Sixty years ago Saturday, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. In a unanimous decision, the Court struck down the concept of “separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools. It was a catalyst that invigorated the Civil Rights Movement and its quest to end the inequality of Jim Crow laws, affecting everything from lunch counters to buses.
With the Brown case pending, Black teachers waited anxiously for the ruling on school segregation, with thoughts fixed firmly on their Black students. Would the case solve the wide racial disparities in facilities, funding and resources? Would Black students’ sense of ethnic identity and cultural solidarity suffer from desegregation? And lingering in the back of Black teachers’ minds: Would they be the collateral damage in the battle to integrate schools?
A hint of this suspicion is found in the excerpt from an oral history conducted in 1991 with a former teacher in a segregated school:
“…we were under such a terrible strain because when they wanted integration they never considered the effect that it would have on the Black teacher who was very qualified. Practically all of them [Black teachers] had their masters…they put such a terrible strain on the Black teachers.”
Dr. Alfred Roberts remembers this period well. He taught at segregated Pearl C. Anderson Middle School in Dallas and weathered the transition during desegregation. But the path was not so smooth for Black teachers throughout the state.
“I’m from a small town near College Station named Somerville,” said Roberts, co-founder of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Black School Educators. “The high school had grades 1-12 in one building. When they combined the schools, they sent all of the high school students to the White school, and they made the high school an elementary school. In your smaller cities, I’m quite sure there were a lot of [Black] teachers displaced.”
The data bears this out, revealing a widespread practice across the South. In 1954, there were 82,000 Black teachers. In the 11 years following the Brown decision, the ranks of Black teachers plummeted: more than 38,000 Black teachers and administrators in 17 Southern states were out of a job. Black teachers were suddenly expendable due to all-Black schools shutting down and newly integrated schools shutting the door in their face.
Charles Bolton in The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi documents the systematic firing of Black teachers in one of the last states to desegregate after the Brown decision. Between 1970 and 1973, the number of white public school teachers in Mississippi increased by almost nine percent, while Black teachers fell by almost 12 percent. White administrators weeded them out as “poorly qualified” – even with impeccable credentials – and moved to rid their districts of Black teachers who supported the civil rights movement.