From Segregation to Black Independent Schools

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In part three, Noliwe Rooks says after African Americans were faced with nationwide resistance to integration, groups like the Black Panthers created successful models for black education

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Brown v. Board of Education was obviously a watershed for public education in America. The idea of integration seems so foreign to many people today. It seems like a pipe dream. But many scholars like yourself argue social and economic and racial integration is the best way to lift up all students. Now, can you talk about that, because that was what many people fought for at the time.

NOLIWE ROOKS: So what I would say is it’s the only thing that has worked systemically. Racial and economic integration works because it distributes resources, it keeps the wealthy from hoarding all of the resources for themselves. Everything else that we’ve tried short of that, save a couple of years where we had Black independent schools that were in a lot of urban areas making great strides in the ’70s, late ’60s through the late ’70s, save that. If you’re talking about poor people in concentrated poverty, the thing that has narrowed achievement gaps, raised test scores, sent literacy rates through the roof is integration.

There’s a whole downside to it at the same time. But if what you’re saying is we want to we want to base educational policy, educational thinking on large-scale projects that we can prove bear some results then yes, racial and economic integration do the trick. It is and remains and has always been the site also of great trauma and tension and friction. Just saying that it’s so, just saying that it’s right, just saying that it’s true has never led the country at large to accept it. One of the largest social justice marches we’ve ever had was actually in New York State, New York City, where 460,000 people–that is just a stunning number–460,000 people took to the streets to demand desegregation in New York City public schools.

This is right after Brown. This is like 1958 and it’s led by Ella Baker, who Kenneth Clarke who was very much a part of the Brown v. Board decision, Ella Baker who’s like a figure that you know from SNCC in the South. They’re in New York City and talking about northern schools and let’s desegregate northern schools which are still some of the most segregated in the country. The fight to segregate, to integrate schools has been long running and is really, is one of the longest most bloody histories, most violent histories that you can tell from post reconstruction through to today.

JAISAL NOOR: And you talk about successful models in the Black community. Ericka Huggins in Oakland, the Black Panther Community School. Talk about what it was and how it worked and the efforts to sort of replicate some of the successes elsewhere.

NOLIWE ROOKS: So by 1968, Black, Latino, Native American parents were clear that public schools were just not going to be their savior. Following Nixon’s election where there’s a whole story about him trying to be the most white-supremacist president ever, there’s a whole story about that. However, what becomes clear following his election, the deal that he basically makes is what we’re going to do is let all the white people who have moved to the suburbs–and by then you have a mass out-migration of whites to the suburbs–let’s let them have their schools. And they are in no way interested in having large numbers of poor folks, the Black folks, Latino folks coming out to the suburbs to their schools. Their tax dollars, their schools, is really what they’re thinking.

And Nixon, they get this president who comes along and is sort of like, okay, vote for me and I will make sure that this busing thing that y’all don’t like, I’ll figure it out.

JAISAL NOOR: He was trying to outflank the right in his own party.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Because he had George Wallace, who had sprung to fame in the late ’60s or the late ’50s proclaiming segregation now, segregation in the past, segregation forever, standing in the University of Alabama schoolhouse door literally putting his body between the young Black men trying to integrate the school as the Supreme Court had said. So he had all kinds of white-supremacist credibility. We know if he says he’s for school segregation, we know the lengths that he’s willing to go to.

Nixon has to figure out, how do I win when this guy is really ginning up a whole lot of enthusiasm, because he’s out front and saying I believe people should be separate? Which again is a part of a Northern story that we don’t talk about very often, like how horrid northern whites fought for segregation. We tend to sort of demonize the South and have it be like, that’s those people in the deep South, the slave-holding states, they were just terrible. But then you start to look at the northern stories where people will tell you Chicago was the most segregated … Martin Luther King said he had never faced racism, you know, Cicero Illinois, for him, where he got stabbed was not in the South. He got stabbed in Illinois. He said these are the most racist white people I’ve ever come across.

Nixon starts passing bills left and right, Joe Biden, our former vice president, sponsors a bill saying it is now illegal to use federal dollars to buy gas for buses if you’re going to use those buses to integrate the sub suburban schools or to bus white kids to the urban area or whatever. If there is any kind of desegregation plans, no buses for you, no gas for you. And Nixon goes along with it.

So at this point, parents who are left in urban areas, who were Black and Latino and Native American are kind of like somebody’s got to educate these kids. It is not clear to us that these urban schools are going to do it at this point, there’s no money, there’s financial crisis, every time there’s a crisis, what do you do, you suck all the money out of school systems, tends to be what legislatures look at first. The schools are in horrible shape, falling apart, nobody’s getting educated. There’s fights, there’s disorder.

So they start their own schools. And almost every successful story that you have and there were almost 450 of these Black independent schools, just the Black independent schools. About 450 of them almost all of them start with: I had to educate my kids. Like I couldn’t let my kid go to these schools, so then I figured well why not start a school.

And so Ericka Huggins is a part of the Black Panthers. Starts the community school, we usually call it the Panther School is what it’s kind of known as, but it was literally called East Oakland Community School. And she was so far ahead of her time. She’s still working in education, she still consults. The school that she put together, she was 23, a young mother. She starts a school, education is important, now we’re going to need you to educate the youth, go.

Some of the qualities or some of the curriculum and just structure of it was stunning. Things like meditation, when you had kids who were having a hard time concentrating, maybe acting out, all the students did yoga, all of the students meditated for some period of the day because she said that will help settle their spirits in a way and make it possible for them to actually engage with school. She had a whole restorative justice practices so that one of the things instead of having the principal of the school or adults decide if there were infractions what should happen, there was a council of their peers, council of students in the school who would talk to them and decide what should happen.

The groupings were by ability and not by age so there was none of this, “let’s just move them along,” or not overly focused on what you should know at a certain point, focused on what do you know and you’re in with other people who know that regardless of age. These are all things that people are advocating, even today, and these are qualities that she will find in some of the highest performing schools. And Ericka Huggins’ school got commendations regularly from the Oakland school board for being able to educate kids who public schools consistently said they couldn’t educate, that they had to be kicked out, they had be put in lower performing classes.

JAISAL NOOR: They had smaller class sizes.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Small class sizes.

JAISAL NOOR: And you wrote how they were taught how to think instead of what to think.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Exactly. They weren’t tested, they weren’t drilled but they were asked to engage questions in a Socratic method as young as five, six, seven years old. What they got out of what education was that it was like a journey, it was an adventure and that you brought yourself to it and that it was something that happened in collaboration. And she fed the kids and there were doctors, I mean, all of the kids got breakfast and lunch and a snack …

JAISAL NOOR: As part of the broader Black Panther program.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Yes. But the schools yes. If you were in the school you got which is what actually the free lunch program Nixon ended up stealing, he borrowed it, because he was like, boy, these Panthers are making a lot of headway because they’re feeding the kids. One of the things that I can do to fight that is if I feed the kids. You know, then the Panthers won’t be quite so popular. They were all at the time innovative schooling practices that did very well. And across the country, from her, Marva Collins had a different kind of perspective and philosophy. But the same thing which she said is she wanted the kids who came from the most dysfunctional backgrounds, who had the least support, who needed help the most, that’s who she privileged, that’s who she asked for. That’s not who she would try to figure out how to kick out. She asked for the kids that were struggling the most.

She performed it at such a high level we had two presidents who offered her the position of secretary of education because what she was doing in Chicago was so stunning, they were like, “Come here, come do it for everyone,” which she consistently said no.

JAISAL NOOR: She was able to tale to take it to scale in Chicago as well.

NOLIWE ROOKS: It required her presence, however. She was never really able to figure out how to have other people other than her kids do it. But, if you were at Northside Prep or Westside Prep, she was so successful that the private schools in Chicago made agreements with her that anybody, any eighth grader you send us, it only went to eighth grade, so you went somewhere else for high school. Any eighth grader you send us and you tell us can do the work, we will give a full scholarship to, no questions asked. Because she had such a reputation for …

Ivy Leaf Academy again, there was 450 of them out in Philadelphia, it was called Ivy Leaf Academy that had similar results. The thing for all of them is they decided what was successful based on college graduation. They all said, we know we have succeeded, not when you pass the test, not if you graduate high school, not if you make it, get promoted to the next whatever, we stay in touch with you and when you graduate college — because when you graduate college that makes it possible for you to change the trajectory of the generations behind you. And that’s what we think of as the importance of education, and that’s when we know we’ve succeeded when we made it possible for you to make that kind of generational innovation. And it worked. And it worked.

The idea that you just can’t educate kids to the highest levels without kind of restrictive, restricting behavior and having only certain kinds of kids, we know it’s not true. These are not people, these are not figures that are central when we talk about education and when we study the history of education and in ed schools when they’re teaching you how to teach and who the master teachers are, these are not name names that come up very often.

JAISAL NOOR: Which is part of why I think that this book you’ve written is so important because it gives this alternative history of education