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17 Ruby Forsythe and Fannie Phelps Adams Teaching for Confrontation during Jim Crow Valinda W. Littlefield • • • African American children growing up in the Jim Crow South encountered white supremacist messages of black inferiority as they crowded into inadequate school buildings and read from secondhand books. But despite these gross inequalities, on a daily basis southern African American teachers taught their students how to resist that racist ideology. Teachers instilled in students a positive yet responsible view about one’s place in the world that allowed them to think beyond the narrow boundaries of the color line. Teachers helped African American students to believe they were intelligent individuals with a rich history and heritage as they learned the value of respectability, racial uplift, and community service. By pointing out unequal power structures within the Jim Crow system, teachers both directly and indirectly motivated students to challenge an oppressive system. Ruby Middleton Forsythe (1905–92), known as “Miss Ruby,” a teacher in the Charleston County public schools and at a Christian school on Pawleys Island for more than seven decades, and Fannie Phelps Adams (1917– ), who taught in Columbia from the 1930s until she retired in 1979, well represent those teachers whose efforts provided an important front on the assault on Jim Crow. Forsythe and Adams demonstrate the importance of the schoolhouse to the modern civil rights movement.1 Many southern whites recognized the potential for African American teachers to challenge the Jim Crow system. Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894, argued against the “over education” of African Americans. Tillman believed that education was potentially dangerous in that it could lead to African American discontent and pose an economic threat to Ruby Forsythe Courtesy of Burns Forsythe. Fannie Phelps Adams Courtesy of Fannie Phelps Adams. 20 Valinda W. Littlefield Jim Crow. Continuing the work of Tillman, Coleman Blease, governor of South Carolina from 1911 to 1914, followed his mentor’s practice of curtailing African American access to education. Blease opposed state support for black colleges and targeted white teachers at black colleges. Angry that white women were teaching at Benedict College, a private school for African Americans in Columbia , South Carolina, in 1914 Governor Blease attempted to ban whites from teaching in black schools anywhere in the state, private or public. But a white Charleston County legislative delegate objected, observing that “it has been found necessary for the preservation of communities where negroes outnumber the whites, to teach the negroes from the very beginning that they are inferior to whites[;] . . . if we should turn the teaching of Negroes over to Yankee-educated negroes, nobody could predict the result.”2 Prior to 1920, white teachers staffed all public schools—black and white—in the city of Charleston, South Carolina . Well into the 1940s, much of the state consisted of communities with a substantial African American population. Of the forty-five counties in South Carolina in 1950, twenty-one had a black population of 50 to 80 percent and fifteen counties had a 30 to 49 percent black population. That blacks educated by northern whites would defy white supremacy was a real concern for many white southerners.3 As the careers of Forsythe and Adams illustrate, white southerners had more to fear than just “Yankee-educated negroes.” Forsythe, Adams, and other African American women teachers born and educated in the South did not have to rely on northerners to show them the importance of teaching black children to resist oppression. They understood that the underpinning of Jim Crow was the racist education system and worked daily against it. In Charleston, black teachers challenged the city’s refusal to hire them into teaching positions with a massive petition campaign, as Charlestonian Septima Clark recalled in her memoir, Echo in My Soul. In 1919 African Americans demanded that black teachers be allowed to teach in black schools in Charleston. Clark considered her work gathering signatures for the petition to be her introduction to a career in civil rights. Although Tillman had declared that ten thousand signatures would never be obtained, Clark and others proved him wrong. In 1920, African American teachers were teaching in the public schools of Charleston and by 1921, African American principals were being hired.4 The “white community didn’t want blacks to be educated out of their place,” stated Forsythe.5 Yet educate students out of their place is exactly what Forsythe, Adams, and others did. Ruby Middleton Forsythe was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on June...


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