Harvard Educational Review
  1. Laboratory of Learning

    HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow

    Sharon Gay Pierson

    New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 308 pp. $42.95 (PAPER)

    In Laboratory of Learning, Sharon Gay Pierson illuminates African American educators’ powerful leadership in the quintessentially American process of aligning their children’s educational options with their own vision and values. Her work inspires questions of contemporary relevance—namely, who has the power to determine curriculum content, and whose purposes are served by the curriculum in use? Pierson focuses on the evolving role of laboratory schools at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the provision of prestigious, high-quality secondary education for African Americans from 1920 to 1960. She emphasizes the deep commitment to engaging in the process of learning that defined these high schools and their host communities, and enabled them to generate privileges that defied the norms of the Jim Crow South. While Alabama State Teachers College and its Laboratory High School (ASCLH) feature prominently in this narrative, Pierson deftly situates them in a rich historical context. This allows her to expose biases that have influenced the historiography of schooling for African Americans and heretofore rendered these high-achieving institutions invisible.

    Pierson’s organization of Laboratory of Learning guides readers through layers of context that differ from dominant and contemporary paradigms. In her introduction she places her work within the context of recent scholarship that breaks from the tradition of recounting the meager resources allocated to de jure segregated schools for African American students and, instead, emphasizes the value of culture and community on these students’ educational experiences (e.g., Anderson, 1988; Walker, 1996). In Part One, “Laboratory Schools in Historical Context,” she describes common themes in the evolution of HBCU laboratory schools as institutions that defied the normative emphasis on manual, agricultural, and technical training. In Part Two, “Creating ‘Precious Scholars’ at Alabama State College Laboratory High School,” she focuses on the ways in which Alabama State Teachers College presidents and affiliates enabled the institution’s development into “a gem of an educational experience during the era of legal segregation” (p. 214) and concludes with an in-depth discussion of ASCLH.

    In Part One, Pierson helps readers reconcile the dominant narrative of inferior schooling for African Americans in the Jim Crow South and the existence of prestigious HBCU laboratory schools by highlighting the costs and benefits of their limited visibility among Southern educational activists and leaders. For example, she both explicitly acknowledges the detrimental impact of state-sanctioned white supremacist policies and practices on schooling for African Americans and argues that the weak educational infrastructures that existed in many southern states—due to weak economies and meager investments in education for all students—contributed to a fragmented landscape with inconsistent oversight that allowed HBCU-based educators the autonomy to develop lab schools. Pierson builds on this theme of interrogating visibility as she challenges producers and consumers of research to discuss the links between scholarship and political motivations. She exposes common historiographical biases by highlighting ways in which leaders and advocates of African American education strategically limited the range of African American schooling experiences that were discussed in popular and scholarly publications. While she asserts that the scholarly literature on this topic is largely focused on “White domination instead of Black agency, achievement and clear progress in secondary education” (p. 81), she explains this as a consequence of abundant primary source data in the form of reports, scholarly articles, and media accounts that highlight profound educational deficits and reflect alignment with the politically popular emphasis on technical training and workforce development. Further, she alerts readers that these documents were often produced by advocates of African American education to bolster their appeals to government and philanthropic leaders. This layered exposition of the nuances embedded in the historical record throughout Part One primes readers for the case study of ASCLH that is the focus of Part Two.

    Pierson merges the layers of interaction and interdependence among laboratory high schools, HBCUs, and the social and political infrastructure of the Jim Crow South by constructing the narrative of ASCLH as a chronicle of the tenures of Ala-bama State Teachers College’s presidents from 1875 to 1962. She highlights the ways in which these leaders held steadfastly to their shared vision and soundly rejected calls to focus exclusively on manual training. For example, William Beverly, the college’s first African American president, was removed from his position for violating the racial etiquette of the Jim Crow South. Yet during his tenure, Beverly effectively expanded the campus’s physical plant and used federal documentation regarding the need for African American teachers to legitimize the institution’s exceptional curriculum. Beverly’s successor. George Washington Trenholm, created a program of study that applied progressive theories of education and included manual training courses as electives, rather than core courses. He was succeeded by his son, Harper Council Trenholm, who inherited an institution with a robust infrastructure and a wealth of talent. During his forty-year tenure, the college and the Laboratory High School hosted statewide and regional professional development for white and African American educators. He also lobbied to be the first African American school to be evaluated according to the state’s most rigorous accreditation standards. The institution’s successful review effectively armed the community with externally produced evidence of its high caliber. Still, Pierson reports, it received very little public attention in popular or scholarly publications, which featured schools dedicated to workforce development.

    Pierson’s in-depth look at ASCLH uses data from interviews with alumni and former teachers as well as artifacts such as the Homeroom Guidance Program Handbook to bring this community’s educational strategy into relief. For example, she depicts ASCLH as a campus-based secondary school that also served as a site for training preservice teachers, testing educational theories, and engaging regional networks of educators in professional development. Pierson expounds on one graduate’s recollection that “we had exposure to everything we wanted” (p. 192) as she describes the rich benefit of being able to access the resources of the college campus and to enroll in college-level course work as high school students. Additionally, Pierson highlights Lab School educators’ experiences as returning alumni and graduates of Columbia’s Teachers College, Brown University, and other institutions in which they gained deep knowledge and expertise in progressive educational theory. This common framework informed their practice and supported the development of an exceptional corps of African American educators. Through these descriptions Pierson offers a contrast to the more familiar, deficit-based descriptions of de jure segregated schools and highlights the educational processes that facilitated high levels of learning.

    Laboratory of Learning offers an insightful, critical historiography that illustrates the reality of prestigious educational opportunity for some African Americans in the Jim Crow South. While Pierson’s focus on the voices of community members allows her to capture the racial politics and privileges experienced by members of the ASCLH, it also makes it difficult to ascertain the bounds of the institution’s reach. For example, Pierson notes that ASCLH had limited enrollment, most attendees paid an enrollment fee, and many were children of adults affiliated with the school; yet she offers little insight into how the school was perceived by those who were not members of its community or by students who did not succeed academically. Additionally, educators seeking to glean lessons for the contemporary context from these “pioneers in education” (p. 215) are likely to find the book more inspiring than instructive, as Pierson draws few parallels between the developing educational landscape and today’s more robust educational system. As a result, Pierson’s invitation to reflect on the short history of secondary schooling in the United States is more implicit than explicit. Nonetheless, her presentation of the Laboratory High School at Alabama State Teachers College stands as a shining example of effective agency on the part of community members and educators who were committed to doggedly pursuing their vision for their children in the face of oppressive circumstances of the day.
    Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
    Walker, V. S. (1996). Their highest potential: An African American school community in the segregated South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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    Book Notes

    Our School
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    Laboratory of Learning
    Sharon Gay Pierson

    The Quest for Mastery
    Sam M. Intrator and Don Siegel