The realities of Board v Brown

Words: Louisa Hanton

Between 1954 and 1972, more than 31,000 Black teachers in the Southern States of America lost their jobs. Between 1967 and 1971, the number of Black head teachers in Alabama dropped from 250 to less than 50, and in North Carolina the number dropped from 620 to 40. In Mississippi, several Black head teachers found themselves demoted to administrative posts. 

This gradual disappearance of Black educators in America’s Southern States is the forgotten outcome of Brown versus the Board of Education.

Those of us who were taught about the case in school history lessons were told a story of absolute success for the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the civil rights movement in 1954. The court’s ruling in favour of Oliver Brown, accepting that segregation between Black and white students in public schools was unconstitutional, led to the desegregation of education in the South and marked a crucial milestone in the fight for racial equality in America. But this neat version of history belies the cost of integration for Black communities that continues to have an impact today.  

The beginnings of the Brown case came when the parents of Linda Brown and those of numerous other Black children tried and failed to enrol them into the white-only schools in the town of Topeka, Kansas. The NAACP took the school board to court and won their case. 

But the court’s interpretation of the case was very different to the way in which the Black families involved saw the issue of their children’s education. Leola and Oliver Brown did not try to enrol their daughter in the white school because they were dissatisfied with the quality of her current education; they did so on a matter of principle. Linda’s current schooling was more than satisfactory – but the Browns wanted to be able to decide where to send their child to school, and not leave the decision up to the school board. 

This was not how the court viewed the situation. For them, not allowing Linda to attend the white school was a problem of unequal education standards. The court argued that the Black-only schools of Topeka were providing an inferior education, which, in their words, ‘has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of negro children.’

This difference is crucial to understanding the negative impacts of the Brown decision. It was with this prejudiced view of Black teachers and their abilities to educate that the South proceeded with school integration. As the ruling of the Brown decision was gradually implemented, Black students were moved to the white schools and the Black schools were closed down, leaving Black principals jobless. 

With the move towards integration, the school boards also reasoned that they would need a reduced number of teachers. Following the court’s lead, the boards decided that the least talented teachers – in their opinion, those who were Black – should be dismissed. The fact that the Black teachers had provided a high quality education to their pupils before integration and were often better educators than white teachers was ignored. It was for this reason, and the fierce opposition to the presence of Black teachers in the newly integrated schools by white parents, that half of the Black teachers in the South were fired in the decade after 1954.  

The eradication of Black educators from the schools of the South is the untold tragedy of what has been seen as a monumental win for the civil rights movement. With the loss of Black teachers and principals, Black children lost invaluable role models and educators, as well as figures who understood and empathised with their unique experiences. 

After 1954, Black children entered into the classrooms of white teachers, where they were often ignored and misunderstood. Not only this, but the loss of Black teachers also saw the disappearance of a set of community leaders and individuals who acted as integral pillars of Southern Black communities.  

The outcomes of Brown are not just an unfortunate historical event. The fact that over ninety per cent of the teaching force in America is white today has profound consequences for the success of Black students. 

A recent study on acceptance to gifted programs in the U.S. suggests that if you take two equally bright students – one Black, one white – and account for social class, parental health and income, and both students have Black teachers, they have the same chance of being recommended for a gifted program. However, if the teachers are white, the Black student’s chance of being recommended falls by fifty per cent compared to their white peer. Another study showed that if a boy who is Black has as few as one Black teacher in his school career, he is 33% less likely to drop out of high school later down the line. The race of the teacher matters. Black teachers are vital for Black students, but since 1954, they have become a rare presence in America’s classrooms.  

So much of history, particularly when taught in schools, paints a one-dimensional view of the past. We are taught to see the Brown decision as a symbol of progress and victory for the civil rights movement – a moment at which white people made the right decision. Viewing it in this way, we forget who controlled the manner in which integration took place, who bore the cost of its realities, and the long-lasting results of their sacrifice. 

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Louisa Hanton studies English and History at Durham University.