The stories we tell about past efforts at desegregation often overlook the excellence in Black schools prior to Brown v. Board, and the organized, grassroots work from White women to maintain White superiority at the local level despite federal efforts towards desegregation. In an edited version of the NCSD 2020 Conference Keynote, we hear from Dr. Vanessa Siddle- Walker and Dr. Elizabeth McRea, in a conversation facilitated by Dani McClain. In opening remarks from Courtney Martin, and closing remarks from Andrew Lefkowits, we are asked to conjure the late Integrated Schools founder, Courtney Everts Mykytyn, and to reflect on her impact on the integration movement.
The National Coalition for School Diversity serves as the hub of the school integration movement. While their annual conference was postponed due to COVID, the keynote panel was held virtually. A conversation conceived in honor of Integrated Schools founder and former podcast co-host, Courtney, it offers a chance to better understand the history of desegregation so that we might better conceive of how to move forward. A chance to know better, so that we might do better.
Through a conversation facilitated by journalist Dani McClain, Dr. Vanessa Siddle-Walker tells the story of the excellent, robust, and holistic Black schools and educators that our country consciously eliminated in its desegregation efforts. While Dr. Elizabeth McRae recounts the steady work of White supremacist educational politics, most often led by White women, to ensure that Black educational excellence was eroded and replaced by White supremacist policies and pedagogy. Not only did real integration never happen, but the costs of its failure were enormous and last to today.
Courtney was on the NCSD steering committee, and this panel was conceived in her honor. Author Courtney Martin kicks off the conversation by conjuring the memory of Courtney Mykytyn, and Andrew closes things out with a tribute to Courtney and the importance of this work, in this moment.
It's an important conversation, and we are deeply grateful to everyone involved for allowing us to share it.
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The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced, edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I’m Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is “White Supremacy and Black Educational Excellence: Hidden Stories from the Integration Movement”. We’ve got a really special episode today. The National Coalition on School Diversity was founded in 2009 to serve as a hub for the school integration movement, ensuring that people advocating for school integration receive the support they need - be they parents, students, teachers, researchers, advocates, or policy makers.
Integrated Schools founder and my late co-host, Courtney, was on their steering committee. As a part of their annual conference, NCSD director Gina Chirchingo, had planned a keynote panel to honor Courtney and her contributions to the movement. While COVID forced the conference to be rescheduled, the keynote happened virtually last month, and I’m thrilled to share a lightly edited version of it on the podcast today.
The conversation features four incredible women. Elizabeth McRae is a history professor at Western Carolina University. Her work focuses on the intersection of race, gender and politics, particularly in the modern South. You may remember her from Episode 11, “White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy”. We discussed her book, Mother’s of Massive Resistance - about the, as she calls it, “constant gardening” that White women did to maintain segregation and White supremacy after the Brown v Board decision.
Vanessa Siddle-Walker is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of African American and Educational Studies at Emory University. Since the early ‘90s, Dr. Siddle-Walker has been writing about the history of Black educational excellence, and pushing back on the narratives that we have about dysfunctional and failing Black schools. Her book, Their Highest Potential, which came out in 1996, profiled one such school, in North Carolina, and captured an often overlooked part of the story of Black education. Her most recent book, The Lost Education of Horace Tate, chronicles the work of a Black teacher in Georgia who, as Dr. Siddle-Walker puts it, was the keeper of the story of Black educational excellence.
The parallels between the work of these two excellent historians, and what that history can teach us about today was expertly drawn out by journalist Dani McClain. She writes about race and reproductive justice, and last year released We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, a book about her struggle to understand how to raise her daughter in an unjust and hostile society.
Friend of Integrated Schools and author, Courtney Martin opened the event with some of her own reflections on Courtney Mykytyn, and as always, got directly to the heart of why this conversation matters at all.
It’s an amazing conversation and I still can’t really believe I got to participate in it. Gina asked me to close the panel with some of my own reflections on Courtney Mykytyn and the importance of this movement in this moment. When Courtney died, I put out a podcast episode that, well, honestly I haven’t been able to listen to since, but I remember it as being heartfelt, but woefully incomplete. This event gave me a chance to put at least a little more thought into what Courtney meant to me, to Integrated Schools, and the broader movement for school integration, so you’ll hear that at the close of this episode. Keep in mind, this conversation took place nearly a month ago, and in so many ways, the work feels even more urgent now.
The tragic events of the past few weeks, a continuation of 400 years of tragic events, have sparked justified outrage, protests, and continued state sanctioned violence. The acute trauma is real, and Integrated Schools stands with the Black community in their demands for justice and equality. We also believe that school segregation is one root cause of ongoing racial injustice in our country, and that to truly live up to the promise of our nation, building a true, multi-racial democracy, we require real integration in our schools.
We didn’t put this episode out last week to try to leave some space for Black voices, who we need to listen to even more in this moment. And while the generational work of school integration may not solve the immediate issues we are confronting this week, we owe it to our kids and our country to use this moment, the increased focus on issues of racial violence, the long overdue elevation of Black voices demanding justice, and the push among at least some White people to learn and grow our own anti-racist capacity. We need to use this to meaningfully address school segregation.
Understanding our history is a crucial first step, which is why I’m so grateful to Courtney Martin, Vanessa, Elizabeth, Dani, and Gina for allowing me to share this conversation. Let’s hear it.
Courtney Martin: Hi everyone. I just really want to have everyone take one pause. This whole speaking through the interwebs thing is so strange and I had to sort of slow myself down this morning, as I transitioned from childcare to this to bring Courtney to me, Courtney Mykytyn, who I'm going to talk about kind of physically and spiritually.
And so I thought I would just take one minute for everyone to take a deep breath. And those who knew her to bring her to mind and bring her to heart. Those who did not, please listen to my words and try to conjure her up because she is worth conjuring.
So here's what I wanted to share. Eula Biss, in her essay “White Debt” in The New York Times Magazine writes, “Being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life."
This cost had been creeping up on me over the years, but I never felt it so acutely until I was trying to understand preschool and then the kindergarten process for my now six-year-old daughter.
I was on these tours in Oakland, California, where I live, and all these White and Asian American parents were asking what seems like bizarrely specific questions to me, but none of them were asking the question that was starting to form in my mind. Where are all the Black and Latinx parents? We live in Oakland. What is going on here?
The person who helped me first start pursuing quality answers, structural answers to those questions, was Courtney Everts Mykytyn, a White mom in LA who founded an organization called Integrated Schools. I want you to know a bit about how she shaped me before her untimely death and the conversation I'm still having with her.
An anthropologist by training, Courtney understood that the playground was political, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise. She encouraged White and privileged parents to work on their own mindset, countering what she called the smog of White ness, which she described as, this is a quote, "all of the things that we hear and say about schools often without realizing the ways those things are racialized."
She also encouraged parents to expand their own knowledge about integration in this country. Who has had the burden historically? So much of what Vanessa and Elizabeth will talk about, and how effective it actually is when sustained over time. She inspired parents to be what Elizabeth calls "constant gardeners", but this time around of desegregation or if we're really working it - integration.
Courtney encouraged us to practice talking about all of that, even when it felt uncomfortable, like while standing around at the four-year-old birthday party eating gluten-free cupcakes. She didn't buy into what some White people might call polite company. There is no being polite, she believed, when our schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s and the opportunity gap is still so dramatic.
Courtney was a strategic organizer. She recognized that the time is now, cities are growing and gentrifying. Meaning, for better and worse, more of us are living in racially diverse neighborhoods than in previous decades. Even White and privileged parents are growing disenchanted with intensive parenting, the religion, if you will, of seeking the best for your kids at all times, no matter what the collective costs. And finally, there's a growing public conversation about how we define a good school. More and more people recognize that test scores largely map onto socioeconomic backgrounds, giving a prospective parent little information about how the kids actually feel, learn, and come together as a community at a given school.
Importantly, Courtney wasn't just urging White parents what to do, desegregate schools, she was urging them to think long and hard about how they did it. In short, show up and shut up, at least for a while. Create real relationships, proceed humbly, and with a sense of humor about yourself.
Courtney knew from her own experience, her kids are now 15 and 17, that it was easy to get overzealous as a White privileged parent in a school where most people don't look like you - to step into leadership with a style that alienates others or takes on issues that aren't actually important to the majority.
My White six-year-old goes to a predominantly Black and Brown school - a dreaded 1 out of 10 on the GreatSchools.org website. Courtney helped me have the courage and context to make that choice, despite the fact that neighbors warned me against doing so and most of my friends didn't do the same. She showed me that people like me do things like this.
Ever since I heard that she died, I heard on a playground no less, I've been having conversations with Courtney in my head. The most recent one about this bizarre moment we're all living through. I write her letters sometimes, as weird as that might sound, and shortly after sheltering in started, I wrote her this:
Dear Courtney. Part of me is glad you're not here to see this.
It sort of feels like the end of the world. I'd want to spare anyone I love and admire of it. The daily death counts, knowing that all of these kids are being forced to stay in homes, many of which didn't feel safe in the first place. The palpable anxiety in the air. There's no escaping it, this dread, but there's also no escaping our mutuality. Finally, and that's the part that I wish you could actually be here for.
I think you would have recognized this moment for what it is, an opening in people's lived, felt experience. That damn, we actually are interdependent. There is no way to buy your way out of this virus or your own vulnerability on this planet right now.
I guess the question is, do people take this profound confrontation with our undeniable mutuality and reimagine their values and lives, a big fucking ask, or do they hunker down even further? Figuring out how to homeschool their kids with the most sophisticated technology and rigid schedules, trap their au-pairs so they don't lose their own work hours and posts on social media about brave healthcare workers? Probably more likely when you consider the history of White people and how we respond to crisis. I don't want to be cynical about it all. I want to believe that this might just be the earthquake of consciousness that White parents need to, among other things, stop underestimating the foundational value of the public school system.
The letter goes on. The jury is still out on that and Brown v. Board, as it turns out, which is what today is about. The fact that the story we tell about desegregation in this country is so surface level, it's laughable. Or it would be laughable if the consequences weren't so serious.
The three women you're about to hear from are anything but surface. They are deep. They are excellent at their craft. They are carrying the real story of segregation’s failures. If we listen hard enough, we will also hear a vision for a future, which I know is what we're all so hungry for right now. What Courtney didn't get, a future, but what the organization she so wisely and warmly created, is still driving towards in her painful absence.
Thank you, Courtney.
Next up is a thinker and mother and activist I admire so much. Dani McClain is a journalist who's written some of the decades most important coverage of the reproductive justice movement, and just last year she wrote a book called, We Live for The We, about Black motherhood. It's gorgeous. She's visionary. Please welcome, straight out of Cincinnati, Ms. Dani McClain.
Dani McClain: Courtney, thank you for grounding us in our hearts and helping those of us who didn't have the privilege of knowing Courtney better understand who she was and her legacy.
So four years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, I set out to write a book that I hoped would help me answer questions that I had about raising a Black child in this country today. Many of those questions were related to how to think about educating my child. From preschool, where we'd be focused primarily on socialization, to the kindergarten through 12th grade years, where we'd want strong academics, lasting and legitimate friendships, and teachers who could see and help draw out my child's full potential.
I interviewed Black parents of school-aged children, and I talked to educators and other experts, but I wish I had read Vanessa Siddle Walker's and Elizabeth McRae's books back then. If I had, I would have gotten some much needed context for what I observed as I looked into local educational options for my daughter.
I would have better understood why, even when I found schools that had a fairly racially mixed student body, I was hard pressed to find even one Black teacher or Black administrator in the building. I would have better understood why here in Cincinnati, magnet elementary schools that were set up as part of the district's desegregation plan in the mid seventies are now less racially mixed than they were when I was growing up here in the eighties and nineties.
And I would have better understood why, when I brought this up during school tours, White parents and educators would often skirt the issue and act as if I was the one creating a problem by mentioning race.
I report on parenting and the politics surrounding reproductive health. And when I first started on the beat, I was introduced to the reproductive justice framework by organizers who explained to me that reproductive justice advances the right to have a child, to not have a child, and to parent the children that we do have in safe and healthy communities.
In the realm of reproductive rights as an education, the conversation often focuses on the first of these, what an individual has a right to do or not do. What I hope today's conversation can help us understand is that last piece of the reproductive justice framework. The right to parent the children that we have in safe and healthy communities, and how that relates to what we want for our schools.
When we talk about race and education, how might we move from a focus on individual choice, liberty, freedom toward an embrace of shared responsibility and commitment to community?
Today, we get to think through these questions with two great scholars. With Mothers of Massive Resistance and The Lost Education of Horace Tate, we get a new type of history of the civil rights era. These authors move us away from the often told stories about elected officials or leaders of big national civil rights organizations and into homes and school buildings. The places where parents and teachers strategized and organized.
Near the end of the last education of Horace Tate, Dr. Siddle Walker writes, “Sometimes you have to look in the rear view mirror in order to see a current path better. I'm thrilled that we have the opportunity to do that together today.
My first question is for you, Vanessa. So who was Horace Tate, who we hear about in the title of your most recent book, and what does his story tell us about Black-led education in the South prior to 1954? I'm curious about the role of the Black educator, both in the school and the wider community, and how they worked in partnership with students and parents.
Vanessa Siddle Walker: That's a, that's a mouthful question Dani. But I'll try to answer it. So who is Horace Tate? He's the man that Martin Luther King stands on stage and says, this is my friend, Horace Tate, and assumes that everybody should know about him, he says, or he's already been written in a history. That's in 1967. But he's also the Black educator, the leader of a teacher's organization that most people had never heard of.
When I finished writing the earlier books on Black education, I was told by several people, you need to meet Horace Tate. But Horace Tate was a retired senator by that time that I just, I don't run around with senators, and I didn't really see why I needed to meet the head of the teachers' organization.
I mean, that sounded like a, I don't know, an executive job. And so it took me a while before I actually reached out to them. When I finally did, and we began to meet someplace, he called The Building, the old Black teachers building, and he would ask me what I knew about segregated schools.
And I remember he would say, Hm, just part of the story. Yep. Part of the story. And then he would launch into his own stories, most of which made no sense to me, honestly, at the time. Even though I was someone who was supposed to know a lot about segregated schools, I've come to understand that Horace Tate was the keeper of the story.
There were Horace Tates in every Southern state, meaning that his work is not unique, but it is generalizable that it helps represent what was happening across the South. But he was the keeper of the story because Horace Tate hid the records. The attic of an old building, as far away from prying White eyes as possible.
He hid what was actually happening with Black schools and Black teachers, even down to the legal documents for the cases that will ultimately be litigated around school desegregation.
So Horace Tate gives us a lens into an era that we could not otherwise have had. What, what is this story you ask about the segregated schools?
Part of what was going on was this notion of pedagogy in schools, right? Because these Black educators understood some things about pedagogy that actually we're still struggling with today.
They understood, for example, the care ethic. I talk about it as institutional caring, interpersonal caring. They weren't interested in the psychic and cultural harm, right, that you talk about. But what we see is them actually creating policies that allow schools to become places where the negative messages that Black students get in the largest society are actually reconstructed within the school so that negative messages become positive messages about who you are, what you can achieve.
Interestingly, in a time when it was full segregation, they were preparing these kids for a world that did not yet exist, and they did it through this institutional interpersonal caring.
They've got a curriculum going on in these schools. They're very clear that they want Black children to experience everything that White children had available. So they're very intentional about trying to get these textbooks and school buildings and everything that White people have. And in fact, in the 1960s you sometimes see them have classes in Black schools that were not even held in White schools.
So they want to make sure that Black children have what they needed based on the state curriculum. But for them, pedagogy is beyond just what Whites were doing, for them pedagogy is also a revolutionary act. So for example, the civics curriculum, right? When Whites are starting to talk about, as Elizabeth will talk about I'm sure later, how when Rutherford is saying we have to have civics education to train White children how to be good believers in the Confederacy, Black educators in the same year, 1919, are beginning to talk about, We need to figure out civics education for Black children.
And so, on one hand, on one hand, they began a push towards textbooks, and we'll see this over time because they want Black people written into textbooks, but we also see a completely different kind of civics planning that happens in these schools.
So they’re saying, we need to teach these kids about democracy and about how America is supposed to work. Their belief was that if we teach the children how America is supposed to work, then they will know, as one of them later said, that somebody did something to them, right? And that the America they were living was not what America says it was.
And so they have this very sophisticated civics curriculum going on at the same time that they create an English curriculum that has poetry, a history curriculum that has Blacks built into it. And so you see them with the resilience. So we’re teaching children to be resilient in this space.
If you combine the two, an understanding of what's being done to you, with the courage to step out against it, then what you're really doing is laying the foundation for what we'll later see is the civil rights movement.
The Atlanta Daily World captures this in 1938 when they say, If they keep doing this at Booker T. Washington high school in Atlanta, another generation is not going to sit down. They're going to stand up and demand their rights. And of course we see that that's what would happen.
A couple of other really quick points. Parental involvement. They understood, they understood how to help parents advocate, they understood how to work with organizations and get larger money, they understood professionalism. Black teachers didn't know they weren't professionals until they integrated and other teachers told them they weren't. Those things are all part of Horace Tate's lost education.
But, but Horace Tate also shows us what it meant to advocate for the children, what it meant to have a vision for desegregation.
So there's this whole generational, from reconstruction right up to desegregation, understanding of what Black children needed, how they should be taught. And that's what we learn when we take Horace Tate’s education.
Dani McClain: And given these stories that you tell in your book, about the strength of Black schools, the professionalism of these Black educators, how do we end up with this contemporary narrative that exists around Jim Crow era schools? Why do we, why do we have this story that these were failing schools?
Vanessa Siddle Walker: We really do still have that narrative. There are a number of reasons for it. One reason is that it is true that the resources were poor. I mean, not until the 1950s in response to Brown, right? We don't want to implement Brown, so under Plessy we implement Dred Scott. When Brown comes, we implement Plessy, right? So we try to make the schools equal. So at that point the narrative around inequality, the schools were unequal and the facilities, the buses, right, the transportation, the textbooks, in all of those ways.
So part of the narrative is because those pieces were true. And it's not until we're trying to actually implement Plessy in the 1950s that we start to get some equality in facilities. The difficulty, of course, is that the historical narrative did not interrogate what was beneath the story of school boards not giving the facilities and the resources that were necessary. We didn't interrogate that. Because we didn't interrogate that, we miss the resilience of the communities. We assume that because the school board said, You can't be anything, you shouldn't be anything, that that's actually what they became. And so that's not true.
One of the reasons we missed it is because part of the story is true, right? The fact that for many of those years that was inequality. The other part about it is what was done to Black history. The truth of the matter is that the records were destroyed. In some cases, the actual head of the Black teachers association in North Carolina said, I went back to my own office the day after we merged with the White teacher organization, and my own records were being destroyed.
So this massive destruction of records of Black schools basically allows people to write any kind of narrative they want, right? Because historians rely on records.
Part of it is we looked in the wrong places. When we write the narrative of, of schools and Black teachers were afraid and everything was bad and nothing good happened until they kids were rescued and put in White schools. We looked in the wrong places because we looked at the teachers as individuals. As individuals, of course, they were afraid of losing their jobs. But the power wasn't in the individual. It was in the organization. So there's that.
And I think the last piece, one that I actually have experienced, and that was very frightening. When I was a young scholar and beginning to write about the resilience of Black communities and segregation, I think there's a fear.
I think earlier on the idea of saying that anything good could have happened in these schools, in pedagogy, advocacy, curriculum, care, anything. If you said that there was anything good about it, the fear was that it would be used to disrupt the desegregation agenda.
Dani McClain: Thank you. Elizabeth, in Mothers of Massive Resistance, you describe White women as the constant gardeners of White supremacy. They may not have been politicians at the federal, state, or local levels, but they were mothers, churchgoers, social welfare workers, teachers, sometimes even newspaper columnists. How did White women communicate ideas around White superiority in their families and communities?
Elizabeth McRea: So, I think for, White women that are, are the grassroots workers, and frankly, they're on the ground trying to prevent what Vanessa talked about, right? They’re out working in these sort of local community and they’re sadly local political activists. I think when we often think about activists, we hope that they're activists for a more equitable and just society. But the segregationists that I wrote about are White women who are activists for a society built around the ideals of White supremacy.
So where do they work? They work in public and social welfare offices beginning in the 1920s to uphold White over Black. They work in public education, which I'll talk more about in a minute. They established political networks and organizations that are both local and regional, and by the 1940s, national, right, that uphold various iterations of White supremacist politics. And they participate in sort of a cultural work of Jim Crow storytelling, right? Of disseminating stories to the larger public that reinforce this notion of White supremacy.
But the very fact that White women have to work so hard at this and in so many places, suggests that their work is being contested. But in the 1920s, institutionally, they have a lot of the levers of power, right? The Democratic party and the Republican party, the Supreme court that had issued Plessy, the federal and state legislation does not challenge this sort of notion of racial segregation that had been articulated in Plessy vs. Ferguson, and then had been acted out through laws and violence for decades before that.
And so White women understand that if White supremacy is going to be upheld, that they're going to have to make sure that their local communities follow the rules. And the rules of White supremacy are that you maintain racial distance, that you ensure that your White children get an education, a Jim Crow education, a civic education that upholds the privileges of Whiteness and diminishes the opportunity of Black and Brown families and of children. That you make sure if you're going to have a segregated society, that midwives and nurses have to mark birth certificates about the racial identity of the babies that they're delivering, and you have to erase the long history of Black, White, and Native families that had been created out of coerced, and violent relationships and some consensual relationships.
And so I think on the ground, White women perform this sort of daily work. In Virginia, they pass a Racial Integrity Act in 1924. The state legislature says that a White person has no trace whatsoever of any blood of any other race, except if you were 1/16th American Indian, you could still be White.
But this law wouldn't have worked if midwives and registrars in the counties hadn't upheld it. So there were midwives that did not follow this, right, that did not follow this law. In particularly Black midwives that refuse to designate race. And so the law wouldn't have mattered if people in communities did not uphold it.
And so that's one way that White women upheld racial segregation. But I want to spend a few minutes talking about what they do in education. And I think, and this has really long lasting effects. So in the 1910s and ‘20s, White women as sort of former Confederates die out, right? White women who are producing this kind of White supremacist rhetoric focus on the public schools. Because they know that that's where this education has to be reproduced.
That if they don't reproduce ideas of White supremacy, generation after generation, if they don't draw the color line and prevent people from marrying and loving and having families, that their system, right, that secures their power is going to erode. And so they focus on public education, on segregated public education.
And they focus on the textbooks and they want to make sure that African American history is erased. And it is erased. If you'd picked up some textbooks in the 1890s, even produced by national publishing houses, you would have had the story of the Fort Pillow Massacre where African American soldiers were shot by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops as they surrendered.
But that is erased in the 1920s. And the way that these women activists do this is they begin to push Southern States, this is kind of wonky, but I'll be quick. They pushed Southern States to centralize textbook selection. And when the Southern States who lead the nation in doing the centralized textbooks selection, then these women's organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others, they lobby the textbook committees to choose particular textbooks. And then the publishing houses, which are national, respond because they know they can get a state contract. And they began to produce history that follows what the United Daughters of the Confederacy want the next generations of Americans to learn. That slavery was a civilizing school, that minimizes their racist violence that took away the rights and political careers of Black activists in the South that had been gained during Reconstruction.
in 1938 or 1939, the Mississippi Educational Association did a study of textbooks and found, and this is not just true of Mississippi, that if you had gone to school and read every word in every textbook from kindergarten to senior year, that you would have never met a single African American by name, not one.
And, and this is a result of White segregationist women trying to shape curriculum. And trying to shape the nation’s textbooks in a way that upholds White supremacy. They had essay contests in the twenties, and in the thirties, and even in the 1950s after Brown, across the South, there were essay contests about why social separation of the races is natural.
And so in 1959, you could write an essay and win $500 about why you think segregation is the way to go. That sent you to four years of the state university.
And so I think there's all these ways that White women work in places that national legislation is not concerned about. That, that they make sure in their communities that the subsequent generations of White children are trained in the ideas of White supremacy.
Dani McClain: Yeah. Thank you. Vanessa, in your book, one section I looked at, you're looking at 1966, so more than a decade after the Brown ruling. At that point, fewer than one half of 1% of Black teachers in the South were working in desegregated schools; 83% of Black children were still in segregated schools; Black principals were being displaced left and right; Black teachers were being eliminated altogether or given lower salaries than White peers. How did this happen? How was it that segregation was maintained post-Brown?
Vanessa Siddle Walker: Well, let me talk about it in the 1960s and I want to really commend Elizabeth for the really powerful work that she's done. Because if we look at what Black educators are doing in the period post-Brown and prior to its full implementation, typically 1969 or ‘70 in the South, the biggest fight is on the playing field that Elizabeth has established. It's the local policies. So Brown is a national Supreme court case. Brown II is designed to make sure the South is not too unhappy with the Brown case.
It is in the local arena that Whites are able to mobilize, and Black educators understand that the mobilization is not to the advantage of Black children.
You see them actually right after Brown celebrating, right? They're talking to the students about, Oh, we know you're going to be ready for this, right? We've been preparing you. But then in the years that follow, they get quiet because they see how school boards are finding new ways to make sure teachers don't get the salary they deserve. Or even building these new schools, right, for Black children so we can keep them in their Black schools, but that people cut corners. So we might build the building, but then we make sure we don't give you the budget to be able to stock the school.
So, the local school boards, as far as Black educators are concerned, they don't know what Elizabeth’s moms are up to, the local school boards are implementing the policies, right, that fire the teachers or decrease the salaries or get rid of the principals. And the Black educators are very clear that a large part of the fight is at the local level.
But here's their hope. The hope is the federal government and the national organization. So while in the local space, we know that the intent was to use federal money for White children, the new money that's coming in, and to integrate in ways that will preserve White privilege. They know that, but, but they think that on the federal level, they can get some support. Initially, they think that the federal government is going to be behind their vision for integration and Black educators want integration. They are the ones who have been behind it. They found the plaintiffs, right? They've provided the money, they want integration, but they want a fair integration and they think the federal government is going to back them up. And so you see them appealing to Harold Howe and others in the mid-sixties because they still have this hope, right? That the federal government is going to make sure we do this right.
And they are appealing to NEA, the National Education Association, which has passed a resolution about integration. And they think that NEA is going to force the local White school boards to do what's right, but it doesn't work that way.
In effect, what really happens is you get a kind of school desegregation compromise, I call it. By 1968 and now not only do they not have the things that they were supposedly going to be given in the early sixties, but you now have, on the federal level, an effort to figure out how to create a desegregation that will work for local, Southern White people. Nixon is now president. You see the federal government step away. We are going to have an integration that preserves the language of integration. But we are going to not have actual integration. We are going within the language of integration, create systems and structures in the South that preserve White privilege.
And so the federal government steps away from its earlier commitment to full integration. And this is why you get Horace Tate talking about, and other Black educators, we've got, what we got going on here, is a second-class integration. He said, you know, I worked for desegregation, integration he says, I worked for well integration my entire life. Did everything I could to eradicate inequality. But in choosing to accept integration, we cannot accept a second-class integration, he said, because the second-class integration is evil. They are forcing us to believe that a language of equality can substitute for actual equality. He called it tokenism.
Dani McClain: It's such a rich history. Elizabeth, your book explains the careful strategy that went into preserving segregation from the interwar period up through the 1970s. I think many Americans, especially White people, see racial imbalance in today's schools as simply how things are. And unrelated to any purposeful subordination or malice on the part of White parents.
How do you explain this? How did we get from a time when White southerners spoke openly about their belief in White superiority to a national conversation that justifies segregated schools with race-neutral talk of good schools, choice, and simply wanting the best for one's child?
Elizabeth McRea: And I don't mean this glib at all, but this is exactly what White segregationists wanted White Americans to think. The producers of the sort of White supremacist educational politics as the civil rights movement moves into the sixties, they want White Americans to consume ideas about racial integration that do create second class. It's not an accident, right? They know that they've lost with Brown and with the Civil Rights Act of ‘64 and the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, that they've lost this sort of national legislative battle on the surface.
But White women experimented with the colorblind language in the early 1950s and late 1940s. How do the producers of segregation limit the possibilities of integration that Vanessa was just talking about? It's because they begin to sort of build national coalitions with discussions about property values and parental rights. And as a parent in the 1950s, shouldn't I be able to choose if my child is gonna be taught a curriculum that our local school system has developed or that the United Nations has spent years working on sort of the value of multiculturalism, right?
Rather than say, well, I'm a White supremacist and I want a locally controlled curriculum, they say that the United Nations is communist and that they're worried that multiculturalism impinges on the rights that they have as a parent to educate their children. And so, I think by the time we get to the late sixties and the 1970s, they've had decades to work on this language, in a way that allows the consumers of this kind of segregationist White supremacist rhetoric to maintain kind of a racial innocence. That I'm gonna buy a house in this neighborhood because the schools are good and sort of tearing that apart from FHA policies that had denied housing loans to Black veterans after World War II, to the larger sort of municipal politics that had created segregated neighborhoods and created unequal schools. I mean, I think it's just, it's not an accident.
I think we’re harmed, right, by imagining that sort of White supremacists and segregationists, and I don't mean to say that these folks aren't powerful, but are sort of gun toting tobacco chewing, kind of uneducated White men or then like kind of demagogic political elected leaders, and we really need to shift and look at who's doing the work and begin to be able to see that segregationists can also be like, you know, a suburban soccer mom in a minivan, right? That that's like the way we've sort of shaped who's a racist and who isn't, or who's a segregationist and who isn't, has really, I think, limited our ability to see this work.
So just to fast forward in Boston, right. When Boston sort of came apart at the seams over the busing in the seventies. And a lot of White Bostonians would say, no, no, we're not like those White Southerners, right. We never made anybody sit at the back of the bus, right? We didn't do this, we didn't do that. But Black Bostonians are chanting, It's not the bus, it's us. Like the outcome of this anti-busing protests is that we'll be left in schools that aren't technically segregated, but are sort of second-class integrated schools with less resources.
The stories that we've told about the movement and, and, Vanessa's work speaks to this. The stories that we haven't heard have allowed this sort of innocence to be perpetuated, right? Like, I didn't choose this school because I'm a White supremacist, right, I chose the school because they have really good test scores or 60% of their students go to college. And we've pulled that apart from the policies that were not race-neutral that created the conditions that allowed that to happen.
And so we've missed Vanessa stories. You know, we focused on the George Wallaces, and we haven't focused on the fact that, that segregationists didn't just quit in 1965 or 1972. That they'd been working on strategies to combat professional Black teachers who in North Carolina at the time of the Brown decision, were better educated. More African American women had master's degrees that were teaching in the public schools, than White women, right? And so they would have been paid more.
And so by not telling those stories and then say, Oh, the civil rights movement was successful, and I'm not saying it wasn't successful, It's successful because we don't have White and colored signs anymore. Well, yes, but we also have other signs, right? That aren't so obvious and other markers that have allowed the second-class integration to sort of proceed.
Dani McClain: Thank you. Vanessa, I'm thinking about what your book teaches us about all that was lost for Black communities and educators as a result of what Tate called second-class integration. Drawing on your research, how might you answer a parent who asks, What's the point of integration? Given that the effect on Black children's psyche and intellectual development hasn't always been positive? And given that we've lost so many Black educators, should we just be creating and supporting independent Black-led schools instead?
Vanessa Siddle Walker: It's a fair question, but before I answer it, you have to understand what Black educators were looking for in integration, and I think of it as three A's. For them, integration was going to be an additive model. They were going to have everything they had under segregation and they were going to get what they did not have. So, let's think about in their additive model, what did they already have? They understood how to do schools under oppressive circumstances without full facilities, without all the textbooks, all of these things. They figured out how to build resilience, all of these people who were smart enough to tear the system down, come out of these schools. So they figured out, pedagogically, how to create these climates that prepare children to work and live in a very negative larger context. They got down aspiration. That's the first A. They know how to create schools that help children to aspire to achieve. Notwithstanding what else the rest of America is doing.
They figured out a second A. How to advocate. That's what's going on in their organizations. That's when they're able to advocate and press against these negative systems.
I would argue that in every domain where White women are trying to figure out another strategy, one of the reasons they have to keep trying to figure it out and continuing it is because through these organizations, they're figuring out ways to chop against the inequality. So they figured out advocacy.
If their formula for integration was additive, then what do they want? And here’s the third A: access. They imagined schools that would give them access to facilities, other colleges of education. All these things that they had been denied, they would have full access. And they will still have caring school climates and they would have people to advocate when things went wrong.
This is the context for what you call real integration, right? But Black educators are behind that case in 1968 in Virginia, right? The Green Case. So the factors that define real integration actually come out of the Black educators’ playbook for what real integration should look like. You see it as early as the Brown decision.
What happened is that instead of getting an additive formula, we get an exchange formula. We are going to give you pretend access in exchange for giving up your teachers and your principals and these powerful networks. So we're going to get rid of these Black teacher organizations. NEA made sure that happened. And we're going to turn our backs on the dismissal of Black teachers and Black principals. These are the people who know how to create these schools that can allow children to be resilient.
So, instead of getting an aspiration and advocacy and access, we get half of access, half of access, and we lose our school climates that created aspiration and we lose our advocacy.
Shouldn't we just go back. I hear more Black people ask me that question than I really care to because people are frustrated and they are angry at what they see.
But here is the problem: there is nothing to go back to. You don't have anywhere evidence of equality in segregation. There's no evidence that we can make it happen the way it was. The ways in which those teachers were trained, you don't have schools of ed who are training in that way. You don't have the networks that we had. We don't have the strong connections with parents that we had.
So the system that was created was fully dismantled in 1970. And frankly, I'm not seeing anything that comes anywhere close to the inner connections that they had across the South, across the country, even across the world.
So if we go back, we gotta figure out what back is and how to put those things in place. So that's the problem.
I think the better strategy is to go back to what they intended with real integration. They had a plan.
Dani McClain: Elizabeth, is there anything from the research that you've done that can help us reimagine what schools should look like today?
Elizabeth McRea: Well, I don't want to be negative, but I think we've 50 years of really lobbying against public education. That the sort of forces arrayed against public education really coalesced after the Brown decision. And so, I guess my hopeful part is that if we understand at the national, state, and local level what is preventing us from achieving schools that offer real integration and real equity and real opportunity, that then we know where to sort of fight. And wherever our strengths are and our access is, whether it's local or state or national, that we can begin to sort of chip away at the policies and the politics that have really solidified kind of a second-class integration.
And I do think there are schools out there that are models for possibilities and we should look to those.
Dani McClain: Vanessa?
Vanessa Siddle Walker: I want to answer both from my work in history and also from my experience as a parent, having raised a child in a desegregated school that was supposed to be a very good school and she has been very successful. But I've seen it, I've seen your parents, Elizabeth, on the PTA, because I'm one of the few Black people that they deemed able to be a part of the inner circle because I lived in the right neighborhood and I could speak, as Jesse Jackson would say, Put a few words together, subjects or verbs and make them shake hands. And so I looked like just a browner version of them.
And I can say that it appears to me impressionistically as a parent, that your mothers are as active as they have always been. I have seen that in elementary school, middle school, and high school, which is why your work was so powerful for me.
I certainly read contemporary work about how middle class White mothers co-op schools. But I did not know the history of it until I read your work. I have seen that structure at work today. The fact that Dr. Tate could foresee what would happen and that I would live it, it took me 18 years to write that book because it was so different from the histories I had read and had been told, and so I have memories of leaving him and hearing him talk, just as you talk, and then drive to my daughter's desegregated school to pick her up, and now I'm in the reality of something very different. I'm not encouraged because he foresaw where we are. That doesn't encourage me at all. I am discouraged and I'm discouraged because I do not see the interconnected advocacy that is necessary to counter what's happening today in schools.
We need the kind of interconnected advocacy that existed from reconstruction right up to desegregation in order to counter it and to counter it fully. But they have successes that we can point to in this generation. And we gotta figure out how people, through the national coalition and others, to connect people in ways that, that are modeled on what Dr. Tate and his colleagues and peers were able to do. Because right now I don't see where these mothers have the accountability. There is no organization like the Black organization that holds them accountable. And I think because they have swayed federal policies and the directions that we have gone, the federal government is not accountable except in language.
So I feel actually that's not based all on my history. Some of that is impressionistic based on my time in the schools, but I do think the time is now to reconnect a lot of the pieces that were lost.
Dani McClain: Well this has been enlightening. Thank you both, for digging into these stories and sharing them with us and being willing to be in conversation with me and with each other. I want to go ahead and hand things over to Andrew Lefkowits. Andrew, take it away.
Andrew: Thank you, Dani. I'm Andrew, I'm a White dad from Denver. If you've ever listened to the Integrated Schools Podcast, you're probably thinking, wait a minute, that's what he looks like? If you haven't ever listened to the Integrated Schools Podcast, you're probably thinking, who is this guy and why on earth does he get to talk after those incredible women?
Believe me, I am asking myself the same question. The only answer I can give you is that I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to ride on the coattails of the late great Courtney Everts Mykytyn.
On October 30th, 2018, Courtney and I launched the Integrated Schools Podcast in an effort to broaden the reach of the organization that Courtney had started back in 2015. We had three episodes, a boatload of trepidation, and we emailed the small at the time, but mighty Integrated Schools community, posted on Facebook and Twitter, and put into the world deeply personal conversations. The kind of conversations that Courtney was so good at: honest, funny, leaving space for growth, but not excuses. Conversations that heard you where you were but weren't afraid to pull you further along.
Over the next year and two months, she and I produced 38 episodes. The learning curve was steep. We miss deadlines cause we had no idea how much work any of this might be. We ended up with some incredible conversations with just terrible audio quality. My apologies to the great David Kirkland. We learned new technology and by that I guess I mostly mean that Courtney tried to learn new technology and I tried not to lose my patience and we constantly questioned and requestioned the content.
It was scary to put these conversations out in the world. Conversations about race, about segregation, about parenting - there are so many places to step wrong, and we knew that we'd make plenty of mistakes along the way, but we worked really hard to share conversations that were brave, that were thoughtful, and that might play some small role in changing the narrative in White, and/or privileged communities about school.
Somehow it struck a nerve. We celebrated when we hit 300 downloads and then 500 downloads and then a thousand and then 10,000. We were touched and amazed and humbled by the emails from people saying, This is what I needed to hear. You know, I thought I was the only one who thought these things. And while neither of us ever expected the podcast to reach quite so many people, somewhere deep down, Courtney knew that if people could hear the stories, it might make a difference.
She believed deeply in the power of stories, in the work that the stories we tell ourselves do in how culture is built. A year ago tomorrow, as part of a series we did on Brown v. Board at 65, we released an episode called, “I Hope They Hear It In Our Voices”. It was a conversation with Carol and Greg, two Black parents who had opted into a mostly White quote, good school. They were choosing to be a part of a form of desegregation. But they shared the ways that racism and White supremacy infected nearly every interaction they had at school. It was uncomfortable, you know, in some ways it undermined some of the arguments for that type of desegregation. Courtney knew that we needed to hear their stories.
We needed to see Greg and Carol in their full humanity and to grapple with the truth of their experience. Not only, as Vanessa's work so clearly shows, was desegregation hard, but desegregation is still hard.
But you know, Courtney's vision wasn't about trying to tell some surface level version of desegregation. She wasn't trying to sell White people about what they could get or what they could do for others. It wasn't all about opportunity hoarding or White saviorism. The goal wasn't to dupe White people into sending their kids to schools with mostly Black and Brown student bodies.
She, she knew that the impact of our arrival was so often problematic and that we had a lot of work to do to ensure that we weren't causing harm.
Despite having started an organization that was committed to integration called Integrated Schools, she knew that we couldn't gloss over the real cost of desegregation, both then and now. She knew that an inadequate or worse, an inaccurate version of the story of desegregation, a story that ignored those costs, that pretended that somehow Brown v. Board solved racism in schools, was never going to get us to a deeper, more meaningful understanding. It was never going to help us know better so that we could then do better.
Around episode five, she started to close every episode with that Maya Angelou shout-out saying, We're grateful to be in this with you as we try to know better and do better. Well, Courtney knew you can never do things right and there was no way to be a perfect White person, you know, a 10 step-plan to being a perfect integrating parent. She did believe that you could and should do better, but that the only way to do better is to know better.
And she also believed that if enough White and/or privileged parents started actually doing better, that we wouldn't be talking about small scale changes. Tweaks around the edges of the education system. Her vision was a fundamentally different way for White and/or privileged people to interact with our educational system. Not to try to create a program that might nudge the needle on graduation rates or boost standardized test scores, but because she believed deeply in the promise of public schools and their foundational role in our democracy. And she knew that our kids, if they can find shared humanity with other kids who don't look like them, that maybe they'll do better than us. Not in early literacy or on the SATs, but at forming a true multiracial democracy.
On December 30th last year, she was struck by a car while, unsurprisingly, having a conversation with her neighbor standing on the sidewalk across the street from her house. And while the hole left from her loss seems to grow daily, especially in the midst of this crisis, her vision and her commitment and her love of conversations goes on.
We've released eight more podcasts. Our Facebook group has grown. We've heard from people all over the world about the impact that Courtney had on their lives. Many of them never even met her. Maybe were fortunate enough to have a phone conversation with her.
About a month ago, we hit 100,000 downloads of the podcast. A truly bittersweet moment that shows that Courtney's vision lives on, that there's still great power in stories, and that the work of anti-racist school integration is more important now than ever. Not because it might lead to better distribution of resources, though it almost certainly will. Not because it might boost academic achievement for all kids though again, that's likely. And not because by shoving different kids into the same building, our work as a society in building a multiracial democracy is somehow done.
I think the reasons that the work is still important are strewn across our news feeds every day. The work is important because the kids who are in school today are tomorrow's teachers and doctors and police officers and fathers and sons “just keeping an eye on the neighborhood”.
Stories like those that Vanessa and Elizabeth tell in their work and this conversation today, so beautifully facilitated by Dani, it's what fed Courtney's soul. And I think it's in leaning into the challenges that they present and finding each other's humanity through the conversation, that we can find hope. That we can imagine the type of world we want for our children.
Courtney's coattails were a hell of a ride. Being part of this event feels somehow unreal. But it leaves me more committed than ever to telling stories, sharing conversations, and continuing to try to know better and do better.