Today we welcome a guest post from Sarah Caroline Thuesen, author of Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965. During the half century preceding widespread school integration, black North Carolinians engaged in a dramatic struggle for equal educational opportunity as segregated schooling flourished. Drawing on archival records and oral histories, Sarah Thuesen gives voice to students, parents, teachers, school officials, and civic leaders to reconstruct this high-stakes drama. She explores how African Americans pressed for equality in curricula, higher education, teacher salaries, and school facilities; how white officials co-opted equalization as a means of forestalling integration; and, finally, how black activism for equality evolved into a fight for something “greater than equal”—integrated schools that served as models of civic inclusion.
In today’s post, Thuesen explains how North Carolina used the creation and renovation of black schools to resist integration and warns against retreating too early from formal desegregation strategies.
Well before the Supreme Court’s recent challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a similar erosion of civil rights laws and policies had unfolded within the realm of public education. Especially since the late 1990s, the federal courts have lifted school desegregation orders, resulting in declining levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity in many once well-integrated schools.
This attenuation of civil rights legal protections seems to rest on the assumption that relatively short-lived remedies have been sufficient for unraveling long-lived oppressions. The Jim Crow order, after all, held sway for the better part of a century, and it had even deeper political, economic, and ideological roots in the period of slavery.
No one can dispute the profound ways in which the civil rights movement within a remarkably brief period of time eroded prejudice and, by many measures, created a more integrated society. And yet many of us need only look back—and forward—one generation to find resonance with the segregated past. When my mother entered the South Carolina public schools in 1943, she enrolled in a system so thoroughly segregated that few imagined its impending demise. When I entered the North Carolina public schools 36 years later, the state’s schools were approaching historic levels of integration. And yet my own children will soon enter the public schools at a moment when concerns about school resegregation and educational inequality routinely make the headlines.
An historical examination of segregated schooling in North Carolina warns against a hasty retreat from efforts to create diverse classrooms and equitable opportunity. For a full century, the state never wavered in its commitment to a racially segregated public school system that reinforced a larger system of second-class citizenship for African Americans. While the original laws mandating segregated schools evolved soon after the Civil War, the system’s ideological and institutional foundations deepened for many decades, even as African Americans simultaneously built a movement against Jim Crow.
In 1921, for example, the state established a separate agency, the North Carolina Division of Negro Education, to supervise black educators and schools. For nearly another half century, the parallel (although never equal) worlds of black and white public education expanded. As the African American struggle against Jim Crow schools gained ground in the 1940s and 1950s, the state attempted to prevent integration by building hundreds of new black schools and renovating hundreds more. As late as the 1960s, the state and local districts cooperatively built new “Negro schools” and “white schools.” That belated rehabilitation of Jim Crow’s physical foundations still left many measurable inequalities in place, and it meant that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was left to unravel a social order that in certain respects was more deeply institutionalized than ever before. Reinforcing the entrenchment of school segregation were residential patterns that in many southern cities were even more starkly segregated in the 1960s than they had been at the turn of the century.
Recognizing Jim Crow’s deep roots is not to suggest their inevitable permanency. In his 1955 book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the esteemed southern historian C. Vann Woodward offered the classic corrective to the notion of a naturalized or immutable color line. In hopes of helping people imagine the possibility of Jim Crow’s demise, Woodward took pains to show that Jim Crow was not the natural order of things but rather a social and political creation of relatively recent origins. Yet Woodward was later troubled by what he considered a misreading of his argument. Some readers, he noted, had taken away the false impression that segregation was “superficially rooted and could be readily eradicated by right-thinking reformers.” As Woodward understood, only a nuanced understanding of Jim Crow’s deep yet traceable origins can point our way forward, as we continue to reckon with Jim Crow’s roots and re-evaluate its remedies.
Sarah Thuesen teaches history at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. Greater Than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965 is now available.