- A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South
Adam Fairclough, the noted historian of the civil rights movement in the United States, has shifted his gaze in this study. The issue of civil rights and desegregation is threaded through the volume, of course—how could it not be, given the centrality of school desegregation as one of the central targets of civil rights activism in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century?—but the focus is not on [End Page 824] the civil rights struggle or its leadership, as in Fairclough's earlier scholarship. This is, rather, a social history of the African American teachers who sustained black schools from Reconstruction through Jim Crow segregation to the post-Brown years of slow desegregation.
This very large book might be taken as the sequel to Fairclough's earlier very small book on black schools in the South.1 It should not be seen as such. The earlier book was deeply flawed in conception and theses; both have been abandoned in this telling of the tale. Although a much larger study, it is also much more modest in its arguments. No longer insisting that all black schools and teachers were teaching equality or implying that the mere existence of black education was, ipso facto, liberating, A Class of Their Own is more attentive to irony, paradox, and contradiction than its predecessor.
Organizing his narrative chronologically, Fairclough argues that between the Civil War and the middle of the twentieth century, "black teachers played a crucial role in building black communities," (p. 24). He documents the often dehumanizing racial diplomacy required to gain limited white support for black schools and buffer them from white opposition. He demonstrates that teachers' relationships with the civil rights movement were frequently ambivalent. Membership in the NAACP often ended teaching careers, but the ambivalence ran deeper than threats from whites. As has long been true of teachers of both races in the U.S., black teachers tended to be conservative. Further, many were not convinced that desegregation would, in the long run, be good for the black community or for black learners. Most saliently, like much of the black community, some teachers knew that the issue was never the right to sit in classrooms alongside whites; the issue was equal education. They suspected that desegregation would not result in equal education; history has confirmed their suspicions.
That far too brief synopsis does not do justice to the richness of this narrative. Fairclough explores the teachers' education, the conditions under which they taught, the tribulations of the black teachers' associations, and the belated efforts of southern states to equalize educational spending in the 1930s to the 1950s. He plays out the drama of desegregation without letting that familiar story dominate and considers the "loss and profit" of desegregation—"integration," in his usage, a goal that was never on the table (p. 390). At various points he touches on the ambiguities of social class in the context of race, education, and professionalism, though Fairclough is on shaky ground when he approaches the issue of class.
There is little here that is new, but a synthesis of existing literature, particularly when written as engagingly as this one, is always welcome. As Fairclough correctly observes, there has not been heretofore "an overview of what African American teachers attempted and achieved" (p. 6). Yet if most of this is familiar to students of education and of African American life and history, there is one theme that will dismay some. Fairclough argues at various points that black teachers were the most important figures in the black community in the century from Emancipation to desegregation, finally asserting that "during the classic age of segregation black teachers did far more than black ministers to breed dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, racial discrimination" (p. 390). There is virtually nothing in over four hundred pages of text that could sustain that claim; indeed, black ministers hardly appear here at all, much...