Desegregation of America’s schools in the postwar era
Posted in: Cultural Resources
School desegregation and integration is an important piece of Black and American history. As cultural resource professionals, we are responsible for documenting the built environment. Understanding our recent history surrounding desegregation is key to contextualizing our own personal histories and experiences, as well as our country’s collective cultural narrative.
In 1896, soon after slavery was abolished, the Supreme Court passed Plessy v. Ferguson. This influential court case ruled that facilities were not required to be racially integrated as long as they were equal. In reality, facilities were often anything but equal—instead, this ruling provided legal justification for discrimination against Black people across all aspects of life, including in education.
In the post-World War II era, a key Supreme Court decision brought forth by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the subsequent civil rights movement led to the formal abolishment of segregation in schools. In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court declared segregation in public education to be unconstitutional. This well-known court case overturned the “separate but equal” mandate of Plessy v. Ferguson. However, many southern states, including Virginia where I grew up, resisted integration of public schools for years afterwards.
Backlash to Brown v. Board of Education
In a policy known as “Massive Resistance,” white politicians attempted to implement multiple new state laws to prevent school desegregation, including closing public schools rather than allowing them to integrate. In Arlington County, Virginia, restrictive housing policies forced African Americans to live in the few segregated neighborhoods available to them. Because the schools we attend were (and still largely are) tied to where we live, this resulted in segregated schools by default. The vast majority of Arlington’s neighborhoods were exclusively white. As late as 1963, residential developers in Northern Virginia continued to refuse home sales to African Americans. While the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned blatant discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, the echoes of these policies can still be felt today. Similar trends propagated across the country, though regional differences played a role in the severity of racial distribution. For cultural resource professionals, a clear understanding of these trends is necessary to situate our history of racial segregation within our national cultural narrative.
In one recent project we investigated the National Register-listed Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, in a preliminary study for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. We evaluated its historical significance during the 1960s and early 1970s when regional Civil Rights and desegregation efforts were at their peak. Dudley, which opened in 1929, was Greensboro’s first high school for Black students. The campus had close ties with nearby North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), a historically Black university, and was a center of Civil Rights activism during the 1960s. Three of the four NC A&T students who famously initiated the sit-in movement at Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro were Dudley graduates, and many Dudley students participated in subsequent sit-in demonstrations to promote integration in public places.
Despite Dudley students’ efforts toward integration, Greensboro’s school system remained racially divided. Following Brown v. Board of Education, North Carolina had adopted its own version of “Massive Resistance” known as the Pearsall Plan, allowing communities to effectively ignore provisions for school integration. In 1969 the NAACP filed lawsuits across North Carolina to reverse these practices, and by 1971 a ruling upheld by the US Supreme Court mandated that schools use “any and all known ways of desegregation, including busing.” Busing was required because, as in Arlington, residential neighborhoods remained strictly divided along racial lines. Stories of Massive Resistance and school desegregation through busing can be found across the country, and they will appear more as the National Register’s 50-year cutoff reaches into the early 1970s.
My mother attended segregated schools in Arlington during the early 1950s. Black residents were required to attend Black-only schools located in two small neighborhoods separated by 5 miles that constituted a separate school district. In early 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court and a special panel of Federal District judges declared segregation policies unconstitutional. This documentary recounts the four seventh grade students who first integrated the schools in Arlington, entering the front doors of Stratford Junior High School on February 2nd, 1959. My late grandmother was the school secretary there. I myself grew up in Arlington County during the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, and was very aware of the historically Black neighborhoods—identifiable by their smaller houses and no through-streets, which prevented traffic from passing through.
In the first 10 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) brought legal actions against more than five hundred school districts. My father, as a civil rights attorney with DOJ, was witness to many school desegregation efforts, traveling to multiple southern states—including Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi—to observe local districts implementation of integration orders.
When we take a closer look at the history of desegregation and integration in schools, it becomes clear that the issue encompassed multiple facets of daily life. Schooling, housing, and federal and state laws all intersect to form our particular history, and it becomes impossible to extricate one aspect from the others. Because so many aspects of daily life are involved, these histories are deeply personal as well as collective. Understanding and contextualizing our nation’s history of racial segregation and discrimination is a painful but necessary part of coming to terms with our past—and creating something better for our future.
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