- Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764–1960 by Walter C. Stern
The role of public schools as agents of urban segregation, rather than as sites where battles over segregation unfolded, is an understudied topic in southern scholarship and in national discourse. In Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764–1960, Walter C. Stern argues that to fully understand the hypersegregation of post–World War II American cities, we must also understand the role that public schools played in urban planning, in residents' perceptions of the city, and most important, in how urban land was valued. Ultimately, Stern argues, public school placement in the early twentieth century created, rather than simply reflected, racial geography in New Orleans. As the era of desegregation approached, both black and white New Orleans residents were already well versed in the role of schools in the city's racial geography. The predictable and sad outcome was a school system and a city that [End Page 467] consistently and overwhelmingly reflected "the construction and institutionalization of white supremacy" (p. 7).
While the title suggests a narrative that spans two centuries, most of the book focuses on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Stern uses a wide and impressive variety of primary sources to support his argument that this period is crucial to understanding segregation in postwar cities. He employs newspaper articles, school board minutes, correspondence, and Sanborn insurance maps, among other documents. After chapter 1 discusses African American agency in the public school system through Reconstruction, chapters 2 through 5 analyze the relationship among race, schools, and urban planning in the first three decades of the twentieth century. In many southern cities, segregation took on a much stronger geographical component during these years; this pattern was particularly true in New Orleans, where environmental hazards limited the amount of land that could be developed as the city grew. Chapter 3 investigates the transformation of the Third Ward from an economically and racially mixed neighborhood into one that was predominantly African American. Here, racial mixing allowed officials to designate the neighborhood as black and then build a black school; white families soon fled the area. This outcome is an interesting and powerful example of how the placement of a black school destabilized a neighborhood, even as it increased educational opportunities for black children. Chapter 4 is a focused case study of the Bayou Road School, a black school that became the site of significant white protests after funding was cut across the district. Chapter 5 looks at how new water technology, racially restrictive covenants, and zoning laws all supported new white areas on the city's periphery and, consequently, promoted stricter segregation and isolation for black residents in the central city. By World War II, the pattern of segregation, now supported by the federal government as well as municipal authorities, was fully established. The 35,000 black people who migrated to New Orleans in the 1940s found severe residential segregation, overcrowded schools, and little opportunity.
Race and Education in New Orleans is a notable contribution to the history of urban development and racial geography in the South. It makes two strong claims that should be interesting for scholars of urban history and geography, race relations, and education. First, Stern encourages scholars to look to the World War I era, rather than the post-World War II era, to find the roots of urban segregation and discrimination. In my opinion, this development is especially true of southern cities, which often had both larger African American populations and Jim Crow laws; residents and lawmakers in the South fought their battles much earlier than those in the better-studied cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Second, by claiming that battles over schools led to urban transformation, Stern opens up fresh debate about the very complex nature of racial discrimination in urban America. Certainly, housing policies, market mechanisms, and federal intervention...