Legacies of Brown, Part 1

IRT Advisory Board Member Jasmine Ma, PA, ’23

Although Brown v. Board of Education is known as a landmark ruling that outlawed segregation in schools, it also caused a sharp decline in the number of Black educators and altered the cultural perceptions of the teaching profession. This series, Legacies of Brown, seeks to examine the consequences of Brown’s aftermath and provide a historical context for the founding and mission of the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers.

*In this article, “minority” refers to Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, Alaska Native, and people of two or more races.

Over the past decades, there has been a large disparity between the percentage of minority students and minority faculty in the U.S. In the 1987-88 school year, while minority students consisted of more than a quarter of the total enrollment in public schools across the nation, only 13 percent of the teaching force were minority teachers (Schaeffer, 2021). Over the following decades, the percentage of minority students grew rapidly to reach more than half of the public school enrollment, but the percentage of minority teachers remained at less than a quarter of the nation’s teaching force (Schaeffer, 2021). This disproportionality between the percentage of minority students and teachers is mainly due to practices that specifically disadvantage educators of color. Upon closer examination, these longstanding practices can be traced back to Brown v. Board of Education and various policies established during its litigation.

In the decades leading up to Brown, the U.S. education system abided by the “separate but equal” doctrine set forth by Plessy v. Ferguson, which implemented racial segregation in schools (Haney, 1978). Under this segregated system, Black schools received only a fraction of the funding given to their White counterparts, resulting in different standards in school facilities and qualities of education (Haney, 1978). As it became increasingly difficult for Blacks who were denied equal educational opportunities to find employment, the urgency for desegregation heightened (Haney, 1978).

In 1951, when a public school district in Topeka, Kansas refused to let a Black girl from the Brown family attend the school closest to them, claiming that it was only for Whites, the Browns and twelve other local Black families in Topeka, Kansas filed a class action lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education (“Brown v. Board of Education (1954),” n.d.). They argued that forcing Black students to attend separate schools was unconstitutional, and that every child, regardless of race, deserved a first-class education. After the District Court ruled against the Browns, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) combined the Browns’ lawsuit with a number of similar ones in their appeal to the Supreme Court, and in 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools (“School Segregation and Integration,” n.d.).

This success was a milestone for the Civil Rights Movement, and following the ruling, many states began to oversee the merging of racially segregated schools. However, while Black students moved into integrated schools, Black teachers and administrators who previously worked in Black schools came face to face with a new reality – demotion and dismissal. These consequences of post-Brown policy would go on to redefine the field of education for minority teachers in decades to come.

Before Brown, there were around 82,000 Black teachers in the nation, which accounted for nearly half of all Black professionals at that time (Hudson and Holmes, 1994; Madkins, 2011). With an understanding of their students’ culture, many Black teachers saw the significance of their work in uplifting new generations of Black students. They were actively involved in shared communities with their students and sought to make the most out of their given resources to provide support for their students. In return, they became trusted figures and role models in the eyes of Black students. As a result, the teaching profession was well respected within Black communities and was often a multi-generational tradition (Milner & Howard, 2004; Madkins, 2011).

Nevertheless, as many White parents and administrators believed it would be “impractical” to hire Black teachers in integrated schools, tens of thousands of Black teachers were dismissed during the period following Brown (Hudson & Holmes, 1994). Within a decade, approximately 38,000 Black teachers and administrators in 17 states lost their positions (Hudson & Holmes, 1994). This number continued to rise in the following decades, with another substantial increase between 1984 and 1989, when more than 21,500 Black teachers were dismissed due to newly installed teacher certification requirements (Hudson & Holmes, 1994).

Meanwhile, the small number of Black teachers and administrators who were hired at integrated schools also endured emotional strain and hardship in their new environments (Milner & Howard, 2004). Black teachers and principals with years of experience were instantly demoted to base level positions at integrated schools, with the latter often becoming disciplinary assistants in charge of Black students’ behavior (Milner & Howard, 2004; Madkins 2011). Overtime, the relegation of these previously esteemed leaders to powerless positions altered Black students’ perception of their teachers and principals as role models. As a result, this caused the teaching profession to gradually become undesirable across Black communities (Milner & Howard, 2004).

These changes were further accompanied by legislation that was either designed to disadvantage Black teachers or was abused by individuals for the same purpose. For instance, Title IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was used to facilitate the dismissal of Black teachers in integrated schools whenever there were cuts to funding (Haney, 1978). In these cases, school administrators re-grouped Black teachers into a special teaching category under a federally funded program. School administrators would then deliberately violate desegregation guidelines, resulting in termination of the federal funding and dismissal of all teachers within that program. Another example is an Alabama bill passed in 1956 that granted the state the right to dismiss Black educators with or without cause and with or without a hearing and right to appeal (Haney, 1978).

Together, these policies legalized internal resegregation and discrimination amongst teachers and administrators, directly affecting the stability and culture surrounding the teaching profession for Blacks. As a result, the number of Black students entering the field of education was significantly reduced: from 1975 to 1985, the number of Black students majoring in education dropped by 66% (Hudson & Holmes, 1994). Simultaneously, these policies were also extended to the growing number of prospective teachers from other non-Black minority groups, which grew at a disproportionate rate compared to the rapidly increasing number of students from those groups (Hudson & Holmes, 1994; Schaeffer, 2021).

In the present day, policies targeting minority teachers in the aftermath of Brown continue to unfold through different social, economic, and legislative factors. The next installment of this series will explore the more recent barriers preventing minority students from entering the teaching field and the IRT’s role in addressing these consequences of Brown.

Jasmine Ma is an IRT Advisory Board member and a current senior at Phillips Academy. Additional blog post on Jasmine.


References

Brown v. board of education (1954). (n.d.). Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/brown_v_board_of_education_(1954)

Haney, J. E. (1978). The effects of the brown decision on black educators. The Journal of Negro Education, 47(1), 88-95. https://doi.org/10.2307/2967104

Hudson, M. J., & Holmes, B. J. (1994). Missing teachers, impaired communities: The unanticipated consequences of brown v. board of education on the african american teaching force at the precollegiate level. The Journal of Negro Education, 63(3). https://doi.org/10.2307/2967189

Madkins, T. C. (2011). The black teacher shortage: A literature review of historical and contemporary trends. The Journal of Negro Education, 80(3), 417-427.

Milner, H. R., & Howard, T. C. (2004). Black teachers, black students, black communities, and brown: Perspectives and insights from experts. The Journal of Negro Education, 73(3). https://doi.org/10.2307/4129612

Schaeffer, K. (2021, December 10). America’s public school teachers are far less racially and ethnically diverse than their students. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/12/10/americas-public-school-teachers-are-far-less-racially-and-ethnically-diverse-than-their-students/

School segregation and integration. (n.d.). Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/school-segregation-and-integration/

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