around this historic court case raise three concerns. First, there is a serious need to improve schools that continue to overwhelmingly enroll low-income African American students. Other than revolutionizing the social, economic, and political situation for low-income African American people in the United States, educators and policy makers have to ensure that students in these schools are provided the most effective educational settings and experiences possible. Second, it is also important to place the issues of social support and cultural affirmation within the national debates on school reform. Whereas there is a national preoccupation with standardized measures of student outcomes, it is equally important to consider how the relationships among individuals and institutions (e.g., schools, communities, educators, families, and children) can also lead to effective schooling. For example, schools that have successfully educated low-income African American children from inner-city schools have excellent principals, committed teachers, a love-ethic for Black children, and a strong connection to the communities and the families they serve (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Morris, 2004; Scheurich, 1998). This has been an overlooked element of school reform. Public school reforms that seek to improve the schooling experiences of low-income Black children should heed the messages that can be gleaned from this revisiting of Brown and the manner in which this court case was implemented.


1 Examples of urban schools that are more than 80% African American are Atlanta, Georgia (89%); Baltimore, Maryland (88%); Birmingham, Alabama (96%); Detroit, Michigan (90%); Jackson, Mississippi (95%); and Richmond, Virginia (90%). Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, 20012002.

2 Michael Dawson (2001) described six different political ideologies that characterize the contours of Black political thought in America: radical egalitarianism; disillusioned liberalism; Black Marxism; Black conservatism; Black feminism; and Black nationalism. The notion that integration characterized Black peoples quest for quality schooling is more aligned with the radical egalitarian political thought.

3 Scholars like Dudziak (2000) and Klarman (2002) noted how the passage of Brown was not solely about guaranteeing and protecting the rights of African Americans, but instead was also about the United States presenting itself as a champion of democracy in the world during the Cold War era. The United States would appear hypocritical to the rest of the world if it legally continued the disenfranchisement of African American people. Thus, members of the Supreme Court received numerous memos from the White House encouraging them to provide a unanimous vote on Brown

4 To intellectually frame their scholarship, a number of contemporary scholars have employed Du Boiss intellectual insights, particularly his analysis of race (i.e., the color line) in U.S. society. Examples include Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line by Michael Eric Dyson (1996); Southern History Across the Color Line by Nell Irvin Painter (2002); and Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools by Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain (1997). I especially would like to highlight Wells and Crains appropriation of Du Bois in their book because, like me, they also focused on the experiences of African Americans in the St. Louis desegregation plan. In their book, Wells and Crain did a decent job of illuminating the experiences of some of the African American students who dared to cross the color line by attending the predominantly White schools as part of the St. Louis desegregation planalthough my interpretation of Black peoples experiences differs from theirs (see Morris, 2001, 2004). From a scholarly perspective, I disagree with Wells and Crains representation of Du Boiss perspective on the separate Black school/mixed school paradox. They used an excerpt of Du Boiss quote above to intellectually and ideologically frame their study. But Wells and Crain truncated Du Boiss quote in such a way that it leads the reader to believe that Du Boiss thinking on race and social class had not evolved beyond his earlier embracing of an integrationist view of society. By concluding the excerpt in the opening to their book with the statement, But other things seldom are equal, Wells and Crain omitted Du Boiss final few words, and in that case, Sympathy, Knowledge, and Truth, outweigh all that the mixed school can offer. Wells and Crains omission consequently leads the reader to infer that Du Bois only supported the mixed-school model rather than also advocating for separate Black schools that successfully educated Black children.

5 Du Boiss ideology was not static, but changed from advocating integration to embracing one that suggested Black survival through Black self-help and voluntary segregation: But of course, no idea is perfect and forever valid. Always to be living and apposite and timely, it must be modified and adapted to changing facts (Du Bois, 1986/1940, p. 776 ). For a cogent articulation of Du Boiss educational thought, please see Derrick Alridges articles, Conceptualizing a Du Boisian Philosophy of Education: Toward a Model for African American Education (1999a) in Educational Theory, and Guiding Philosophical Principles for a Du Boisian-Based African American Educational Model (1999b) in Journal of Negro Education.

6 For an extensive, in-depth discussion of this issue, also see the scholarship by the following authors: David S. Cecelskis (1994) book, Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South; Michele Fosters (1997) book, Black Teachers on Teaching; and James E. Haneys (1978) article, The Effects of the Brown Decision on Black Educators in the Journal of Negro Education.

7 African American scholars in general have expressed this concern across disciplines and areas of research and have noted that the privileging of White social scientists perspectives over African American social scientists perpetuates the power imbalance in social science research. Scholars of color often note how this imbalance of power in social science research has been a persistent problem that African American and other scholars of color continue to encounter (Foster, 1999).

8 Derrick Bell reminded us that critical race theory (CRT) is not so much about intellectualizing and trying to find critical race moments in education as it is about being cognizant of how Black people in America have always known what racism wasbefore there was any such thing as CRT. (This information was based on a conversation that I had with Derrick Bell at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in April 2000.)

9 There appears to be an increasing belief among African Americans that Black-controlled neighborhood schools could prevent the further marginalization of Black students within existing schools that are racially balanced. For instance, in 2006, legislators in Omaha, Nebraska, passed a law allowing schools to function in such a way that would legally allow schools that are predominantly White, predominantly Black, and predominantly Latino. One of the sponsors, Ernie Chambers, who is the only Black senator in the state, argued that the schools in Omaha were already segregated because the school district no longer engages in busing, and students attend neighborhood schools that are already racially segregated. This law is being challenged by the NAACP as state-sponsored segregation.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 4, 2008, p. 713-732
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14616, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 9:16:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Jerome Morris
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    JEROME E. MORRIS, an associate professor in the College of Education and a research fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Research at University of Georgia, employs anthropological and sociological scholarly traditions to examine the intersection of race, class, gender, and immigrant status, with social and educational policies. He has published in leading research journals such as the American Education Research Journal, Educational Policy, and Anthropology and Education Quarterly. He is presently leading a multi-year Spencer Foundation funded research study that focuses on issues of identity and achievement in Black suburbia in the U.S. South.
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