Q&A with Douglas: Northern segregation
Most people assume that school segregation was a phenomenon exclusive to the South. In his latest book, “Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954,” law professor Davison M. Douglas examines the untold story of northern school segregation between the end of the Civil War and the early 1950s. Douglas, the Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law, is a legal historian with an expertise on the interplay of race and law in American history. He recently sat down with the W&M News to discuss his book, which is being published by Cambridge University Press and will be available this month in stores.
Q: How did you become interested in writing this book?
Douglas: I grew up in the South and had been interested in the southern civil rights movement since my childhood. In my first book, I examined school desegregation in the pivotal southern city of Charlotte, N.C. In the course of doing research for that book in the archives of the NAACP, I discovered a number of legal disputes in northern states during the first half of the 20th century involving school segregation. I had known that many northern communities had operated racially separate schools, but I had always assumed that such segregation was due to residential segregation. What I noticed in the NAACP archives, though, was that many northern towns segregated schoolchildren in a manner similar to southern towns, by establishing a white school for all of the town’s white children and a “colored” school for all of the town’s black children. Or by operating a single school with racially separate classrooms, racially separate playgrounds, and even racially separate American flags. The more I researched, the more examples I found of this kind of explicit segregation in the North. I realized that most of us don’t know much about this aspect of our nation’s history and so decided to write a book exploring the history of northern school segregation.
Q: The casual observer probably assumes that school segregation was just a southern practice. Why do you think the story of the north has not been told?
Douglas: School segregation was so overwhelming in the South – every southern state had laws that mandated racially separate schools and compliance with those laws was 100 percent. By the same token, most northern states had laws that prohibited school segregation. Hence, most historians interested in studying school segregation have focused their attention on the South – and in the process have missed a really interesting story.
Q: Was this a case where you had laws on the books that prohibited school segregation, but local communities that ignored those laws?
Douglas: That’s exactly what happened. Most northern states enacted laws after the Civil War that prohibited school segregation. But in many northern communities, local school boards insisted on racial segregation in defiance of state law – particularly after thousands of southern blacks began to migrate northward during and after World War I. Many northern communities operated racially segregated schools before the onset of what we call the “Great Migration,” but white insistence on school segregation sharply increased as more blacks arrived in the North. And even though segregation violated state law, many school boards acted in defiance of the law. A few lawsuits were brought challenging school segregation, almost all of which succeeded, but many northern school boards were not deterred – they persisted in their defiance. As a legal historian, I was fascinated with this disconnect between laws that prohibited school segregation and an on-the-ground reality at odds with that legal mandate. I wanted to know how this could happen. And I wanted to know what this might teach us about the role of law in accomplishing racial change in the United States.
Q: In the book you examine the reaction to school segregation in the black community of the North. Why was there a division in the black community of many northern states on the issue of school segregation?
Douglas: This was another one of the surprises of my research. In examining those northern communities that engaged in school segregation, I had expected to find white school boards insisting on racial separation, with the black community in opposition. But the story turned out to be more complicated than that. In many northern communities, the black community was sharply divided over the importance of school integration. Very few northern school districts would permit a black teacher to teach a white child before the middle of the 20th century, so racially integrated schools invariably meant the exclusion of black teachers. And examples of white teachers and white classmates mistreating black schoolchildren were widespread throughout the North. As a result, many northern blacks, though preferring racial integration, concluded that their children would fare better under the nurturing care of a black teacher in a segregated school. For that reason, many northern blacks actually petitioned local school boards for a racially separate school. By the same token, other northern blacks, particularly those associated with the NAACP, fought for integrated schools, arguing that racially separate schools would condemn African Americans to second class citizenship. One of the best examples of this tension in the northern black community was the reversal of W.E. B. Du Bois over the issue of school integration. Though long a proponent of school integration, Du Bois reversed course in 1934, claiming that he was unwilling to condemn another generation of black children to the poor treatment they so often experienced at the hands of white teachers and classmates in racially mixed schools.
Q: How extensive was this segregation in the North compared to the South?
Douglas: School segregation was far more extensive in the South than in the North because it was mandated by law and compliance with those laws was pretty much universal. By contrast, in the North, patterns of school segregation were more variable. School segregation was most pervasive in the southern regions of those northern states that bordered the South – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. In each of those states, many towns would operate, say, two schools – one for white kids and one for black kids. And yet each of those states, except Indiana, expressly forbade school segregation by law. Indiana, the one northern exception, permitted local school districts to engage in school segregation until 1949.
Q: When did the situation in the North begin to change?
Douglas: The crucial decade in this story is the 1940s. During the 1940s, black insistence on fair treatment sharply increased, as did white receptiveness to those demands. By the 1940s, after decades of southern migration, blacks began to exercise considerable political clout in many northern states and cities, and used that clout to insist on an end to racial discrimination. Moreover, as black soldiers who spilled their blood in a war to make the world safe for democracy returned home, they demanded that America realize the full promise of democracy for all of its citizens. Not surprisingly, NAACP membership skyrocketed during World War II and the organization stepped up its attack on racial segregation and discrimination. As a result, many northern states enacted new laws prohibiting school segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. A few states decided to withhold state educational funds from any school district that continued to engage in racial segregation; these laws had a dramatic effect, particularly in New Jersey and Illinois. More and more black parents filed lawsuits, with the help of the NAACP, insisting on their right to a non-segregated education for their children. By the early 1950s, almost all explicit school segregation in the North had been eliminated. But of course, racial separation in many northern schools persisted, particularly in large cities with extensive residential segregation.
Q: Some would argue that there still is racial separation going in northern schools today, particularly in the inner cities. Is that right?
Douglas: Yes, it is. In fact, there is more racial separation today in northern urban schools than there was a half century ago when the United States Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. The culprit is residential segregation. Much of this is due to the migration of white families from inner cities to suburban areas during the decades following the end of World War II. Part of this is also due to the ongoing legacy of racial ghettos established during the first half of the twentieth century through a variety of public and private actions intended to keep blacks and whites apart. And the Supreme Court’s changing school desegregation jurisprudence has played a role as well. The result is that America’s schools are steadily becoming more racially homogenous – North and South – particularly in large cities.
Q: What issues do you hope to raise through this book?
Douglas: One issue that particularly interests me as a lawyer is how one uses law to accomplish social change. What is interesting about this story of northern school segregation is that you had on the books a set of laws that prohibited school segregation and you also had a number of court decisions requiring compliance with those laws. And yet, school segregation persisted in much of the North until the middle of the 20th century. What this tells us is that it is not enough simply to pass a law or secure a favorable court decision. Both of those actions are important, but they are not enough. There also has to be a larger social commitment to the enforcement of those legal principles. That’s what was lacking for so long in much of the North. Those interested in fostering social change should play close attention to the law, but they must also change attitudes.
The other issue I hope to raise with this book is to remind readers that racial discrimination in America has not just been a southern phenomenon. It has been a national phenomenon. And we still have some more work to do.