A generation ago, desegregation topped America’s school agenda.
In the 1970s, newspapers were full of stories about a crisis in public schools. But there was a difference. Now the focus is on achievement gaps, and educators are often blamed. A generation ago, racial segregation was the issue, and educators won respect for their courage.
In Omaha, Nebraska, Diane Green started teaching in 1969. “I was a child of the 60s,” she says. “I believed wholeheartedly in teaching all children.” Outside her newly integrated elementary school, “I remember pickups driving by, not from our neighborhood, heckling and threatening [Black] children.” But inside, she recalls, “children ate together and played together, and their parents came together for PTA.”
“The first year, many of the teachers were not ready....But after my coworkers saw I could do the job, that’s all it took.”
—Frances Cummings, now and three decades ago.
In Lumberton, North Carolina, Frances Cummings was teaching at an all-Black school when her Black principal and White superintendent asked her to integrate the faculty of a White school. “The first year, many of the teachers were not ready. Maybe 40 percent did accept me, the rest were very cool. But after my coworkers saw I could do the job, that’s all it took.”
In Georgia, the tide of integration found G.W. Tibbetts teaching in a White school in Rockmart. He was asked to switch places with a Black teacher at an all-Black school. But the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross near his house, and Tibbetts says, “I don’t know whether I would have been gutsy enough to do it. I had a family to think about.” Before he had to decide, the school board closed the small Black school and moved all its students to the White school.
The next year, Tibbetts, the local Association president, was hired by the newly integrated Georgia Association of Educators. Much of his job was supporting educators under attack for treating Black and White students as equals.
“Careers could be ruined,” he says. “Sometimes you could walk across a plowed field and talk to a school board member sitting on his tractor, and he would do the right thing. But others wouldn’t.
“It was a heady time. I thought in one generation, we would not have the race issue. That didn’t happen.”
Segregation may be legally dead, but it’s making a comeback in classrooms across the country. Some minority leaders have given up on integration. Last spring, Nebraska’s only Black state legislator, arguing for more community involvement, proposed splitting the Omaha schools into three districts, one dominated by Whites, one by Blacks, and one by Hispanics. His bill passed and is due to take effect in 2008.
But the Nebraska State Education Association is against the proposal. Diane Green, the “child of the 60s” who now leads the Omaha Education Association, says she’s sticking by her belief that “separate is not equal.”