Maybe segregation wasn't so damaging

May 17, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

I WAS not quite 29 months old the day in 1954 that the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in its famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision. I entered kindergarten in the fall of 1956 and spent all but 3 1/2 of the next 13 years in Baltimore schools that were considered segregated and "inherently unequal" by the Supreme Court.

That "inherently unequal" education did not seem to do me any harm. I suspect the same could be said of many other black Americans who were educated during that same period and before. We should all dwell on this before we lament the continued segregation of America's schools on the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision.

Instead of wringing our hands, maybe we should ask ourselves whether the NAACP was operating under the wrong assumption when it advocated desegregation. Maybe black children need good education, not necessarily integrated education. And maybe the two are not synonymous.

W.E.B. DuBois, a co-founder of the NAACP and the editor of its magazine, The Crisis, for many years, said as much in an editorial in January of 1934. The NAACP leadership thought he had lost his mind, but it seems in retrospect that DuBois may have come to his senses.

DuBois was not alone. The African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston had nothing but contempt for the Brown decision. Growing up in a black town in Florida may have given Hurston the curious notion that black schools were anything but "inherently inferior." She wrote in the Orlando Sentinel in the wake of the high court's decision:

"I had promised God, and some other responsible characters, including a bunch of bishops, that I was not going to part my lips concerning the United States Supreme Court decision on ending segregation in the public schools of the South. . . I break my silence just this once . . . The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them? . . . I regard the ruling of the United States Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race."

I didn't get my first dose of integrated education until January of 1962 -- eight years after Brown -- when I spent the second semester of the fifth grade and all of the sixth grade at Mordecai Gist Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore. From kindergarten through the first semester of the fifth grade, the teachers at the inherently inferior segregated schools of West Baltimore educated me as best they could.

The other years of my integrated education were spent at Baltimore City College from 1967 to 1969. I managed to graduate seventh in my class, but it was my teachers at the segregated Harlem Park Junior High School who prepared me for City.

My seventh-grade social studies teacher was Mr. Golden -- a thin rail of a man whose standards were nearly as austere as his appearance. He opened our eyes to the world around us, telling us of the burgeoning civil rights movement and all the protagonists and antagonists therein -- the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Black Muslims (as the Nation of Islam was incorrectly called then) and the Ku Klux Klan.

It was in Mr. Golden's class that I first learned of the 178,000 black soldiers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War. On some days he would divide the class into two sides, and we would have a Jeopardy-like contest with one side pitting its knowledge against the other. Separately and unequally, we learned much and had fun doing it. Would integrated education have been significantly more rewarding?

My other teachers were just as effective. Mrs. Tilly handled seventh-grade English. Mrs. Davidson took care of French for two years in a row. Mr. Drain taught a superb ninth-grade world history class. Mrs. Holmes was an excellent ninth-grade math teacher until she took a job in private industry. The best of the lot may have been Mr. Scott, who taught ninth-grade English.

Back then, an E was the equivalent of an A. He didn't give out E's, this Mr. Scott. No student was worthy of them. He assured the entire class constantly that we "weren't ready," that we had to meet higher standards consistently if we were to succeed. He put me on a debating team in which I and a partner had to argue for the establishment of a teen curfew. I didn't think I could do it, but we won the debate. After wading through Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" for a class project and memorizing several passages from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," I got my E. But I had to work for it.

As we look back on Brown today, we may rightfully regret the academic performance of predominantly black schools across the country. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that students in those schools aren't achieving because they don't have white students sitting next to them.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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