Jim Crow segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the north stunted class divisions and fractures amongst Black people. What this means is that while segregation did not wholly prevent such class divisions amongst Black people, Black communities were heterogeneous in terms of class categorization; in other words, those who had money lived in the same neighborhoods and those who did not.
Black people within higher economic classes couldn’t move away; not in the ways they can today. Had they had access to different neighborhoods, different schools, different clientele, etc., prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Black communities would have looked very different. “Integration” is proof of this; once society opened up for Black people, those who could leave did.
I say “integration” because what we call integration was actually a reluctant inclusion—on the part of white people—of Black people within white society, but I digress.
Integration not only changed where Black people went to schools and where Black people lived, but it also changed the clientele of Black professionals. Because of segregation, the Black professional class, i.e. lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and etc., was in close proximity to the poor and working classes. Therefore, the Black poor and working class, in addition to the Black middle class, made up the clientele of the Black professional class.
The Black professional class made their living off the Black poor and working class. However, Black people could receive vital services such as legal, medical and dental care, from people aware of the circumstances; people who knew them. This isn’t to say that some in the professional class were predatory. But you couldn’t take advantage of the clients you had; the pool of customers available to you was limited.
But what else was that the shared Blackness amongst the professional class and their clients was relational. That matters. It matters because we live in a world where white doctors and white lawyers, for example, fail Black people; it’s because of racist ideas as a result of systemic racism. It’s not that Black professionals can’t be prejudicial with their services – particularly relating to class distinctions. However, Black people will not only service each other, but will do so more attentively in light of the racism that often compromises the quality of their care.
The same is true for the education industry.
Prior to the Brown decision, there was always Black educators… for Black children. Black children attended schools led by Black educators, were taught by Black teachers and Black children succeeded. In fact, in his book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Dr. Jarvis Givens shares how Black teachers prepared Black youth to challenge the white power structure in what became known as the Civil Rights Movement.
However, what we hear concerning the Brown decision and integration of schools is the opinion of the court, that Black children needed to be with white children (in white schools) to succeed academically. The court specifically opined:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children…
Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
Yet, individuals like Angela Davis, Amari Baraka, and John Lewis when growing up were taught in schools by all Black faculty, but I digress.
When retelling the situation Brown “corrected,” often said is that Black facilities were substandard; with substandard buildings and substandard resources. But Black teachers and administrators were anything but substandard. Black students had access to some of the best educators. It’s because racism prevented some of the brightest Black people in their respective fields from working in mainstream institutions in society, so they taught Black children and taught them well.
Many of those professionals would teach in higher education institutions, specifically HBCUs, but they also taught in K-12 institutions. I would advise anyone to take a look at the Black Educator Hall of Fame pieces written about such Black educators by the Center for Black Educator Development’s team for a good understanding of who exactly were educating Black children. Dr. Carter G Woodson himself as an example of this, teaching at Dunbar high school in Washington D.C. immediately after receiving his doctorate from Harvard because he could not be employed elsewhere.
Segregation forestalled and suppressed class fractures in the Black community. The truth is that with integration we lost something… we lost a shared collectivity and comradery that allowed us to build each other up and sustain us in ways that are tough to do today. I would encourage anyone to read Sheryll Cashin’s The Failures of Integration to understand more about how this is.
Therefore, rather than focus what Black people didn’t have as a result of segregation in the way of facilities and resources, we ought to pay attention to what Black people did have. Maybe, we ought to take that same approach when discussing Black children and their education today. Maybe taking a Black child out of a city school for the suburbs isn’t the best thing. That certainly isn’t integration. It’s the reluctant inclusion of a Black child in a whiter space.
I would never deny or dismiss a Black parent’s autonomy with respect to their child’s education. But with respect to education in the city, greater percentages of Black teachers are in the city, more Black children are in the city and you certainly don’t have to worry about people complaining about teaching truth and being culturally proficient.
I get the argument against segregation. I don’t side on segregating kids and resources. But as for Black people, we must retain the momentum of our memory. When we were segregated, as for as schools went, we had doctoral degreed teachers. We also had resources that came from Black institutions, specifically the Association for the Study of African American Life and History; founded and led by Dr. Carter G Woodson and funded by Black people.
These resources enabled Black educators to educate Black children in an anti-Black society. Maybe, we should redefine reform to mean Black institutions educating Black children for thriving in an anti-Black society. It’s certainly better than what reform has done so far.