In his first week of school as the new principal at Hinsdale South High School, Patrick Hardy was called the N-word and characterized as a pedophile twice, according to a recent Patch report, which referenced an email message Hardy sent to the high school community in September.
“When I introduced myself and asked him to pull his pants up or shirt down to cover his undergarments, he responded by stating, ‘You’re a grown man. Why are you looking at my a**?’ Another student yelled from the crowd, ‘He a gay a** n*****! (n-word),’” Hardy said.
I remember Hardy from his days as the beloved principal at Proviso East High School in Maywood and the former equity director at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
This story is on the surface shocking and infuriating but two new books published this year put Hardy’s experiences in historical context. And reading about the real history of America and particularly American schooling dulls the shock and even makes the students’ behavior rather predictable.
Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership by Leslie Fenwick, dean emerita of the Howard University School of Education, led me to think differently about the Black educator.
Dr. Hardy, who holds two master’s degrees from Harvard and Cambridge and two doctorates, is part of a lineage of highly credentialed Black educators whose careers and contributions to American classrooms were conspiratorially and systematically covered up in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation in schooling.
Today, Hardy is a rarity. About 7 percent of America’s 3.2 million teachers are Black and about 11 percent of the 93,000 principals are Black, Fenwick says. Meanwhile, less than 3 percent of the nation’s 14,000 superintendents are Black.
“But we’ve never talked about the history about why this is so,” Fenwick told NPR earlier this year. “And one of the things I was trying to do in the book was push against the myth that after Brown and desegregation, Blacks pursued careers en masse in other fields outside of education. Well, the historical record shows that the Black educator pipeline was purposely decimated after Brown.”
Fenwick argues that, prior to 1954, Black educators comprised 35 percent to 50 percent of the educator workforce in the 17 states that, by law and custom, operated racially segregated schools.
These Black educators were taught at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and, in many cases, master’s and doctoral degree programs in northern institutions like Ohio State University, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania.
In an interview with Howard Professor Gregg Carr last month, Fenwick said these Black educators “did an academic migration” by going “north or Midwest or slightly west, earning their master’s and doctoral degrees and returning to the segregated south to teach in all-Black segregated schools.”
As early as 1926, Fenwick said, 41 percent of the all-Black faculty at her mother’s racially segregated high school had master’s and doctoral degrees and “about three from the University of Chicago and Harvard combined.
“And that was not a fact that was only true of my mother’s school. This was broadly true of segregated all-Black schools. Despite sometimes dilapidated buildings, despite certain underfunding, despite used books and other curricular materials [that were] many times defaced with racial epithets … the teacher and principal workforce was exceptionally credentialed and [these educators] had also experienced learning in a desegregated or integrated environment in their graduate school education.
“So they returned to the south after this academic migration having not only superior academic credentials compared to their white peers but also a social experience that their white peers had not had or experienced,” Fenwick said.
She argues that, starting in 1952 (two years before Brown) and continuing into the 1970s, those highly credentialed Black teachers and principals were systematically “fired, demoted and dismissed and replaced by lesser qualified whites.” And this was all because white adults did not want these highly qualified Black educators to even be in the position to possibly teach their white children.
“What is clear by the historical record is that on a nearly one-to-one basis in the 17 [states with legal school segregation before Brown], exceptionally credentialed and effective Black educators were replaced by less credentialed whites,” Fenwick said. “Some were educators, others were not.”
The problem was so bad that Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney with the NAACP, led a team across the south to document the conspiracy. In one case, Marshall’s team identified the Black principal of a one-room, dirt-floor schoolhouse who had earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Columbia University. After Brown, the Black principal was replaced by a white milkman.
Much of the material that informs Fenwick’s book comes from a Senate hearing on the displacement of Black principals across the south, which Dr. Carr, paraphrasing Fenwick, called perhaps the “the largest brain drain in the history of American education and maybe education anywhere.”
Fenwick estimates that, from roughly 1952 to the 1970s, around 100,000 Black principals and teachers were forcibly removed from public schools, resulting in the loss of about $2.2 billion worth of income in today’s money.
If Jim Crow’s Pink Slip tells the awful reality of American education, Donald Yacovone’s new book, Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of our National Identity spells out how this country has historically utilized history textbooks published in the North to perpetuate national mythology grounded in racism and white supremacy.
If you wonder why kids in Hinsdale can so easily call their Black principal the N-word or, closer to home, how white parents can so easily and blithely trample on the authority of Black women superintendents in Oak Park, consider Yacovone’s argument.
“Surveying American history school textbooks from the early nineteenth century to the present day will provide a more profound insight into the full depth of the national commitment to white supremacy,” he writes. “It also allows us to trace exactly how white supremacy and Black inferiority have been […] drilled into student minds generation after generation.”
The history is long and ever-present.
Charles Goodrich, brother of the popular textbook writer Samuel Griswold Goodrich, published The First Book of History for Children and Youth in the 1800s. Although he hoped, Yacovone writes, “slavery would end, he instructed young students that ‘slaves are generally well treated, that is they have enough to eat [and drink], and are not often required to labor beyond their strength.’ He stressed that slaves were ‘the property of their masters who have a right to punish them for bad conduct, and to sell them.’”
George Bancroft’s 10-volume History of the United States, originally published in 1834, described slavery as “the mercantile avarice of a foreign nation” to divert attention from America’s responsibility for its development. And history textbooks published in the 21st century have described enslaved Blacks as “indentured servants” and essentially happy workers.
The effect of this centuries-long assault on the public mind, Yacovone argues, is apparent in the present data. As a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, only 8 percent of the roughly thousand high school students the SPLC surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Half of the survey respondents said the war was caused by “tax strife.”
“In Florida, a teacher assured his students that the N-word ‘just means ignorant,’” Yacovone writes. “Minnesota fifth graders, in a lesson plan right out the 1920s, learned that African Americans regretted the end of slavery because ‘the enslavers took care of them and gave them food and clothing.’”
In 2020, the author adds, the New York Times reported that “the medical students and residents in a Duke University survey remained convinced that African Americans have thicker skin and less sensitive nerve-endings — the same vile garbage spewed across the United States by Harvard University’s biologist and ethnologist Louis Agassiz in the nineteenth century.”
James Baldwin wrote in 1965 that history, “as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
No matter how much we want to deny it.