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The failed legacy of Boston school desegregation

50 years after Brown v. Board of Education

THERE IS GOOD reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, but school desegregation is not one of them. Surely, the process has been beneficial to many students; but the grim statistics of continuing racial segregation in the public schools, the inferior resources available in the mostly black and Spanish-background schools, even the tracking and other devices that isolate students by race in nominally desegregated schools tell the real story. Simply acknowledging the still segregated schools with the comment that "much remains to be done" is inadequate as reassurance and insufficient as analysis of what went wrong. Based on past experience, we should have known better. We who worked to desegregate schools under the vague directive of the Brown decision's "all deliberate speed" mandate, ignored warnings dating back more than 100 years. Some of the earliest came out of the 19th-century school desegregation experiences here in Boston.

When public schools opened in Boston in the late 18th century, black children were admitted to them. But by 1790, racial insults and mistreatment had driven out all but three or four black children. In this regard, the Boston children's experience was no different from those of other "free" black children in Northern schools. Racial hostility rendered educational equality for black children impossible even though they were attending the same schools as whites.

In 1787, Prince Hall, the black Revolutionary War veteran and community leader, unable to obtain funds for an " African" school from the state Legislature, raised money from blacks and friendly whites, and in 1806 opened a black school in his son Primus Hall's home. Later, the school received support from the Boston School Committee. The committee began exercising ever greater control over the school as its contributions increased. By 1835, complaints about the poor quality of instruction and poor conditions in the black schools led to the construction of a new school, but the heavy-handed policymaking remained.

Many black parents, unaware of or forgetting the mistreatment of black children in white schools 50 years earlier, became convinced that they had a new and better idea -- integrated schools. Thus motivated, a suit to desegregate Boston's public schools was filed in state court. Using arguments in 1850 remarkably similar to those that the Supreme Court would hear and accept a century later, Charles Sumner, abolitionist lawyer and later US senator, aided by Robert Morris, one of the nation's first black lawyers, maintained that the black schools were inferior in equipment and staffing, that they were inconvenient for those black children living closer to white schools, that neither state nor federal law supported segregated schools.

The Massachusetts court rejected all these arguments in Roberts v. City of Boston. The court found that the School Committee's segregation policy was reasonable. One black leader, Thomas P. Smith, was not surprised at the result and had argued against bringing the suit. In a speech delivered before "the colored citizens of Boston" in December 1849, he noted that the black school was in good physical shape, and that "the management and systems of instruction, the order and discipline of the scholars, their cheerfulness and spirit, are unsurpassed by any school in the city." He predicted that desegregation would fail because whites would not enroll their children with blacks.

Paradoxically, five years later, the pulls of politics proved for a short time stronger than the court's ruling. The Massachusetts Legislature, for political reasons having little to do with the black parents' legal arguments, enacted a law barring the exclusion of any child from the public schools on account of race. As Smith had predicted, victory was short-lived. School officials feared that white parents would not send their children to black schools or allow them to be instructed by black teachers. Within a short time, black schools were closed and black teachers dismissed.

Textbook aid provided to black children under segregation also ended, and after a decade or so, state officials conceded that Boston's public schools had again become identifiable by race.

In the mid-1930s, the NAACP decided to launch an all-out legal campaign challenging segregation with the public schools as a central target. They rejected W.E.B. Du Bois's contention that "oppression and insult [had] become so intense and unremitting that until the world's attitude changes. . . . volunteer union for self-expression and self-defense was essential." Du Bois acknowledged that "the mixed school is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youth. It gives wider contacts; it inspires greater self-confidence; and suppressed the inferiority complex." But he emphasized that "Negro children needed neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What they need is education."

Ignoring Du Bois's wisdom, civil rights lawyers in the 1960s, including this writer, finally obtained court orders requiring the racial balancing of each school to reflect the racial percentages of black and white children in the system. Those orders were stymied when white parents in droves moved to the suburbs or enrolled their children in private schools. By the 1970s, black parents were expressing doubt that placing their children in hostile white schools was the only way to obtain their primary goal, an effective education.

On the eve of the implementation of court-ordered desegregation in Boston, I sat in on a meeting with NAACP lawyers called by black community leaders. They told the lawyers that black parents in Roxbury were opposed to sending their children into South Boston and other white areas where they would be in physical danger and where, by many measures, the white schools were in worse shape than the black schools the children were currently attending.

I was shocked when the lawyers responded that they shared the parents' concerns, but the law required that they proceed with the racial balance plan, including the busing of black children into hostile white schools. Then, I recalled that years earlier, I had given similar answers to parents in the deep South when they asked why the remedy in Brown could not be used to improve the black schools rather than desegregate them, a process they feared with good reason would result in the closing of black schools and the dismissal of black teachers and principals.

Happily, the good news is that educators rather than lawyers are increasingly in charge of schooling policies in black public and independent schools. Black students are making impressive gains as teachers focus on developing motivation and utilizing teaching techniques designed to meet the barriers to learning faced by students living in poverty. Tardily, it is true, but finally we may be learning from our losses.

Derrick Bell is a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law. He is the author of "Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform." 

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