Harvard Educational Review
  1. An African American Dilemma

    A History of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North

    Zoë Burkholder

    New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 312 pp. 34.95 (cloth).

    From the first page of An African American Dilemma: A History of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North, Zoë Burkholder challenges readers’ assumptions about segregated Black schools in the United States in her description of Bordentown Manual and Industrial Training School for Colored Youth in New Jersey. Bordentown was populated by “dozens of well-groomed students strolling paths shaded by sprawling oak, maple, and sycamore trees” and visited by “luminaries such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Albert Einstein” (p. 1). When the United States Supreme Court found segregated schooling unconstitutional in 1954, Black Bordentown students, parents, alumni, and teachers fought to keep the school open, valuing its employment of Black teachers, focus on racial uplift, and strong academic and extracurricular offerings that Black students would otherwise not receive in local integrated schools. In contrast, civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) decried separate schools like Bordentown as archaic and supported the state in closing Bordentown to send Black students to integrated schools. At stake was a perennial question in the history of Black education: Are racially integrated or separate schools better for achieving educational equality?

    An African American Dilemma describes and analyzes how this same debate played out among Black educational activists across the nineteenth and twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries in cities and towns across the US North. Burkholder argues that rather than there being a monolithic support for either integration or separation, Black advocates for both ideas existed simultaneously—though different positions dominated the discourse—during any given time period, and debates between camps were common.

    Although much of the research on Black educational history has focused on the South, where the majority of Black Americans lived until the second half of the twentieth century, Burkholder joins a recent historiographical shift away from a single southern story of Black educational activism toward investigation of the unique northern context. Burkholder defines the North as states “north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River” (p. 5). Unlike in southern states, segregated schools in the North were not created by obviously racist public policy, such as Jim Crow laws, but through more covertly racist policies and practices, such as the control of school transfers, the restriction of Black students to remedial classes, and interpersonal hostility. Burk-holder also moves beyond the common historical focus on the 1940s–1960s, decades associated with the civil rights movement, toward a longer history of Black educational activism, starting with 1840 and ending in the present day.

    Aside from the introduction and conclusion, An African American Dilemma is divided into five chapters, each representing a time period during which, Burkholder argues, Black support for either integration or separation dominated. For example, the first chapter’s subtitle, “Integration for Freedom, 1840–1900,” suggests that for those sixty years the majority of Black educational advocates supported integration. In contrast, the second chapter’s subtitle, “Separation for Racial Uplift, 1900–1940,” implies that during this time the dominant discourse turned away from integration and toward separate schools. Each of the five chapters begins with an overview of the debates over integration and separation within Black communities during that time period, contextualizing the debates within the larger social and political context. After the historical overview, Burkholder dives into two or three cases that illustrate the discourse in greater detail across diverse contexts. For example, in chapter 4, Burkholder uses rural Bordentown, New Jersey, suburban Rochelle, New York, and urban Chicago as case studies to unpack how different environments influenced the way that Black educational activists became disillusioned with the promise of integration in the decades following 1954’s Brown v. Board.

    Burkholder’s cases are diverse, spanning geographies, urbanicity, and strength of Black political power. Through this diversity of voices and stories, Burkholder challenges the dominant perception of Black people as a monolith whose political orientation can be easily discerned based on geography and time period. Even before the calls for Black Power and community control over schools in the late 1960s, Black activists in the North had good reasons to keep separate schools. Burkholder also offers a range of voices within each case, sharing quotes from Black activists, parents, and students and giving their experiences the same weight as opinions from Black intellectuals readers may be used to hearing from, like Du Bois. For example, New York City schoolteacher Julia Clark argued that students who learned under “inspiring” Black teachers were better off than students in integrated schools (p. 54). However, though Burkholder shares testimonies of Black parents, students, and teachers supportive of separate schools, she emphasizes that segregated schooling was never purely the result of Black preference but of systemic white racism.

    Readers may want An African American Dilemma to answer the question of which is better—integrated or separate schools. Instead, Burkholder offers stories about critics, advocates, successes, and failures of both ideas, encouraging the reader to understand that different contexts and schooling experiences might lead people to different conclusions about what is the best to achieve quality education for Black children. Alumni of the rare Black-led, academically rigorous schools like Bordentown in New Jersey would think differently about segregated schools than those who attended overcrowded, under-resourced Black schools in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago.

    For example, the story of the NAACP’s failure in Bainbridge, Ohio, shows that factors such as a lack of economic and political resources and disagreement among Black people about what quality education looked like could also factor into a preference for separate schools. When a NAACP representative visited Bainbridge in 1945, she was convinced that the resource-poor and academically weak segregated Black school—which did not even have an indoor toilet—was reason enough for Black parents to pressure the city to let their children attend the white school. However, Bainbridge’s Black community preferred the separate school because it was relatively new, had a Black teacher, and met their academic needs. When white city leaders threatened to cancel Black families’ welfare checks if they advocated for school integration, Black families had even less incentive to fight. Without the Black community’s support, the NAACP left, and the city continued segregated schooling. The historical legacy of the NAACP often centers its legal victories in helping Black parents, students, and educational activists fight to integrate schools across the country; rarely do we hear stories about locals rejecting the NAACP’s help. Attending to these stories gives nuance to our understanding about why folks directly impacted by separate and segregated schools might want to keep them.

    Chapter 5 covers 1975 to the present day. Because only forty pages are devoted to covering five decades of rapid educational change, I found this chapter a bit rushed. For example, though the chapter’s case studies focus mostly on how three school districts across the North used different kinds of school choice to facilitate integrated schooling, the historical overview section contains more about the history of Afrocentric schooling and its relationship to the integration/segregation debates than it does the historical or political context for school choice. Burkholder does provide helpful historical context about school choice specific to each city. For example, the story that she tells of integrated schools in Montclair, New Jersey, begins with the 1940s and ends in the twenty-first century. However, I left this chapter wanting to hear more about the trends of the relationship between school choice policies and (de) segregation across the North.

    I recommend An African American Dilemma to any reader who wants to nuance their understanding of the history of debates around integration beyond the most common narratives about the civil rights movement in the South. Burkholder writes with a pleasant narrative voice, peppering the chapters with strong imagery and diverse characters that make this book easy to read. In the concluding chapter, Burkholder argues that those who are called to combat the high levels of educational segregation and inequality today must learn from the past, “draw[ing] on both traditions—school integration and separate, Black-controlled schools—to remediate the long history of educational racism and create public schools that fulfill their civic obligation to train all young people for citizenship in a multiracial democracy” (p. 208). Reading An African American Dilemma is a great place to start learning.

    Alyssa Napier

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