Separate BUT equal, 122 years later…

In last week’s Black History Month commentary by Michael Peterson II, the first line referenced the monumental Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1897) which created what would become known as the “separate but equal” doctrine.  This ill-informed case laid the devastating foundation of institutionalized inequality and racial discord in the United States for many years to come.  Here in the great South, this law was never quite enforced in its totality which led to dismantling of schools, subpar resources distributed in African American communities and horrific violence inflicted on African Americans that included yet not limited to lynchings, severe beatings and cross burnings.  Segregated education persisted for almost the next fifty-seven (57) years until demand for change was brought forth. 

At the time a call for change was set in motion, there were twenty-one (21) states who had segregated public schools in which 40% of America’s school children attended.  Neither the North nor the South could accurately claim that educational facilities were separate but equal.  Consider South Carolina, whose state motto is Prepared in Mind and Resources

South Carolina spent 3 times more on white-only schools than black-only schools. It also spent 100 times more on transporting white school children than African American children. Therefore, the white children could go to the best schools as they were bussed there with the cost met by the state, but African American children were limited to schools within their area which were under-funded – simply because the state refused to finance their transport to other schools. The value of white school property in South Carolina was six times that of black school property.

The majority of southern States allowed for a shortened school year for African Americans, teacher pay for blacks was far less than whites and school resources (desk, textbooks, etc.) in black schools were those which had been discarded by neighboring white schools.  In 1947, Levi Pearson, an African American farmer in South Carolina, decided to take a just stand against the segregation of schools.  As he stood with the local NAACP, he was ostracized within his community.  Local banks would no longer extend him credit to make purchases for his farm; as harvest time neared, white farmers would no longer grant him permission to use needed equipment which had previously been lent to him and numerous acts of violence were directed at him and his family.  Given these blatant acts of oppression, many African Americans withdrew their push for equality yet there remained some who allowed the hardship to propel them forward in their struggle for equality. 

Levi Pearson

End of Segregation

In November of 1951, students at the segregated black Adkin High School in Kinston, North Carolina participated in a student-led protest to bring attention to the blatant disparities of the local schools.  As a result of this week-long protest, the school was renovated and a new gymnasium built though sadly the school remained segregated until 1970.  Thurgood Marshall, serving as counsel to the NAACP, championed and won the groundbreaking case, Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka.  Segregation of schools was officially outlawed by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 also known as Black Monday

In the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. (Segregation) generates a feeling of inferiority (among students) as to their status within the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. ~Earl Warren, Supreme Court Justice

Unfortunately, the quest for equal education did not immediately come to fruition in most states.  Much strife and turmoil existed for many years to come.  Not all African Americans aligned with the desire for integration.  There was a deep-seated belief among some in the African American community of which desegregation would bring more harm than help to its community.  A rationale was African American students would congregate together for a myriad of reasons and not be accepted by their white peers.  Another glaring reason was there was an overarching assumption that children were under-performing in the black-only schools though these schools produced professionals and skilled laborers on par with whites.  A little over a year later on May 31, 1955, Brown II relegated that “(school districts) must make a prompt and reasonable start towardfull compliance (with) all deliberate speed.”  Because a exact timeline was not established, desegregation of schools languished.  Much violence as well as use of government agencies aligned to create safe passage for African American children during these unsettling times.  In August of 1956, a volatile crowd of approximately 2,000 whites gathered to stop African American children from entering Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee.  These twelve (12) students were the first to desegregate a Tennessee state-supported high school. 


2019 and beyond

One of the Civil Rights Movement major goals was to desegregate public schools across this nation.  Against insurmountable odds, this goal has been achieved yet African Americans still confront an achievement gap that shows little narrowing 122 years later.  The recent report, The Opportunity Myth calls for our nation to address the inequities present in the teaching and learning experience to narrow this achievement gap.   The realities of the achievement gap are evidenced in the African American community by lower graduation rates (HS and college), increased school discipline and sped referrals, lower income status, and increased incarceration numbers…just to name a few.

Given the stark realities of our present circumstances as evidenced below, take some time and consider the following:  What has changed in 122 years of formally education our nation’s most valued resource-children- in our most underserved communities?  How do we ensure that equity is actualized in the places in which we work and/or educate?  What is my role in ensuring justice for all as we create spaces for equal education?

As we, MTR, move forward in our work, take a moment to review the TN’s Department of Education Report Card data along with each district’s demographics for the 17-18 school year:

 *TDOE 17-18 Success Rates (The academic achievement indicator measures the percentage of students performing on grade level on state assessments as well as the improvement in this percentage from one year to the next. A student is considered on grade level if he or she scores on track or mastered on state exams, known as TNReady or TCAP)  
DistrictSuccess Rate*ExpulsionISSOSS
Shelby Co.24.8%.8611.2