Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle Over Educational Equality
reviewed by Jemimah L. Young & Inna N. Dolzhenko - May 17, 2018
Title: Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle Over Educational Equality
Author(s): Pamela Grundy
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 1469636077, Pages: 247, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com
The achievement and opportunity gaps that persist in education are the artifacts of a separate but equal educational mentality which, although expunged as the law of the land, remains alive and well in many school systems serving black learners. In the book Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle Over Educational Equality, Pamela Grundy examines the education of African American students through historical and social lenses and discusses issues of segregation, desegregation, and resegregation. The book is organized into eight parts, an introduction, and seven chapters. Grundy begins the narrative by describing the establishment and development of an African American community in Charlotte, North Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century. Grundy explains how important it was for the community members to help one another in any possible way, to care about each other, and to be aware of everything that was happening in their community. By the mid-1930s, the black community in Charlotte had grown, causing student overcrowding in the first black public high school. Because of the strong community bond, Charlottes black citizens had the power to orchestrate the opening of a second high school for African American students. The school was built in West Charlotte in 1938.
Grundy goes on to discuss status hierarchies and segregation inside and outside of African American communities from the perspectives of West Charlotte High School staff, students, and families. One of the enduring problems that black high schools faced was a high dropout rate, or student mortality as Grundy calls it in her book. In order to keep their students on track, teachers attended local churches and became community leaders. These efforts helped to support students by fostering stronger relationships between teachers, students, and their families.
Equality was also identified as a challenge in the book. For example, Grundy describes how Charlottes black and white schools were compared in a report wherein the results overwhelmingly favored the white schools. To solve the problem, school equalization and integration were implemented, thus forcing desegregation. By 1970, every school in Charlotte was desegregated, and as a result many African American schools were closed or downgraded. This marked the end of an era of authentic, historically black educational centers and cultural assets. Disenfranchised African American teachers and students lost more than their school buildings; they lost their sense of belonging. They were dissolved into white-dominant schools or divorced from the traditions of their previous educational system.
Subsequently, the African American community faced further physical and emotional separation. Many black neighborhoods were relocated and disconnected from each other because of land discrimination. The effects of this separation were reflected in student performance. "The loss of the close-knit community and family ties that had played such a significant role in nurturing black youth during segregation negatively affected the development and performance of young black men (p. 127). Similar effects can be observed today across communities serving large populations of African American learners.
As Grundy argues, tensions between school and home, educators and students, and white and black members of Charlottes community intensified as a result of desegregation. Lack of cultural competencies and of experiences with people from different racial backgrounds were major obstacles for teaching staff, students, and families. It was a time when multicultural education and culturally relevant pedagogy were necessary, yet far from the norm in "Racially Balanced Schools." Nonetheless, the effort was made to implement school busing. One-way busing, which meant bringing black students to white schools, was replaced with a two-way busing exchange from both white and black communities. This was not without its own set of unique challenges, as many white families adamantly opposed the two-way busing exchange.
West Charlotte High School was definitely an anomaly as it was the only historically black school that survived desegregation and successfully served both white and black communities. Naturally, this helped African Americans retain some of the educational traditions of their past. Much of the success of West Charlotte High was attributed to the schools nurturing environment, its multiplicity of cross-racial relationships, its project-based approach to teaching, and its commitment to creating an authentic sense of belonging for every school member. Subsequently, West Charlottes successful approach to integration helped make the school a national model for effective racial integration. The experiences captured in this book transformed the West community, as well as our society.
However, as Grundy notes, cultural boundaries continued to exist inside and outside the walls of West Charlotte High School, reminding students of racial differences. For instance, Grundy explains that black students were more often identified as having learning disabilities than their white peers. Dunn (1968) examined the effect of these disability labels on the attitudes and expectations of teachers, finding that labeling a child handicapped reduces the teachers expectancy for him to succeed (p. 9). More recently, Gold and Richards (2012) studied the effect of this type of labeling on African American students specifically, writing that "an educational system that operates on the premise that some students do not have the ability to perform at a prescribed level can promote not only deficit thinking but also discrimination" (p. 144). Grundy suggests that in-school segregation (i.e., racial divides between advanced and low-level academic classes, gaps in standardized test performance, and socioeconomic discrimination) can be decreased by hiring more black teachers, especially black men, seeking out textbooks with more black role models, and making more efforts to promote black history and accomplishments (p. 129).
In conclusion, Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle Over Educational Equality is a fresh perspective on the historic and enduring struggle for educational equality that should be considered by all scholars and practitioners serving African American communities.
Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded Is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35(1), 522.
Gold, M. E., & Richards, H. (2012). To label or not to label: The special education question for African Americans. Educational Foundations, 26(12), 143156.