Teachers' Roles in Ending School Segregation
Teacher Salary Equalization Was Early Goal of NAACP
In the 1940s and 1950s, John Henry McCray was publisher and editor of the Lighthouse and Informer, the leading black weekly newspaper in South Carolina. Here is his first-person account of a salary equalization suit brought by a young black teacher in Charleston, S.C.
In 1940, I started writing a column called, "The Need For Changing." We pointed out certain situations, such as the poor academic facilities in the schools and so forth. Back then, lynching and violence were still big issues as well.
We also supported the campaign across the state for equalization of teachers' salaries. I would say the movement for civil rights—back then we called it the movement for Negro rights—started in South Carolina in 1940, when the man who was to be my associate editor, Osceola
McKaine, started trying to organize school teachers so that they might get equal salaries.
It turned out to be a long fight. The teachers were afraid, and the Executive Committee of the Teacher's Association wasn't supportive. In 1942, the president of the Teacher's Association, John P. Burgess of Orangeburg, was telling the teachers, "You know these white folks are not going to pay you the same money they make. You're a fool if you try to get them to. You're gonna be out of a job," and so on and so on.
We got a plaintiff in Charleston in 1944—a young lady named Viola Louise Duvall from Charleston who worked at Birke School. It was her third year as a science teacher. She was a graduate of Howard University and her salary was $600 a year! There were a lot of ladies who hadn't even gone to high school who were riveters and so forth working at the Navy Yard there in Charleston making $35 and $40 a week. Hers, when you break it down to a weekly basis, was $12 a week.
The teachers were afraid. I was asked by the president of the state NAACP and the principal of Booker Washington High School in Columbia who had recruited her as the plaintiff, to sort of keep Miss Duvall together. I made several trips—drove 115 miles from Columbia down to Charleston and many a Saturday evening sat down there with her and her mother. Viola told me that her friend at Birke High School who was usually assigned to work with her on yard duty at recess time had stopped having anything to do with her. Most of the teachers were like that publicly. There were some who favored her. I think all of them wanted the money.
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Back then, Thurgood Marshall was the chief counsel for the NAACP nationally. When he came into South Carolina to assist in the prosecution of the equal pay case, it was the first case he had had in the state. He was scared to death—first time in South Carolina. He didn't know what was going to happen.
So he goes into court that morning, a little courthouse in Charleston. The Board had two lawyers: Erlich was one, and I forget the name of the other man. And Thurgood and his associates and the state attorney were sitting at the other table along with Miss Duvall and her mother sitting behind—holding each others' hands. The place was packed. You could overhear things like, "God, I sho' feel sorry for her" and "I sho' don't wan' to see that chile hurt, but she shudda known that" and that type of thing.
The judge came in and sat down in his swivel chair. He liked to put his hands together and rest his chin right on the tip of them. He smiled, and then he turned his back to Marshall's table.
"Mr. Erlich," he said, "when was that case decided in Maryland, the Donald Murray case?"
And Marshall jumped up behind the judge. He says, "Your honor?"
And without looking around, the judge said, "I didn't ask you Mr. Marshall."
And boy, there was this buzz. I heard this woman say distinctly: "See that chile, he won't even let her lawyer talk. Poor thing. Poor thing. Poor thing."
Well, Mr. Erlich found whatever it was. He had it in some records there, and he gave it to the judge. Still smiling, the judge asked Mr. Erlich when another case was decided, and Mr. Marshall jumped up again. The judge, without looking, said: "Mr. Marshall, I didn't ask you."
Boy, you didn't know what was going on. I looked at Thurgood. I was sitting at the press table. They were bewildered. But the judge asked about four questions of that type, and then he swung his chair around to face the plaintiffs, his hands still up and his chin resting on them.
He said, "Now Mr. Marshall I don't want you to think I was being rude by not letting you give me the answers. I know you know the answers to those cases because you were the chief counsel for them. This is a very simple case, but what I wanted to find out from the School Board was how long it knew it was supposed to pay Negro teachers equal salaries and hadn't paid it. There's no need to take the court's time on this. Now, what I want to know from you is how do you want me to prepare this order? Do you want immediate equalization of salaries? Do you want to give the School Board some time in which to get ready for equalization? Or do you want a retroactive order that would make the School Board go back and pay these poor teachers what it has denied them for so many years?"
And that was Mr. Thurgood Marshall's argument. He just stood there and looked at the other side, and asked that they be permitted to get together. The judge fixed the time for that, stood, said "Court's adjourned," and walked on out. The whole thing didn't take 10 minutes.
John Henry McCray was interviewed by Worth Long and Randall Williams for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"—an audio history of the civil rights movement produced by the Southern Regional Council. For the full interview and information on purchasing the series and the accompanying teacher training curriculum, see www.unbrokencircle.org.
Teacher Activists Targeted for Harassment
In the mid-to-late 1950s, the white South's enmity toward the NAACP became a "consuming hatred," as the association became the central target for southern racists to vent their insecurities, loathing, and scorn.
Southern white politicians clearly recognized a visceral connection between black educators and the NAACP, as had been demonstrated by the higher education and salary equalization cases of the late 1930s and 1940s. Not coincidentally, in the mid-to-late 1950s attacks against both groups converged in intensity. Higher salaries had elevated many African-American teachers to middle-class status; their enhanced levels of educational attainment made them living refutations of the inherent inferiority white supremacy demanded, and their role as educators often made them self-conscious agents for social change. Severing the connection between African-American educators and the NAACP operated as an early central tactic for southern legislatures and local governmental groups.
Perhaps no event symbolized the often symbiotic relationship between southern African-American educators and the NAACP during this period than the tragic murders on Christmas night, 1951, of Florida's NAACP state Executive Director Harry T. Moore and wife Harriette, who were killed by a bomb placed under the bedroom of their home. Harry Moore had begun teaching in Florida schools in 1925, and later served as a principal in various schools. In 1934, he organized and became the first president of the Brevard County branch of the NAACP and was active during the late 1930s and 1940s organizing for salary equalization and black voting rights. In 1946, both Moore and his wife were fired from their school positions by the Brevard County school board, seemingly in retaliation for their political activities. As a portent of future trends, their ousters by the school board were officially classified as resignations. Harriette eventually returned to the classroom and was employed as a teacher, as was one of their daughters, when she and her husband were murdered.
The Georgia Board of Education initiated one of the first attacks against both African-American educators and the NAACP in July 1955, when it unanimously adopted a resolution to revoke "forever" the license of any teacher who "supports, encourages, condones, or agrees to teach mixed classes." The next month, in August 1955, when urged by state Attorney General Eugene Cook "to go a little further," the Board revised the resolution to include under the new revocation guidelines "any teacher who was a member of the NAACP, any allied organization, or any subversive organization...." The president of the Georgia Education Association, the state's segregated white teacher group, publicly applauded the Board's actions as "...cooperating with what it thinks is the sentiment of the people." The resolution's potential illegality, however, resulted in its being rescinded within a few months. In its stead, a signed loyalty oath was required, demanding that all Georgia educators "uphold, support and defend" the state's constitution. Printed on the back of teachers' annual contracts, the oath had to be renewed annually.
About half of the 10 or so southern states that enacted measures to cramp and cripple, if not totally curb, NAACP activities included in their legislative packages demands that required the NAACP to divulge its membership lists, thus exposing members to the wrath of the Citizens' Councils and other indignant defenders of White supremacy. As both sides knew well, retaliation resulting from such public disclosures would be uncompromising and unforgiving.
Similarly, many of these states also enacted legislation demanding that teachers and other public employees list their organizational memberships. Georgia, again, became a pioneer, enacting legislation in 1953 that required teachers to fill out a questionnaire detailing the organizations to which they belonged. Mississippi followed suit in 1956, as did Louisiana. South Carolina passed a similar law in 1957 and Arkansas followed in 1958, compelling school personnel to list not only their organizational memberships but also contributions given to organizations in the past five years.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1950s, African-American educators also faced concerted efforts by southern legislative authorities to alter or abolish state and local teacher tenure laws. Most common in the South were the continuing contract or spring notification laws under which a contract would be renewed unless the teacher was notified by a certain date. However, under these contracts, localities maintained no obligation to renew any individual contract, regardless of reason.
This excerpt comes from an article by Michael Fultz titled, "The Displacement of Black Educators Post-Brown: An Overview and Analysis." The article was originally printed (with full references) in the History of Education Quarterly, 44(1), Spring 2004.
Teachers Worked Behind the Scenes
Because they were vulnerable to being harrassed or fired by their school boards and state legislatures, teachers were rarely out front in the fight for desegregation. But teachers were often behind-the-scenes players in key desegregation battles. Lucinda Todd, for example, taught at Buchanan Elementary in Topeka, Kan., but was forced to quit in 1935 because she got married. When her daughter, Nancy, started school, the unequal treatment became too much to bear. Nancy was a budding musician, but there was no music instruction in Jim Crow schools. Todd decided to act the day Nancy was nearly hit by a school bus: There was a white school a few blocks away, but Nancy had to take a bus to get to the nearest black school. Todd became the first plaintiff in the now-famous Brown case. Then she became the chief recruiter for other plaintiffs and walked door-to-door to get 1,500 petition signatures to show broad support for the case. As the secretary-treasurer for the local chapter of the NAACP, Todd hosted meetings for the legal team at her dining room table. And after Brown was won, Todd returned to teaching—this time at an integrated elementary school.
The mother and aunt of Ernest Green, one of the nine students who desegregated Little Rock, Ark.'s Central High School in 1957 under the protection of the National Guard, offer two other examples of teachers' roles in bringing down Jim Crow. Green discussed their role in desegregation and in his life in an interview with American Educator:
AE: Tell us about the teachers in your family and how they influenced you.
Green: My mother was a teacher in the Little Rock school system for over 40 years. Her name was Lothaire Green. Before I was born, she was a home economics teacher in Little Rock for 20-odd years. After I was born, she went back around 1947 or 1948 and became a first-grade teacher. My aunt was also a teacher and a guidance counselor in the black high schools in Little Rock for some 40-odd years. Her name was Treopia Gravelly.
Growing up, I remember that my mother and my aunt participated in supporting an African-American teacher in the Little Rock school system who was suing for equal pay. The teacher had been fired for being the plaintiff and they supported her by contributing to her pay for a two-year period. I've forgotten how many teachers were involved in supporting her. But, at that time, teachers didn't make a lot of money, so being able to save up a little bit to support this teacher who had sued the school board was important politically and economically. And, the lawyer that argued the case was Thurgood Marshall. He stayed at our house during some of the time he was in Little Rock.
AE: Was that teacher ever reinstated?
Green: Yes. She was reinstated by the court.
As for the values that my mother and aunt taught me, one, of course, was that education is a stepping stone to improve your life, better your options, and increase your ability to have a decent job and provide for a family. Excelling in school was something that was pretty well drilled into me at an early age. I thought that at Central (given the excellent reputation it had), I'd get the top education that I could receive in a public school.
AE: The first time we spoke, you said that the role that black teachers played was second only to that of the black GIs returning from WWII. Tell us what you mean by that.
Green: Well, I think the return of black GIs was a much bigger catalyst for change in many southern communities than most people realize. There were black men who left the country to eliminate Fascism and free the Germans from the tyranny of Hitler, and when they got back to their own communities, they were treated worse than the prisoners of war. They didn't have the freedoms that they were fighting for outside of the United States—you didn't need a huge light bulb to go on to see that inconsistency.
AE: And why do you see black teachers as second only to these GIs?
Green: Black teachers knew up close the inequities in funding between black and white schools in the South. They had some familiarity with what the other schools were getting in terms of equipment, books, and support. And, obviously, they were the ones who had to work in these dilapidated buildings. Here they were trying to educate a generation of young black people and they saw themselves handicapped. Now some African-American teachers argued that if they integrated they were going to put themselves out of a job. But I don't think more than a few cared about that as much as they cared about making sure black children got equal treatment and equal access to the buildings, the equipment, the books, and the opportunity.
AE: What do you think now about your decision to volunteer to desegregate Central High?
Green: I felt deep down that changes were not going to be handed to black people in Little Rock—that we were going to have to demand them, step forward, and present ourselves to request these changes.
Each of us in the Little Rock Nine has seen the worst of society. We've seen it up close and personal. We know how vile people can be. And we have no interest in repeating that. But when I go back to Little Rock—especially when we had the 40th anniversary celebration—it is gratifying to see how people were positively impacted by what we did.
The concern about what hasn't occurred since Brown points out that education is even more important today than it was in 1954 when the decision was handed down. A lot has changed—I don't think anybody ought to dismiss the changes or try to minimize them—but that doesn't stop us from trying to grasp for more.
American Educator thanks Sonya Ramsey, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, for researching teachers' roles leading up to Brown and assisting with this interview.