When Americans are taught the story of school desegregation, they learn about the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education. But much of the work of desegregation happened outside the courtroom. Black children, some as young as six, put their bodies on the line every time they entered a white school, and nearly all of them were girls.
In her new book A Girl Stands at the Door, author and Rutgers University history professor Rachel Devlin explores the role girls and young women played in the push for educational equality in the 20th century.
Below is a Q &A adapted from an interview with Devlin.
Q: You write that black men and boys were more active in the fight to desegregate other public spaces: lunch counters, buses. Why did the public schools become primarily a woman’s battlefield?
Devlin: In order to desegregate a school, you need to have two things: you need to have physical courage, but also social dexterity. In your interactions with white school officials, with white students, with the superintendent, you need to be poised, polite, self-possessed, diplomatic and patient, while also being unyielding and determined. Girls had these qualities.
Being poised and polite was something that was instilled in them from the time they could walk. It was an integral part of their experience as black, young women navigating a world that was hostile to them, on the streets, in the cities. They also learned how to be very self-aware of their presentation with white adults while they were working with their mothers in white homes as domestics. They knew how to be both accomodating and confrontational. They knew how to do the back-and-forth in an intimate space with white people. So these were skills they already had in place before they reached the schoolhouse door.
Q: Is there a sense that this was a strategic choice? Were black girls perceived by hostile whites as less threatening than black boys?
Devlin: No. Black children as black people were threatening to white parents. It didn't matter if it was a girl or a boy. Girls were chosen because parents perceived that they would be good at this, that they would be able to manage the social minefield of dealing with angry, hostile white administrators and potentially hostile white students.
Q: Can you give an example of how girls used their social dexterity to survive in a white school?
Devlin: All school-desegregation firsts had to go through this interview with the principal. In Charleston, S.C., before 14-year-old Millicent Brown could attend Rivers High School, she was sent to have an interview with the entire white school board — 12 white men across the table and just her. The men across the table from her asked her, "Do you like your black school? Do you like your teachers? Do you like your friends? Do you like your extracurriculars?" And after Millicent said "yes" to all these questions, the board members asked her, "Then why do you want to leave all that and go to a white school?" And Millicent said, "Well, I make friends wherever I go." That was a question that was meant to completely disarm her, and she responded very quickly on her feet.
Q: Here in New Orleans, several girls were front-and-center in the battle for educational equality. Tell us about the experiences of those four girls who integrated New Orleans schools in 1960: Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, Gail Etienne and Ruby Bridges. What was it like for them?
Devlin: The most horrific violence that I have heard interviewing more than 30 women who have desegregated schools happened at Semmes Middle School, which was in the Lower Ninth Ward. The girls were at the younger end of the spectrum, they were small, and eighth graders would hit them, spit in their food, trip them. Tessie got hit in the face with a bat. The sabbotage, and the harrassement and the physical violence was every day.
Q: Today in 2018, some data shows that school segregation is almost as bad as it was in 1960. What have we gained, what have we learned as a result of the incredible sacrifices made by these women?
Devlin: Importantly, they themselves still see what they did as very important and transformative. We live in a nation that is socially so much different from the Jim Crow south that they helped to desegregate. That the schools have become resegregated is a function of the fact that the Supreme Court in a 2007 ruling found that schools could not make admissions choices based on race, effectively gutting the Brown v. Board decision. So we have to look at the conservative swing in the Supreme Court that has led the way.
These young women, many of them fought hard as plaintiffs, fought hard as firsts. And then after college were the first to desegregate college faculties, to desegregate law offices, government offices, and they remain optimistic. And if they can be optimistic, we should remain optimistic too.
But the main thing that their struggle teaches us is that it is, in fact, a struggle. And, that citizens have to continue to try to desegregate these spaces, especially the schools. It's just a war, or a struggle, that's not over yet.
WWNO's education reporting is supported by Entergy Corporation.