Saturday, February 13, 2010

Teaching Black Power: Dallas Schools and Segregation (A speech to be delivered at the Dallas Public Library for Black History Month, 2-18-10)

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, a tenured law professor who had worked in the Nixon administration, Lino Graglia, volunteered to be faculty adviser to a campus anti-affirmative action group. During a press conference announcing the foundation of the group, Graglia said, “Blacks and Mexican-Americans are not academically competitive with whites in selective institutions. It is the result primarily of cultural effects. They have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement. Failure is not looked upon with disgrace.” This is a common slur made by whites against African Americans, an argument based on the notion that the three hundred years of the affirmative action programs for whites called slavery, segregation and white flight had no impact. It is also an argument that can be made only in complete ignorance of African American history.

I would invite Mr. Graglia and his like to visit the seventh floor of this library. There, on microfilm, are the records of the Dallas district of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Created during the Civil War to help emancipated slaves and white refugees to adjust to their peacetime lives, as the Freedmen’s Bureau evolved in the late 1860s, its duties eventually encompassed administering justice in criminal cases involving recently emancipated slaves, regulating freedmen's work contracts, and providing for the former slaves' education.

This last experiment, in providing schools for African American children, was the reform most enthusiastically embraced by the black community. Blacks saw schools as a gateway to something more than the symbolic freedom offered by contracted farm labor. "The free people are alive to the possibility of educating their children,” wrote William H. Horton, the Sub-Assistant Commissioner for the Freedmen's Bureau in Dallas, just two years after emancipation.

Blacks learned immediately, however, that in spite of their poverty, they would have to build the schools on their own. Dallas had no public schools in the 1860s and local whites were disinclined to begin an experiment in universal education with black subjects. Dallas whites would not financially support black schools and in some cases used the threat of violence to prevent them from opening. The majority of whites, Horton observed, "scoff at the idea of a Negro being susceptible to receiving an education, [and believe] that the . . . black can not be taught to red and write &c." Whites likely also feared that an educated black population would grow even more restive about poor working conditions and would demand that their civil rights be respected. Such schools might be inciters of rebellion. "The whites are not disposed to help them," Horton wrote in the late 1860s. "At [the town of] Lancaster . . . the people said they will break up any freed school that may be started there."

Across the South, the Freedmen's Bureau schools drew hundreds of Northern men and women, black and white. These teachers often felt an evangelical zeal to bring education to former slaves. Many, however, faced violence from Southern Anglos who saw a white person teaching blacks as a race traitor and a black person in such a position as a dangerous revolutionary. The destruction of schoolhouses by arson became epidemic even as Southerners violently harassed teachers who, if not humiliated, beaten or forced into exile, often found it impossible to get credit in local stores or to find a place to live.

When a young female teacher in a freedmen's school in Donaldsonville, Louisiana was killed by a state militia patrol, authorities called it an "accident." Elsewhere, beatings, stabbings, whippings and rapes occurred. In Cross Plains, Alabama, Klansmen hanged an Irish-born teacher along with four black men. John Dunlap, a white teacher at a black school in Shelbyville, Tennessee was stripped, whipped and told that if he didn't leave the town he would be burned at the stake. A white female teacher in Tennessee was pistol-whipped and told that "no damned Yankee bitch should live in this country."

In Dallas, lack of pay was a problem for the Freedmen's Bureau school. Former slaves pooled their meager resources to pay teachers, but the withdrawal of federal financial support for freedmen's schools undermined the effort. M.L. Cappell, a widow raising a child on her own, arrived in Dallas in 1867 but soon learned of an order from the Superintendent of Freedmen's schools that teacher's salaries would be suspended only when she read about the new policy in the newspaper. The lack of salary meant she would have to abandon her students.

"[M]ost of the Freedmen . . . whose children I taught are very poor and unless they receive assistance from the government or some other source I don't think it will be possible for them to keep up a school," Capell wrote to the Freedman's Bureau. "If I was in a situation to do so I would devote all my time for the next twelve months gratis to the education of the blacks; but I am a widow and a very poor one at that and I have myself and child to take care of and am therefore compelled to charge in order to sustain myself." Horton kept a Freedmen's Bureau school open for two months but was forced to close it due to lack of funds. "The Freedpeople," Horton observed ". . . really are too poor to help themselves." Public education would not return to Dallas until 16 years later when a school was opened for whites, and the next year, 1884, when a public school opened for blacks.

The city's first public school opened its doors in 1883, with Colored School No. 1 following suit the next year. By 1890, black students attended seven elementary schools. The Dallas Colored High School opened in 1892 (and was renamed Booker T. Washington High in 1922). In the early 20th century, the black school year lasted only 60 days a year, compared to 100 a year for white students. Black schools had no libraries, and minimal playground space and equipment. Dallas spent $51 per white student on facilities compared to only $22 per black student. By the 1930s, Booker T. Washington High School held 1,664 students on a campus meant to hold only 600. White school leaders saw the role of segregated black schools as preparing students for low-wage manual labor. In spite of Jim Crow-imposed limitations, these schools pursued a much broader mission. Teachers and administrators at Booker T. Washington saw black schools as political incubators that would prepare young blacks to battle the assumptions of whiteness.

John Leslie Patton taught and served as principal at Booker T. Washington High for 39 years, developing a course in "Negro History" that influenced "the development of race pride in the students and his co-workers." Patton attended Dallas' segregated schools as a child before earning a degree at Prairie View College, northwest of Houston and pursuing post-graduate education at New York University. Patton returned to Dallas to teach at J.P. Starks Elementary for $72.50 a month. Patton quit after a year because he could earn more as a Pullman porter, but his parents insisted he resume his classroom role because he had a duty to his people — "the kind of duty St. Paul felt," as Patton put it. When Patton rose to the position of principal at Booker T. Washington High, he opened night classes to educate older African Americans.

Black students could shape the future, he believed, if they were conscious of their past and their obligation to the larger black community. "It's difficult for a people to tell where they're going unless they know where they've been," he said in a newspaper interview in the early 1960s. Patton taught his students that they must insist on full equality. "You can't teach [white and black] children out of the same books and expect them not to want the same things," he told a reporter.

part of American civilization . . ." Patton’s students read college-level text written by scholarly giants like W.E.B. Du Bois. As opposed to white schools, at Booker T. Washington High the history of Egypt, "the cradle of civilization" was taught as part of "Negro" history. "Africa, the Mother country . . . is often called the Dark Continent; but this is a misnomer, for Africa gave to civilization the smelting of iron, stringed instruments, trial by jury, etc.," Patton's curriculum guide for the course declared. Patton saw his goal as a teacher to "awaken a proper social consciousness and pride in the developments and achievements which the Negro has made . . ." He taught his students that every life choice, including picking a career, carried responsibilities to the greater black community. "The Negro today stands in need of an economic emancipation," Patton told his students, "but this cannot be accomplished through laws . . . but through the wise occupational choice of every Negro boy and girl.” Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, Brewer promised that "[n]ot to the strong is the battle, nor to the swift is the race; but to the true and the faithful, victory is promised through Grace."

With such dedicated teachers by the 1930s, African Americans in Dallas enjoyed a 93 percent literacy rate. (The African American illiteracy rate was 50 percent lower in Dallas than in the rest of Texas.) By that decade, Patton had hired one of the most accomplished black educators in Texas, John Mason Brewer. Born in Goliad, Texas (north of Corpus Christi) March 24, 1896, Brewer was deeply influenced by his mother who was a teacher "who guided him to Negro history books and the poems and stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar as soon as he could read." Brewer won appointment as a professor at Samuel Huston (now Huston-Tillotson) College in Austin before making his mark as a Spanish teacher at the all-black Booker T. Washington High School in 1930s Dallas. Brewer achieved minor fame as a collector of the state's Negro folklore. Brewer published extensive collections of folktales, customs, beliefs, anecdotes, slave narratives, spirituals, blues lyrics and poetry.

A theme of intelligence winning over brute force, and of loyalty prevailing over greed pervades Brewer's folktale collections. Brewer proudly wrote in dialect, finding his inspiration in the common black toiling on the river bottoms of Central Texas. His heroes do not triumph in the traditional sense; the powerful remain powerful. The tone is not one of resignation, however, but smart realism. Put-upon protagonists stand in disapproving judgment of a materialistic, racist society. In Brewer's tales, sarcasm was often the only dignified weapon left the politically disenfranchised. An example of the sharp-tongued hero is "Unkah Sug Miller," a janitor at the Hays County Courthouse in the Central Texas town of San Marcos. One day, according to a Brewer-collected tale, a county judge who hates Miller tells the janitor he will lose his job, even though he has never missed a day of work in 25 years, if he can't satisfy a new rule requiring all employees to read and write. Sug is fired. Four years elapse before the judge passes Miller on a San Marcos street. Miller, the judge discovers, now owns a forty-acre farm, complete with chickens, pigs, mules, and horses. The judge decides to visit Miller's farm. The judge is amazed at Miller's prosperity and praises Sug, who has, "come up in de worl' fas’ — 'taint no tellin' what you'd of been sho 'nuff, if'n you'd of knowed how to read an' write.'" Sug is unimpressed with the Judge's reaction. "Ah knows zackly what Ah'd of been," Sug says. "Ah'd of still been de janitor at the Hays County Coa'thouse."

Sug knows that white society has set a low upper limit on black prestige — a literate janitor will still only be a janitor to the white world. Blacks like Brewer saw education as a value in itself, but did not delude themselves that schooling alone would blunt white racism. Once Miller exits the white world, however, his genius realizes its potential and he becomes a prosperous farmer. Brewer does not defend segregation but informs his black audience that black poverty is the direct result of white oppression. Blacks need not depend on white generosity to get ahead, but should still demand that the ruling Anglo community live by standards of justice.

Dallas' Jim Crow schools gave Brewer a chance to bring the lessons of black folklore directly to the city's African American children. Ironically, segregated schools became bedrock of community building. While teaching at Booker T. Washington High School, Brewer and his principal, John Leslie Patton, gave history back to their black students, exposing them to the achievements of Africans and of African Americans. If the existence of separate and unequal, crowded, under-funded and under-supplied Jim Crow schools were designed to send a message of black inferiority, Brewer and Patton exploited the opportunity provided by segregation to create a positive image of blackness unmediated by a racist white power structure.

Nevertheless, Patton and his allies had erected mental defenses for their young charges. "The years of public school taught me well," recalled Robert Prince in his memoir A History of Dallas from a Different Perspective. "I became street wise . . . I learned that my black teachers cared for all of us. They taught us survival tactics for black people . . . We were taught that the white man would never give us our rights without a fight . . . This was a good education. Education should teach one to survive in one's own environment. Our environment was hostile."

Segregation was evil on many levels, notably the marked difference in funding for black and white schools. Black schools were overcrowded, routine maintenance was neglected or completely ignored and teachers and students often had to fill in for a small or non-existent custodial staff. Speaking of the segregated schools of her youth in Waco, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson once remarked, “When I got to junior and senior high school, it was a big deal if you got a textbook with no pages missing.” Yet, one irony of the desegregation campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s is that the old segregated schools provided an environment rich in cultural pride and awareness of African American history.

Desegregation, however, caused tumult in the black education community. Some African Americans felt ambivalent about a future of integration. A 1947 statewide poll of African Americans showed that a clear majority favored the creation of a separate black university over the integration of the University of Texas. "Some Negroes had, or at least believed that they had, a vested interest in retaining segregation," observed Michael Gillette, an historian of Texas' NAACP. "These were often professionals, such as teachers, who feared that they would lose their jobs to whites if desegregation occurred. Thus . . . there existed, 'many, many Negroes who are deathly afraid of the elimination of segregation.'"

The fear of these teachers was well-founded. Many Africans Americans, perhaps, were also aware that black students would have to carry the burden of desegregation and would be sent in token numbers to Dallas’ white schools, where students for decades had been fed a steady diet of readin’, ’riten, and racism. Responding to a court order, the Dallas schools implemented a so-called stairstep integration plan involving only a grade at time, thus possibly dragging out full integration until the mid-1970s. On the first school day of the 1961-62 term only 18 black elementary school children — attended by an escort of police and school officials — were enrolled at eight previously all-white campuses in the district. Dallas supposedly desegregated three grades by 1964. There were 9,400 black students at those grade levels, but only 131 were in desegregated classrooms. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 placed greater pressure on the school system, which classified 67 of 171 campuses as desegregated by 1966. This quickening pace only hastened white flight to the suburbs, however. By decade's end, only 57 of 177 campuses were deemed integrated. By the end of the 1969-1970 school year, 113 campuses were still all white.

Black teachers were laid off in mass numbers meaning black students often received education from Southern whites hostile to desegregation and ignorant of black culture and black history. For decades, Dallas schools had been factories of white supremacist thought. Dallas school textbooks portrayed blacks as ignorant, Africa as a place that had never emerged from the Stone Age until European colonization, and even justified the violence of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

A 1927 world history textbook used by the Dallas School district through the early 1930s proclaimed at the beginning that no mention would be made of the contributions of black and brown people. “[N]o account is given of the black races of Africa and Australia, of the brown races of southeastern Asia and the Pacific Islands, or of the red races of America; because the elements of culture among these people have rarely influenced modern civilization,” declared the textbook World History in the Making. Apparently Ancient Egypt was not considered an important foundation for the modern world. A History of the American People, adopted by the Dallas school board in the mid-1930s, said that Southerners had no choice but to turn to the Ku Klux Klan to end the supposed corruption and lawlessness of Reconstruction. ““The only way to combat congressional legislation was with violence when other methods failed,” the textbook said.

Outnumbered and plunged into the hostile environment Robert Prince described, it is no wonder that many African Americans failed to thrive during token integration in schools drained of financial resources as white residents and white businesses in Dallas fled to the suburbs. A Dallas school district student in the 1970s, Jerrold Ladd felt he crossed into another world when he was bused the first time into a white majority school. For Ladd, the boundary between black and white was literal, formed by the Trinity River, a poisonously polluted stream which “as distinct as the Berlin Wall . . . [formed] a boundary between the projects (on the west side of the Trinity) and north Dallas, the white side of town,” as Ladd wrote in his 1994 autobiography Out of the Madness: From the Projects to a Life of Hope. “Several simple bridges allowed travel over the river. Within the Trinity, marsh and grass hid stolen cars, snakes and dumped bodies. The river smelled rotten; and the smell often drifted into the projects, settling on the buildings.”

In 1978, a court order resulted in Ladd being transferred from the predominantly African American George Washington Carver Elementary School to the white-dominated John J. Pershing campus. Every day, a bus carried Ladd from the projects to Pershing, “surrounded by forested lots and . . . castle homes.” Stepping onto the school grounds, Ladd immediately encountered mental barriers as formidable as the fetid Trinity. “As everyone was ushered into the school auditorium to be sorted out,” Ladd recalls, “the blacks and the whites avoided one another as if the opposite had smallpox . . .”

Teachers found Ladd to be exceptionally bright, with a hunger for reading and a knack for writing. His talents caught the attention of the faculty, who subjected him to a battery of aptitude tests and soon placed him in the Talented and Gifted program. In spite of this, Ladd approached school days with dread. Ladd writes that he soon became immune to being called “nigger” and dealing with the condescension of a few “so-called middle-class blacks” who looked down on kids from the project. He still struggled, however, with problems he did not feel his white teachers and counselors would understand, such as his constant hunger and the headaches caused by three days without a meal. Ladd won the patronage of the Talented and Gifted program teacher until one day when he was “taking a make-up test [and] roaches ran from my book bag. Mrs. Raines smashed them hard with her hand as if she had never seen one. The other students laughed at me. My relationship with Mrs. Raines was never the same. Not that she rejected me. I was just too ashamed to have anything else to do with her.”

Ladd’s experiences with white schools left him feeling disempowered. “ . . . No one had ever told me I was capable of being a genius, building a city, pioneering new medicine, becoming an engineer,” Ladd wrote. . . . “How could [I] disprove that the success of every black person was not somehow, always tied into someone white: white teachers, white schools, white mentors, white history, white founding fathers?”

Ladd’s teachers undoubtedly thought that their job was to introduce the young black man to white civilization. Unfortunately, because of the racist training they had received, these Anglo teachers did not know themselves the degree to which American history and culture was a hybrid, derived from white, black, brown, red and yellow sources. Of course, students like Ladd would not have to deal with indifferent, confused or bigoted white teachers for long. History would add insult to injury to African American parents who simply wanted their children to have the dignity of a quality education.

As white families and white money fled Dallas’ metropolitan core towards first the suburbs and then further into ex-burbs, school buildings crumbled, revenues declined, expenses skyrocketed, schools re-segregated and white Dallas, like UT law professor Lino Graglia, self-righteously satisfied itself that the resulting decay somehow proved a defect of a black culture that supposedly did not value learning. The black community’s long struggle to get a top-notch education conveniently sank into an Orwellian memory hole.

The failures of Dallas schools today, and the relative absence of African Americans in our state’s colleges and universities does not reflect some deep African American contempt for knowledge or a so-called “culture of poverty.” One need only consult local history, dating back to the first days of African American freedom, to be impressed with the commitment the black people of this city have given to learning. If there is a cultural deficit, it is in a white America that assumes that because slavery is safely in the past, that because the “white’s only” signs have come down, and because an African American resides in the White House, that we can safely consign racism to the dumping ground of dead ideas like feudalism.

I cannot believe that to be the case when I see anti-Obama demonstrators bearing signs that crudely portray the president as an African witch doctor, when I hear Rush Limbaugh play a song on his show called “Barack the Magic Negro,” or, closer to home, when I view the monochromatic faces in the white Bantustan of Highland Park, or when I wonder what the white residents hiding in those gated communities in Plano are afraid of.

Once I visited Charleston, South Carolina, and took a tour of the city in a horse-drawn carriage. The antebellum homes there were surrounded with iron gates crowned with sharp points. I asked the tour guide about the purpose of these blade-like projectiles. I was told they dated to the time of an aborted slave rebellion in the city led by Denmark Vesey in 1822. Terrified by the possible violent revenge of their slaves, slaveowners locked themselves behind these gates, terrified that every night might be their last. These white men and women sweated nightmares that once night fell their throats would be slit and they would suffer the same brutality they had shown their human property. In the 1820s, slavery poisoned everything it touched and even the white master class, for all its wealth and power, could not enjoy true freedom because of it.

White and black Dallas today will never be fully free until black children in this city get the education they deserve, not as a give-away but as a right they have fought, bled and died for.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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