The New York Times

Where Did All the Black Teachers Go?
APRIL 20, 2017
Editorial Observer
By BRENT STAPLES
I started first grade at an all-black elementary school in Chester, Pa., a deeply segregated factory town near Philadelphia, in 1957 — three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional.

The crisply dressed first graders who moved hesitantly that day through the halls of the Booker T. Washington Elementary School — built expressly for “colored children” — would be the first in their families to find relief from some of the most egregious humiliations that had come with being black in our town.

A popular restaurant nearby that used to turn away black patrons had begrudgingly begun to seat them. The movie theaters (including the one where black townspeople had watched “Gone With the Wind” from “colored” seats in the balcony) no longer separated patrons by race. The skating rink was the lone Jim Crow holdout: Black skaters could attend only if it was “ebony” night.

Segregated schools for black students were often decrepit, poorly staffed and crushingly overcrowded. But I recall no such infirmities at Booker T., as we called it. It was sparkly clean, quiet as a library and firmly under the control of steely, well-educated African-American women who were sticklers for grammar, could freeze your misbehaving heart with a glare and had the unnerving habit of engaging our parents in conversation on the street.


Today, many of the women who taught at Booker T. would instead have become lawyers, bankers or executives. But back then, discrimination that would ease with the passage of time had ruled out those careers and made teaching the default choice for the capable Negro women who then poured their aspirations into us.

The significance of what they gave us is being driven home in a growing body of research showing that black children — particularly those from impoverished families — benefit from having black teachers.

Important studies show, for example, that children who encounter African-American teachers are more likely to be recognized as bright enough for gifted and talented programs, more likely to be viewed as capable of success and more likely to graduate from high school and aim for college.


Linda Brown (front row, right) and her sister Terry Lynn (far left row, third from front) who, with their parents, initiated the landmark Civil Rights lawsuit ‘Brown V. Board of Education,’ in their classroom in Topeka, Kan.
CARL IWASAKI / THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION, VIA GETTY IMAGES
These studies suggest that black teachers are powerful role models, particularly for black boys; that they are more likely than white teachers to recognize competence in their black students; and that subjective judgments by teachers play a vital role in determining success at school. All the more reason for public schools across the country to do more to recruit and retain teachers of color.

I continued in all-black schools until the first day of fifth grade, when the spirit of Brown finally reached out for me. Out of the blue, I was summoned to the principal’s office, handed my records held together with rubber bands and given directions to a school I had never heard of at the far end of town.

Within a few hours, I was surrounded by white classmates at the William Penn School, a handsome new brick-and-glass building that had been built to accommodate nearby housing developments that excluded African-Americans and would continue to do so for years to come. I was surprised to find that the lone black teacher was an aunt who had recently graduated from college.

Integration, of course, did not guarantee a great education. Districts that technically integrated their schools post-Brown often practiced Jim Crow lite, by labeling African-Americans deficient and shunting them into low-level and nonacademic tracks. But William Penn was a welcoming place and my former teachers had prepared me well. I arrived an eager reader and scribbler.


The black schools I left behind continued on as black for decades, because the area was mainly black. That was not the case in parts of the country that had maintained dual, racially distinct school systems that were at least partly combined after the Supreme Court outlawed deliberate segregation.

When black schools were shuttered or absorbed, celebrated black principals were demoted or fired. By some estimates, nearly a third of African-American teachers lost their jobs. Those who survived the purge were sometimes selected on the basis of a lighter skin color that made them more palatable to white communities.

In a 50th anniversary reappraisal of Brown published in The Journal of Negro Education, a researcher familiar with that period spoke of how white communities regarded the arrival of even a few black teachers as an attack on their schools. Not surprisingly, these horror stories deterred black students from pursuing teaching careers.

States and localities with significant black populations are beginning to recognize the whiteness of the teacher corps as an obstacle to student achievement. At the same time, statistics show that districts are doing a miserable job of retaining teachers of color and that more leave the field each year than enter it. A 2016 report by the Education Trust shows why. Among other things, African-Americans interested in teaching black students find they are steered into positions where they teach only black students. The same teachers complain of being pigeonholed as disciplinarians, their other talents rendered invisible.

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Comment by Nathalie C. Lilavois, EdD on April 28, 2017 at 10:16am

Great piece!  I recently visited the National Museum of African American History & Culture with a bus tour my non- profit sisterhood had organized. I was fortunate enough to meet  Joan Johns Cobb, the younger sister of Barbara Rose John who, at 16 years old, had led the protest at Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia. This critical event became part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. She is the one in red on the left along with another protester pointing themselves out in the protest photograph at the NMAAHC museum. This quote resonated with me"...black teachers are powerful role models, particularly for black boys; that they are more likely than white teachers to recognize competence in their black students; and that subjective judgments by teachers play a vital role in determining success at school. All the more reason for public schools across the country to do more to recruit and retain teachers of color." Bravo!

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