Harvard Educational Review
  1. Brick Walls

    Reflections on Race in a Southern School District

    by Thomas E. Truitt

    Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. 164 pp. $29.90 (cloth)

    In Brick Walls: Reflections on Race in a Southern School District, Thomas Truitt chronicles his experiences as a former superintendent in Florence, South Carolina. Truitt, a White man, focuses on the racial dynamics that manifested themselves during critical policy- and decisionmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. A community almost evenly split between White and Black residents, Florence, like many places in the United States, appears to be a community where discussions about race, policy, and change are inseparable.

    Two central issues dominate the book’s focus: the school district’s plan to build a new school, and how school board members were elected to office. Both issues provoked heated debates and made clear the racial tensions surrounding education matters in the district. Arguments over where to build the school paralyzed the district’s planning process and delayed the school’s opening. Several Black residents were concerned that the school, which was replacing an institution in one of their neighborhoods, would not be centrally located for its students. White residents were worried about finding a location that they would find acceptable to send their children. The debate eventually led to the NAACP filing a lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department against the school district. The chief complaint was the location of the school, but the suit also accused the district of a shortage of Black teachers, racial imbalance in schools, and an overrepresentation of Black students in special education classes and an underrepresentation in gifted classes.

    During Truitt’s tenure, the Florence nine-member school board experienced a historic shift in its racial composition. The Black population had always been underrepresented on the board, as it never had more than two Black members. Due to a court order resulting from another lawsuit brought about by the NAACP, the district changed its election plan from at-large representation, where individuals vote for candidates no matter where they live, to single-member districts, where voters choose individuals who live in their region. Because Florence is highly segregated by districts, the new plan increased the number of Black officials to four, with White officials occupying five seats. While the composition of the board may have improved, its racial dynamics did not. Proposals were often voted for or against across racial lines.

    Perhaps most striking about his memoir is Truitt’s naiveté about race relations in a racially diverse district, particularly in South Carolina. Truitt was not prepared for the tensions between White and Black individuals and their representative organizations and coalitions. Nor does he appear to understand — or at least does not acknowledge — that for many communities dealing with a history of racial segregation and discrimination, racial issues and education are inseparable. Truitt seems to write honestly about his leadership problems — he describes the stress and insecurities he experienced on the job — but the tale of Florence demonstrates that a community plagued by distrust between racial groups requires leadership that proactively and sincerely seeks the input of the communities it serves. At one point during his superintendency, Truitt was accused by the only Black school board official at the time as “being closed to anything that a black person wants” (p. 119). While this may have been an unfair accusation, it is clear that a leader can accomplish little without people’s trust. As Truitt admits, the district had “a lot of irritants, but I was never able to turn any of them into pearls” (p. 47).

    The book often reads like a blow-by-blow account of what happened during Truitt’s superintendency. He includes exact times, people’s facial expressions, and explanations of miscommunications with the press along with other specifics. But the details are provided at an expense; they draw attention away from the larger sociopolitical significance of Florence. Florence is not unique in its racial disharmony. The demands of its citizens, Black and White, are not unusual, and the challenges these demands pose for school leaders are not unique. In fact, the events in Florence may be a useful lesson to educational leaders across the nation. The story of Florence suggests that educational leaders’ success depends partly on how they address communities’ concerns and navigate a district’s racial tensions. It is challenging to work in a district with a history of racial discord, and it could be disastrous to underestimate that history’s influence on the present.

    — Z.K.
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    Book Notes

    Teacher Mentoring and Induction
    edited by Hal Portner

    Brick Walls
    by Thomas E. Truitt

    After the Bell
    edited by Maggie Anderson and David Hassler