(BCPM) School Desegregation vs. School Integration

This blog post was written by Isaiah Horne, a recent MA graduate of the History Department. Read Isaiah’s previous related blog post on “School Choice:” Its Origins and Long History here.

In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that racial segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal,” thus ushering in a new era in American history. Following the landmark case, schools and school districts across the country underwent dramatic transformation as courts demanded that the “dual school systems” that had established separate school facilities for Black and white Americans be abolished and unitary school systems established. This process was known as desegregation.

Today, the process and term “desegregation” has acted and been spoken of synonymously with “integration.” However, there are important distinctions between the two that are vital to understanding race and race relations in the United States. School desegregation is a legal and political process that was achieved through court-ordered and voluntary means within schools and was aimed to eradicate the institution of segregation. School integration, however, refers to a social process in which members of different racial and ethnic groups experience fair and equal treatment within a desegregated environment. [1] Analyzing the experiences of Black students in desegregated school districts makes it clear that integration is distinct and requires further action far beyond simply school desegregation.

The Brown case ignited decades-long struggles throughout the United States to ensure that majority white and minority schools were no longer identifiable. Though much of public and media attention and memory has been addressed to the process of school desegregation, the experiences of children within “victorious” districts and schools that “triumphed” over segregation and racism are far less considered and the story rarely told. A closer look at the experiences of Black students in desegregated schools shows that desegregation and integration have far different meanings and realities. Though many schools and school districts were desegregated, segregation of the mind and heart remained and prevented integration from occurring. The John Dowdy papers at the Baylor Collections of Political Materials at Poage Library provide ample documents and examples of how segregation and racism continued to occur in “desegregated” schools.

For example, in 1967, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission conducted a annual report on the process of desegregation in the Northern state, aiming to uncover the experiences of Black American students in the state’s public schools. In popular memory, segregation and even racism have been often viewed as a “Southern problem.” However, as the report reveals, the same racist sentiment and forms of mistreatment that plagued the South were rampant in the “progressive” and “desegregated” north. In the annual report, a white American female teacher admitted to throwing a rock paperweight in the direction of a Black fifth-grade girl to get her attention and struck the student with a paddle when she refused to pick up the paperweight and return it to her.

The teacher went on to note, in the report, she had never treated a white student in this way. Furthermore, the report found that at another school a male teacher called a seventh-grade Black student into his class for causing a disturbance in the hall. When the young student refused the teacher’s demand that he kneel at the teacher’s desk for the remainder of the class period, the teacher punched the student several times. The student retaliated. The teacher stated in the report that he had used “poor judgment” in the situation. Finally, the report stated that in an interview with a white female teacher, she continually referred to Black students as inferior and had previously called a Black student “fat and dumb” in front of the class. [2] The plethora of horrific and violent racially-motivated acts committed by white teachers against Black students characterized many Black students’ experiences in desegregated schools. Though the schools were desegregated, Black students experienced the racist sentiment and prejudices that had long characterized US history.

Report on integrated education patterns and research findings from 1967-1968 conducted by Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Segregation and racism were not only evident and present within classrooms at desegregated schools but also extracurricular activities. Sociologist Peter Clark observed “Hamilton High” (not its real name), an elite public school in the broader Philadelphia area, to learn about student subcultures and race relations in desegregated high schools. He noted that the most noticeable aspect of student life “was the cleavage between Black and white students.” He found that students rarely spoke to one another despite going to the same school and that sports were racially segregated. He found African Americans dominated in basketball and football, whereas white students played soccer, lacrosse, and tennis. [3]

These realities were both a conscious and subconscious choice among Black and white students, as well as an ingrained reality by school officials. For example, during the first year of desegregation in Rankin County, Mississippi, schools eliminated several extracurricular activities and social events. The county set 1:30 p.m. as the new dismissal, thus eliminating the class period designed for sports, band, cheerleading, and other student activities. For Black parents these actions signaled an underlying truth, that the school districts desired to limit the amount of contact white students had with their Black peers. Other schools in Mississippi took a more moderate approach such as the school districts in Yazoo City and Natchez which retained sports programs and band, but canceled pep rallies, homecoming, school assemblies, and other social activities. [4] Evidently, desegregation did not equate to integration. The racist attitudes and prejudices that had been used to establish segregated school systems continued to plague the minds and hearts of many in the process of school desegregation, prohibiting the opportunity for true integration, fellowship, and equality to occur.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Leffler, Warren K., Library of Congress.

Although school desegregation was undoubtedly a positive step forward in America’s reckoning with its past of racism, injustice, and separation, the experiences of Black students in desegregated public schools reveal that much was needed to ensure integration and equality would occur. Today, many of the patterns seen in the process of desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s remain an ever-present truth as sports and social activities continue to be dominated by one ethnic or racial group. A fuller truth and lens of Black students’ experiences in desegregated schools highlights the need for continued intentional and practical efforts to integrate public schools and usher in an equitable environment that fosters interracial fellowship and intimacy.

[1] William Raspberry, “The Difference Between Desegregation and Integration,” Washington Post, December 1, 1980. www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/12/01/the-difference-between-desegregation-and-integration/7af50057-1ae1-4f30-8fd7-96e025ac39b0/.

[2] “Eleventh Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission,” Integrated Education, Issue 30, Volume V, Number 6, December 1967-January 1968, 34, John V. Dowdy, Sr. papers, Accession #7, Box #189, Folder #9, Baylor Collections of Political Materials, W. R. Poage Legislative Library, Baylor University.

[3] Clinton B. Allison, “African Americans and Education: Do Schools Reproduce Racial Bias in America?” Counterpoints 6 (1995),154-155. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42974989.

[4] Natalie G. Adams and James H. Adams, “‘We Never Had a Prom’: Social Integration in the Extracurricular,” In Just Trying to Have School: The Struggle for Desegregation in Mississippi, (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), 148-149. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv7vct89.12.

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