When the U.S. Supreme Court deemed segregated schooling unconstitutional in 1954, the landmark decision become a symbol of racial progress. But the ruling came with a hidden cost: the dismissal of tens of thousands of Black teachers and principals as white school staff poured into previously all-Black schools and were promoted into leadership roles over their Black colleagues.
The fallout from the loss of a generation of Black educators continues today. Fewer than 1 in 10 teachers in U.S. public schools are Black, according to the Pew Research Center. And while the share of Black teachers and those from other marginalized backgrounds has increased in recent decades, their proportion isn’t keeping up with the nation’s rapidly diversifying population of school-aged children.
In the recently published book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership, Leslie T. Fenwick details how the Supreme Court decision affected Black educators and what the ramifications are today. Fenwick, an education professor at Howard University who served as dean of the department for over a decade, spoke to Capital B about the inspiration behind her book and how it can help people understand the policy issues that persist in education. The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and length.
Capital B: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the inspiration for writing this book come from?
Leslie T. Fenwick: The inspiration for that came from my own family history: My parents and my grandparents, on both sides of my family, attended racially segregated schools, all-Black schools. And, as I was growing up, my parents would talk about their schools and their teachers and their credentials.
Growing up, my understanding about the caliber of teachers in all-Black schools ran counter to the narrative that we hear about Brown [v. Board of Education]. My parents, and their friends, did not support segregation and segregation policies. They did, however, hold great pride in the teachers who taught them in the schools that they attended.
When people look at Brown v. Board of Education, they see it as this national success that we as a country were able to do. But a lot of what your book does pokes at that idea. It shows what we actually lost as a result of the integration that took place in schools. How have people generally received this when they either read your book or you tell them what the premise is?
The response has been really interesting. It falls into two categories: All audiences have said, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” and they’re really shocked that they didn’t know that. And then some portion of audiences, particularly Black individuals, have said, “Wow, that’s my family history.” But mainly, the response is, “How could I not have known that?”
So when you say Brown v. Board of Education was a miraculous legal decision, there’s no doubt about that. It ended legally enforced racial segregation in public schools, and even American society more broadly. And I believe the decision was an intellectual and moral accomplishment by these NAACP lawyers, prime among them Thurgood Marshall, who was African American. But we never implemented Brown the way it was intended to be implemented. Brown never meant close all the Black schools and fire all the Black educators, principals, and teachers, and then take the Black students and put them in previously segregated all-white schools. It never said that, but that was what was orchestrated to happen.
I make it really clear when I speak, the [Supreme Court] decision should be held harmless. The decision was miraculous. It was an intellectual and moral feat. But white resistance to the decision — massive resistance — is what caused us to misimplement, if that’s a word, the decision.
I want to take a moment to discuss the impact that the purging of black educators after Brown v. Board has had on black students. Diversity and representation within classrooms is still something that a lot of school systems struggle with today. How do you think this exodus of Black educators affected Black students over the last several decades?
We live in a democracy. We live in a country that’s supposed to be a representative democracy, a pluralistic democracy, and yet, the models of intellectual authority and leadership authority in schools are almost exclusively white. And so, the workforce does not reflect the student population, which is now majority students of color. And, in fact, also a majority of students come from families experiencing poverty.
So students are missing out on several things: They’re missing out on the model of intellectual authority, the model of leadership authority, in terms of teacher and principal. The curriculum that they’re exposed to is almost exclusively white in imagery, in content, and authorship.
And we know from at least 30 to 40 years of research, that there are benefits that accrue academic and social benefits to Black, Hispanic, and Latinx students, especially when they’re in schools that are diversely staffed. Those students are less likely to be suspended or expelled. They’re less likely to be misplaced in special ed. They’re more likely to be tested for gifted education. They’re more likely to graduate high school in four years. And they’re more likely to apply for and be accepted to and matriculate in college. So when you ask, “What are they missing out on?” — they’re missing out on a lot.
What I think is also really interesting about your book is that it is centered in the past, with Brown v. Board. How do you think it fits into the narrative of all of these conversations that we’ve been having now about race in schools?
One of the central thesis of my book is that this history is not good. We’re continuing to live with this history. It’s part of a continuum. So when Black educators were purged from the system, we lost the nation’s most credentialed educators. And I kind of chronicle how that occurred, and what it meant.
The end of the book is a series of policy recommendations to reverse the trend of this history. And part of our problem is that we’ve never acknowledged this history. We’ve never acknowledged the truth about why we have lots of conversations, as you well know, about educator workforce diversity.
And the myth is kind of sad — I always say it in a poetry voice: ‘With Brown, Blacks pursued other professions unavailable to them prior to desegregation.’ And that’s a lie. It’s an outright lie. This historical record doesn’t support that. The truth is that white resistance to the law of the land, which was Brown, nearly decimated the black educator pipeline, and here, I’m talking almost exclusively about teachers and principals, and we’re living with the fallout of that history. We haven’t escaped it yet.