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Teaching While Black

In the last article, "on the sidelines of history," Leila issued a challenge for Black History Month. One of her suggestions was to “read about a person during the civil rights movement that may not have gotten national attention.”

Her challenge came on the heels of me listening to my new addiction: Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. I love stories and Gladwell has such an interesting delivery of stories and points of view that we may not have heard in the past.

One, in particular, caught my ear. “Ms. Buchanon’s Period of Adjustment” is about school integration. Most people know about Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. It, along with Plessy v. Ferguson, was the only court case I recall being taught in the Februarys of my school career (which is another story altogether but I digress).

If you have an opportunity to read more specifics about the Brown case, you should. But for those who may need a quick reminder or crash course, Brown v. Board is the case that integrated the school system. Linda Brown, along with twenty other kids were taken to the nearest [white] neighborhood schools to register, knowing they would be turned away. They sued and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where, in a unanimous decision, the “separate but equal” doctrine that supported segregation was deemed unconstitutional. As a result, schools were slowly desegregated across the South.

Now I could go on so many tangents here because the characters and their roles, the wording of the decision, and the reasons behind this case and the decision are much more interesting than my space here will allow. But I want to call your attention to something I learned only while listening to this episode.

It’s not about the students. It’s about the teachers. In an interview shared by Gladwell, an African-American teacher from the Brown era, Celestine Porter, said, “The first people that should have been integrated should have been the teachers and administration.”

But that’s not what happened. Not only did they not focus on the teachers, they eliminated them altogether. What may not be widely known is the effect the case had on the black teaching community.

A little less than 200 miles from Topeka is a town called Moberly, Missouri — Little Dixie as it’s been called. A year after the Brown decision, the black school in Moberly, Lincoln, was closed down and students were bussed to the white school, Sumner.

What about the teachers?

The school board, having closed the one black school with eleven teachers, determined that they now had a surplus of educators. Some of them needed to go. So they evaluated all teachers in the school district. And, wouldn’t you know it, all of the black teachers were fired due to poor performance. Despite their years of experiences, good standing, and previous high marks, all the black teachers, even the one with graduate degrees, were found to be inadequate. This happened all over the South as schools started to integrate. Those teachers who maintained their job suffered indignity after indignity.

Taking their cue from Brown v. Board, the Moberly teachers sued the Board of education in the not-so-landmark case Naomi Brooks et al., Appellants, v. School District of City of Moberly, Missouri, Etc., et al. Unfortunately, after appeals, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case; so, the decision to terminate the teachers was upheld.

Now, hundreds of black kids would be in classrooms without the familiarity of teachers who looked like them and with unknown teachers — some of whom fought to keep them out or found them to be beneath their teaching efforts.

As Gladwell describes: Brown v. Board was the great victory; Moberly was the great defeat.

Stories like this are good to hear. It reminds us that the civil rights movement was filled with wins and losses. And for me, it further solidifies my place in the fight. These were simply battles in a great war. And, the fact that I feel the need to maintain a blog like this indicates that the war is not over.

The message I receive from the Moberly decision is, “Fine. We’ll integrate the school system. But we won’t integrate the education profession.” The great irony behind that is this: When you listen to Linda Brown’s mother talk about her decision to take part in this battle against segregation, you realize that she’s really only interested in having some control over her child’s education. She wanted the right to decide where to send her child and not have a segregated power system make that choice for her. But, with the integration of schools and the complete freeze out of educators of color, she, in effect ceded all control to the power system she sought to destroy.

The case of the Moberly teachers also explains some of the issues we see today. According to the podcast, at the time of the Brown case, there were 82,000 black teachers. Over the next decade, as schools were desegregated, over half were fired. And even though this Washington Post article claims that the number of minority teachers has more than doubled since the late 80s while white teachers saw a decline, white teachers still make up 83% of the teaching force in the United States. So one has to wonder: how much effect do the Brown v. Board and the subsequent case of the Moberly teachers have on that number.

In Gladwell’s podcast, a portion of the termination letter written to a teacher of color just post the Brown v. Board decision. In it, the superintendent said that he “sympathize[d] with the uncertainties and realize[d] the inconvenience [they must be experiencing] during this period of adjustment.”

So the question I’m left with is: How long is this period of adjustment supposed to be? And have we really adjusted?

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