- Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality by Pamela Grundy
From Charleston to Charlottesville, recent headlines and events have focused our nation's attention on the history and persistence of racial inequality in the United States. In Color and Character, Pamela Grundy skillfully and eloquently speaks to a populace wracked with racial turmoil once again. Grundy utilizes the history of West Charlotte High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, to weave together a historical narrative that makes a powerful statement about the regressive nature of progress and the persistence of contemporary racial inequality. As a case study, West Charlotte High proves to be an ideal candidate for this study. West Charlotte High School was the subject of the pivotal Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg court case which ruled in 1971 that busing to achieve desegregated school was constitutional. Originally one of the state's most successful African American schools, West Charlotte was eventually heralded as a prime example of the victories of the desegregation period. However, throughout the late twentieth century, West Charlotte experienced gradual resegregation and declined academically.
As an accurate historical narrative directed toward a broad populace to make a political statement, the book excels. Grundy presents with clarity and tact a narrative that reveals the complexity of race in the United States. Her ability to discuss complex topics, such as intraracial class differences amongst the African American community, the drawbacks of urban-renewal programs for minority groups, and even the negative impact of integration on African American communities, is impressive. Most importantly, the work undeniably leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the persisting inequality remaining to be addressed in this nation. Her chapter on busing demonstrates the unequal sacrifices asked of minority groups throughout the course of segregation and reveals the academic segregation that persisted in [End Page 132] the most integrated school in the nation. The work also situates the case study within a broader national narrative. This strength is a particular asset during the work's final chapters which trace West Charlotte's resegregation and institutional decline amidst the backdrop of the 1980s conservative resurgence. Unfortunately, Grundy often gets distracted in this national narrative and leaves readers grasping for a more complex understanding of West Charlotte itself. This problem is compounded by the work's longer chronology. Grundy analyzed a period of roughly seventy-five years in less than two hundred pages. While impressive, this ultimately hindered Grundy's ability to dig deeply enough in her analysis.
As a work of scholarly inquiry seeking to contribute to the robust historiography on the Civil Rights Movement, Grundy struggled in a few critical areas. Throughout the study, Grundy overly relies on a number of oral histories she conducted. While oral histories are undeniably a rich primary source, the difficulties of oral history demand that they be studied in tandem with a plethora of other sources. Most of the individuals interviewed for the first section of the book were seventy to eighty years old and reminiscing about their elementary-school experience at West Charlotte. This is particularly a problem when she allows students to speak through rose-colored glasses about their experience in segregated schools, with little interpretation. Grundy addresses this issue in her methodology section, but this discussion should have been more overt throughout her analysis. Grundy's work will not surprise students of the Civil Rights Movement or the history of race in the United States. Yet her analysis of the complexity of busing, the evolution of rights rhetoric surrounding whites, the downfalls of urban-renewal programs, and even the internal segregation of integrated schools does an impeccable job making these scholarly discussions approachable to a broader audience. It also interprets them within a longer institutional chronology that assists readers in grasping the ongoing impact of historical decisions.