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  • Race, Remembering, and Jim Crow’s Teachers by Hilton Kelly
  • Sarah Travis
Race, Remembering, and Jim Crow’s Teachers. By Hilton Kelly. New York: Routledge, 2010. 154 pp. Hardbound, $126.00.

In Race, Remembering, and Jim Crow’s Teachers, sociologist Hilton Kelly presents an ethnohistorical account of the perspectives of black teachers from Jim Crow era North Carolina public schools. These viewpoints, derived largely from oral history methods, form counternarratives to the commonly held belief that pre-integration black schools were inferior to white schools and that black students unequivocally benefited from integration. These dominant narratives characterize all-black schools under legal segregation as inadequate and appalling; Kelly contends that Brown v. Board of Education (1954) perpetuated such characterizations. In his view, it was not segregation from whites itself that caused inequitable schooling; rather, the racist, discriminatory practices surrounding segregation (such as unequal access to teaching materials and subpar school buildings) were the most damaging. And while Kelly is in no way advocating a return to a segregated school system nor glossing over the injustices that [End Page 395] accompanied segregated U.S. school systems, the narratives in this work directly call such notions of inferiority and inadequacy into question. Kelly’s work challenges the ideas that black teachers were less equipped to teach black students than white teachers and that a quality education in the United States required an association with white students and white teachers.

The book is divided into three parts: “Remembering Teachers and Teaching,” in which Kelly provides a review of previous literature on the experiences of black teachers in segregated schools, sets the geopolitical stage for the research, and describes the research participants; “Hidden Transcripts Revealed,” in which he explores how the voices of teachers from segregated schools act as hidden texts, previously ignored in historical research; and “Remembering Jim Crow’s Teachers,” in which Kelly considers the legacy of all-black schools of the Jim Crow era. Drawing on the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, Kelly analyzes the oral history “texts” of his interviewees through the theoretical lens of capital (educational, cultural, and social). The teachers, he asserts, provided students with the capital needed to prepare them for a hostile, inequitable world, an act that went well beyond what was normally expected of teachers. Such lofty educational goals required the use of “situated pedagogies,” specific to the place and time, intended to build the capital that could propel students toward an achievement of both individual and social goals and to develop tools that would eventually equip them not only to compete economically with whites for jobs, but also to craft a political consciousness that would motivate them to fight for equal rights in society. For this reason, Kelly argues, schools with all black teachers were, in a sense, training grounds that facilitated the civil rights movement. Thus, in spite of the clear inequities present within a school system organized around racial apartheid, many of the black teachers of the Jim Crow era were essential players in the training and organizing of black youth for disruption of the status quo in ways that would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, within white-dominated schools of the time.

Since discourses describing all-black schools as “inherently inferior” to predominately white schools persist to this day; contemporary perspectives about the nature of segregated schools of the Jim Crow era often align with these beliefs (5). Kelly utilizes oral history as a method for extracting “counter-memories,” stories that have largely been obscured from the “official” written historical record, that challenge such discourses (24). He does so by searching for “hidden transcripts” embedded within oral narratives to serve as supplements to archival materials in a quest for a more nuanced version of the “truth” of the situation (24). There is a limit, however, to how much can and should be pulled from the hidden transcripts, a limit that Kelly does not fully acknowledge. The benefit of historical distance from de jure school segregation allows us to [End Page 396] acknowledge the ways in which this system, however detestable it may seem today, did have some meaningful and important social justice impacts; yet such perspectives on...