Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on the Long Struggle Against Educational Injustice, scheduled for March 5th, we are highlighting the scholarship of their three guests.
Rachel Devlin is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers, New Brunswick. Her most recent book, A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women who Desegregated America’s Schools considers the disproportionate number of girls who filed lawsuits prior to Brown v. Board of Education, and who were desegregation “Firsts” at historically white schools in the early nineteen sixties.
Devin Fergus is the Arvarh E. Strickland Distinguished Professor of History and Black Studies. His research focuses on political economy, policy, and inequality in modern America. Professor Fergus is the author of Land of the Fee: Hidden Costs and the Decline of the American Middle Class which explores the hidden costs of rising financial fees at home, school, work, and transportation on wealth and mobility in modern America.
Elizabeth Gillespie McRae is the Creighton Sossoman Professor of History at Western Carolina University. Her book, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy published in 2018 examines white women’s work in maintaining white supremacy in public education, social welfare policy, politics, and culture.
CBFS: For our upcoming conversation we’ll be talking about educational justice on a number of fronts, both those who fought for it and those who opposed it, in primary education and in higher education. Can you each tell us a bit about your book and how you came to write this history?
Rachel Devlin: The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education struck down the Constitutional basis for racial segregation and kicked off years of struggle to integrate America’s public schools. The case is commonly understood as the capstone of a careful legal strategy planned and directed by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women who Desegregated America’s Schools shows that Thurgood Marshall only mobilized after students and families began independently filing desegregation lawsuits in the 1940s. Strikingly, nearly all of these early lawsuits were filed by girls and young women. The book is the first new history of the struggle for school desegregation in over four decades, revealing that it was a grassroots movement led by girls and young women.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, young women and girls, almost exclusively, attempted to register at white schools, met with local white administrators and school boards, testified in court and talked with reporters about why they wanted to attend schools with white students. After Brown, girls would continue to lead the effort, by volunteering, in vastly disproportionate numbers, to desegregate formerly all-white schools in every region of the country. I began researching the book after I noticed that in Ebony and Jet Magazines the only stories about school desegregation involved girls. Curious, I traveled to the Library of Congress to look at school desegregation cases. To my surprise there were many more school desegregation cases prior to Brown that were unknown, and almost all of them were filed by or on behalf of girls.
Elizabeth McRae: I began working on my book, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy after coming across claims by white southern suffragists that granting women the vote would strengthen, not weaken, white supremacist politics. Intrigued by a commitment of disfranchised women to expand democratic rights for themselves and to limit those rights for others, I tried to track how they kept this promise. I found female networks of white segregationists working on the ground as registrars, teachers, precinct workers, civic club members, and mothers enforcing, reinforcing, and shaping the system of Jim Crow, generation after generation. For decades white women were the mass in what later became known as massive resistance to the civil rights movement. They worked in social welfare circles to draw the color line; pressured political parties to become more ideologically rigid; they became Jim Crow storytellers, making sure the columns they wrote, the books they reviewed, and the Black men and women they wrote about reinforced a racial hierarchy.
No institution was more important to their efforts, however, than public schools. Exercising their authority as public mothers, they censored textbooks, conducted essay contests, monitored teachers, donated library books, and controlled curriculum to ensure that each generation of white students received an education in Jim Crow. They worked across the nation in rural, urban, and suburban environs. Their work included both opposition to school integration and opposition to busing. White segregationist women, I argue, were Jim Crow’s constant gardeners, ensuring that white supremacist politics would shape shift and evolve to continue over the course of the twentieth century.
Devin Fergus: Land of the Fee: Hidden Costs and the Decline of the American Middle Class explores the near-collapse of upward mobility and how this informs America’s racial wealth gap—a gap that’s near its widest margin since the federal government began collecting this data over 30 years ago and a gap that has been described by the UN and the World Economic Forum as a defining challenge of our time. Today, the average African American household owns 10 cents for every dollar owned by a white household. Central to this history is the rising costs of fees and related expenses associated with higher education. For much of the twentieth century, college has been regarded as a key pathway to the middle class. Yet, today, a college campus is as much a site of indebtedness as upward mobility, especially for African Americans who are not only more likely to borrow but also borrow more than any other student demographic. My book tells how we arrived at this particular historical moment.
CBFS: Can you share a story of a particular campaign or a figure from these struggles that our readers might not be familiar with?
Devlin: The truly amazing thing about the women in my book is that virtually all of them remain unknown to the general public. The most shocking elision in historical memory is the desegregation pioneer Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher who was, in the late 1940s, the most famous and celebrated school desegregation champion. Sipuel—as she was called at the time—was the first graduate school plaintiff to file suit after the war, suing to enter the University of Oklahoma School of Law. She was the only desegregation plaintiff to outright reject the state’s offer to set up a separate Black law school, and finally the only desegregation plaintiff to graduate from the school she had successfully desegregated. She was charismatic and relentless in her pursuit of desegregation and became a favorite among both Black and White reporters and inspired those young women and girls who came after her. She eventually became a member of the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents; her last act before retiring was to create an endowed chair for Anita Hill. Hill said that Sipuel “was my role-model for strength and committed leadership and my inspiration to remain hopeful. And she still is.”
McRae: Cornelia Dabney Tucker, a veteran segregationist from South Carolina, worked to delegitimize the Supreme Court in the aftermath of the Brown Decision. She had already conducted a nationwide campaign—undertaken by women-in 1938 against the expansion of the Supreme Court. In the aftermath of the school desegregation decision, Tucker built a grassroots campaign to change the judicial nomination process to reduce presidential power by making nomination lists of justices by state legislatures binding. By focusing on constitutional change, Tucker buried her overt racial politics. Instead, she sent out thousands of letters and pamphlets, denouncing the Brown Decision as part of a communist conspiracy. She employed a language of states’ rights and constitutional authority instead of a commitment to racial segregation. Mississippi’s Senator James Eastland, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, encouraged Tucker to continue, and she did. While she failed to get the nomination process changed, her invocations of politically-minded activist judges to condemn judges on the left has had a considerable and vigorous political life.
Fergus: An important if hidden figure in the book is “racial wealth.” Too often wealth and income get confused or conflated. Certainly, income is central in the telling the story of the contemporary Black experience, as earnings are a significant mechanism in Black material advancement. But is income—or other economic mechanisms like a college degree, minority business expansions, entrepreneurialism, or employment—the best metric to measure economic success, prosperity, and wellbeing of society? Wealth (or net worth) almost always generates income, whereas income does not necessarily create wealth. Wealth insulates individuals and families from economic shocks and disruption. Households without financial assets run a far greater risk of bankruptcy, foreclosure, homelessness, or worse when faced with sudden job loss, medical catastrophe, or some other life-altering event.
At the same time the racial wage gap was narrowing, the racial wealth gap expanded to three times its previous amount, according to a national report examining the post-civil rights period. In 1984, white households had a net value worth $85,000 more than Black households. By 2009, the gap had steadily climbed to $236,000, or an increase of $152,000 over the last twenty-five years. Nationally, the racial wealth gap during the 1990s and 2000s grew despite evidence revealing that Blacks gained ground on whites in income and education attainment. So a fundamental question lingers: if income doesn’t adequately explain such gaps (e.g. $152,000) over the last generation, then what does? My book takes a deep dive into some of these intertwining forces such as homeownership, education, employment, and transportation.
CBFS: Considering the continuing fight for Black freedom today, the re-segregation of schools, and the crisis of college debt, how does this history help us understand or even act in our current moment?
Devlin: I think that the most important thing that A Girl Stands at the Door does to help us understand our current moment is describe how critical grass roots organizing is—the patient, laborious, highly local, and often unglamorous work of making change happen in our own neighborhoods. National change can happen from the ground up.
McRae: This history shows how the grassroots work of white women as producers of segregationist policies has resulted in generations of people consuming ideas and lessons that reinforce racial inequality. The campaigns of segregationist women stretched from California to Georgia to Massachusetts and reminds us that white supremacist politics are national. To combat them, citizens must counter their efforts in communities where we live. Those practicing these politics do not always wear hoods, carry Confederate flags, or shout epithets. They are in our civic clubs, PTA meetings, churches, and neighborhoods, and they belong to organizations with innocuous names, like Women for Constitutional Government–names that hide overtly racist politics behind a racially neutral, color blind language. The multiple forums where white segregationist women worked—social welfare, electoral and cultural and educational institutions—to uphold racial inequality, means that those fighting for Black freedom, racial equality, and human rights today must struggle in all those places too. If the promise of democratic equality is to be, we must disrupt and counter the production of white supremacist politics on the ground, in local institutions where they live.
Fergus: While the book tells us about where African Americans have been, it also is a work about the present and future of Black America and the nation writ large. By mid-century, the US is projected to be a race-plural society with a race-plural middle class. If the on-going extraction of racial wealth chronicled in Land of the Fee continues, it will result in an ethno-racial, middle class majority more squeezed and tapped out than any in our lived or cultural memory. That America’s next middle class is headed toward zero net wealth has important implications beyond Black America. After all, a strong middle class has typically been the engine of the US economy, fueling consumer spending, entrepreneurship, and innovation, as well as the population relied upon to underwrite the nation’s infrastructure, retirement savings, school systems, and other public investment. This is all threatened, however, if we continue along our current path of hollowing out Black America and other vulnerable populations.