For decades the story of school desegregation has been told as a heroic narrative starring NAACP lawyers and brave African-American students, in which the Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of a new era of equality for black and white schoolchildren. In a new book, Emory Professor Vanessa Siddle Walker introduces readers to previously little-known actors in the drama: the Southern black educators who worked, often in secret, to help African-American students and their families both before and after Brown.
In “The Lost Education of Horace Tate,” a book that reads like a companion piece to “Hidden Figures,” Walker unearths the crusading advocacy of African-American teachers and principals who sought not only desegregation but true integration: an educational system that would work for all kids, black and white. It’s a story of daring and dedication and idealism, but also one of missed opportunities, racist resistance and some uncomfortable compromises.
With a doctorate in education from Harvard, Walker joined the faculty at Emory University in 1990. She describes meeting Tate, a former state senator and longtime educator, 10 years after arriving on campus.
“People kept saying to me, ‘You need to meet Horace Tate,’” she said. “Well, that was a little scary. I don’t really hang out with senators.”
It turned out that Tate already knew Walker’s name from an AJC article published when her first book, “Their Highest Potential,” received the Grawemeyer Award, a prestigious prize in the field. That earlier book, much like the new one, grew out of Walker interrogating her own beliefs. While visiting her parents in North Carolina, Walker kept hearing community members voice their dismay at the closure of their segregated school.
“Everywhere I’d go,” Walker said, “they’d say, ‘It was such a good school. I hate to think about them closing the school.’
“Well, you know, I got my fancy doctorate from Harvard,” Walker said. “I never heard anybody say anything about a black school during segregation [being] good.”
She soon abandoned the project she’d been working on so that she could figure out what black communities meant when they said they liked their segregated schools.
“I discovered that, while everybody was mad about not having the facilities and the resources, they actually had a very resilient school,” Walker said. “They had a principal and teachers who cared a great deal about them.” Despite struggling with chronic underfunding and limited resources, these black schools helped children build solid self-esteem even in a society that discriminated against them.
“They were trying to find ways to help black children know who they were, and to believe they could be full participants in American democracy,” she said.
After the book came out, Walker worried her heartfelt appreciation of black educational excellence could be misread. “I was afraid (readers) would think I was trying to suggest that Brown was wrong and desegregation was wrong. And that’s not what I’m trying to say at all,” said Walker.
This was the same educational environment in which Horace Tate was immersed, first as a student at Fort Valley State University, and later as a teacher and then principal in the still-segregated schools of small-town Georgia. By the time Walker met him, Tate was in his mid-70s, and he had a story to tell.
Each time Walker met with Tate, he showed her documents from the Georgia Teachers and Education Association (GTEA), an association of African-American educators founded during segregation. The organization would eventually merge with the then all white Georgia Education Association (now the Georgia Association of Educators) in 1970.
“He would have little stacks of materials,” Walker said. “Each time, the stack would just get higher and higher.” But the stories he told her — about late-night road trips to seek counsel from the president of the GTEA, engaging in subterfuge to conceal his activism from white school superintendents — confused her.
“I’d been taught that the NAACP had done all this stuff,” she said, but what Tate described were teachers bringing down segregation. “I’m supposed to know something about segregated schools,” Walker said. “That was my academic niche. I had no idea what this man was talking about. But I had sense enough, because I’d been raised by a preacher and a teacher, to sit there and listen.
“By the time he died, to be honest, I still didn’t understand most of it,” she said. And then, a month after Tate’s funeral, she found a treasure trove of materials in the attic of the GTEA building in Atlanta. “I don’t have words to describe how it felt,” she said of climbing up a ladder and seeing a dozen file cabinets filled with records.
The story isn’t always a happy one.
“What they wanted with desegregation was access to all the things that other people had for their children, all the opportunities,” Walker said. “But what really happened was they lost their organizations, they voted them out of existence. Black schools were closed, or demoted. They got rid of the schools, they got rid of the leaders.”
Black educators had created guidelines for a desegregation process that would help all the children adapt. The GTEA produced a booklet called “A Guide to an Inclusive Integration Plan” that was sent to school superintendents throughout Georgia. Its recommendations included involving both black and white parents in planning the integration process, the adoption of a faculty-approved curriculum including multi-ethnic books, retaining bus drivers of both races, maintaining a staff of blacks and whites, and not allowing activities such as singing “Dixie” or flying the Confederate flag.
But those recommendations were met with the same unyielding white resistance that had protested, hampered and delayed desegregation throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.
In the end, Walker said, “the federal government allowed the white South to have desegregation on its terms. We packaged a desegregation product that was (meant) to elevate equality but that in practice was demeaning and difficult for the children because we didn’t put in place these very things these black educators were trying to tell us would make for a good school desegregation.”
Still, she added, “as Dr. Tate said, what we made wrong, we can make right if we have the will and desire to do so. If we don’t do something in this generation to create schooling that’s more equitable and fair for all children,” Walker said, “I literally shudder to think where we’ll be in another generation. They deserve a world that’s better than what we often give them.”
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