LAWRENCE — Brown v. Board of Education is recognized and remembered as the landmark Supreme Court case that ended racial segregation in American schools. Two University of Kansas professors have written a book that argues the equalization movement and activism of black parents and communities that preceded it was perhaps more important in closing the educational gap.
John Rury, professor of educational leadership and policy studies, and Shirley Hill, professor of sociology, have authored “The African American Struggle for Secondary Schooling 1940 -1980: Closing the Graduation Gap,” published by Teachers College Press. Their collaboration began with a Keeler Intra-University Professorship Rury held in the sociology department and was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
In the book’s two parts, Rury and Hill examine the expanded access to education achieved by African-American students and eventually the battle for equality among all schools. They examined high schools during the immediate pre- and post-World War II era as community arbiters of which citizens graduated, attended college and played a large part in citizens’ roles in their community.
“The dominant narrative in the post-World War II era is desegregation,” Rury said. “What gets lost in that discussion is how was the quality of education? Our argument is, in addition to Brown, a big contributor to desegregation was the equalization campaign.”
The book looks at Southern high schools in the 1940s, as they were widely considered the worst performing in the nation. Even before that era, the idea of equalization, or providing separate schools that were equal, began with struggles for higher pay for African-American teachers. Slowly that fight moved on to schools in an overall sense as communities and organizations such as the NAACP made equalization their main push.
“The equalization movement was extremely important because it propelled funding for and building of Black high schools, especially in urban areas, and these institutions became the pride of Black communities,” Hill said.” At the same time, these efforts helped prove the futility of trying to create ‘separate but equal’ schools and preserve segregation. The commitment to segregated Black schools simply could not be sustained.”
The push for “equalization” led to better funding for black schools, the construction of more black high schools and rising rates of high school enrollment and graduation for African-American students. In 1940, about 13 percent of black students had high school diplomas, compared to about 50 percent of white students. By 1980 the attainment difference had diminished to 14 percentage points, with about two-thirds of black students graduating. Funding for all education dramatically increased, and in some states, spending on black schools even outpaced their white counterparts for a time, Rury said.
“That’s when black secondary enrollment and graduation rates shot up dramatically,” Rury added of the latter ’40s and early ‘50s.
Eventually, the authors write, it became increasingly obvious that no matter how many new black schools were built, and how much money was spent, the segregated institutions were not equal. Equalization helped bring more money from the states, but local school boards seldom apportioned it equally. The authors conducted and gathered more than 60 interviews with people involved in the struggle for equal education and visited archives across the country, in addition to performing statistical analyses.
“Everybody said the black schools consistently got the secondhand books, inferior lab equipment, worn-out gym equipment and so on,” Rury said. “This was happening well in to the ‘60s.”
The second part of the book examines secondary schooling attainment among African-Americans after the Brown v. Board decision in 1954. As schools were integrated, racial unrest broke out in many schools, and the authors examine several cases in northern schools and how they affected African-American educational attainment.
As more African-American families moved north and began attending urban schools, more white families began moving to the suburbs, in what came to be known as “white flight.” Black graduation rates continued to increase during the era, but segregation increased in the cities. In that same era, urban schools, which had previously been the best in the nation, began to decline in quality and saw new funding problems. Somewhat ironically, desegregation was most effective in the South, where the courts mandated dramatic change in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
As the ‘60s wore on, social unrest was on the rise, and the authors point out, equalization played a key role in the civil rights movements. The protesters on the front lines were by and large college students, many of them African-American. Without equalization, many of them never would have had the chance to graduate from, or even attend, high school.
“That’s how the Southern states’ efforts to avoid Brown came back to bite them,” Rury said. “That’s the real irony.”
Rury and Hill also examine the birth of the “stay in school” campaigns in the 1960s. Prior to then not enough students, especially African-American students, attended school to worry about how many graduated. This was a significant moment in the movement for expanded educational access, and appears to have paid off. They go on to explore continued problems and inequality in education of the 1970s, and end their analysis in 1980. They stopped there, Rury said, because they wanted to study the period of growth. Through their research and interviews, Rury and Hill have captured an era important not only in education, but in American history.
“The result is a thorough historical account of events that led to an escalation in school attendance by African-Americans starting before the Brown decision, enlivened by the voices of those who attended segregated high school and were involved in integrating schools,” Hill said.