Cover image for Jim Crow's children : the broken promise of the Brown decision
Jim Crow's children : the broken promise of the Brown decision
Irons, Peter H., 1940-
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Publication Information:
New York : Viking, [2002]

Physical Description:
xix, 376 pages ; 24 cm
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KF4155 .I758 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ
KF4155 .I758 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
KF4155 .I758 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court sounded the death knell for school segregation with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. So goes conventional wisdom. In fact, writes Peter Irons, today many of our schools are even more segregated than they were on the day when Brown was decided. In this groundbreaking legal history, Irons explores the 150-year struggle against Jim Crow education, showing how the great victory over segregation was won, then lost again. The author of several award-winning books, Irons ranges from 1849 to the present as he describes a battle that has stretched across most of American history. He skillfully weaves a gripping legal drama out of the stories of brave, now-forgotten men and women, of luminaries such as Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren, and explores the impact of the Brown decision on the communities actually involved in the case. Perceptive, fascinating, and devastating, Jim Crow's Childrenis a major contribution to the national debate over race and its implications for the American educational system.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The famous 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision, outlawing segregation in public schools, was thought to be the turning point in the modern civil rights era. Irons, a political science professor and award-winning author of A People's History of the Supreme Court (1999), takes the reader on an enlightening journey through the preconditions of segregation from slavery through the Civil War on into the so-called Jim Crow era, when the South sought to re-impose its cultural dominance on racial issues. Irons examines the Supreme Court ruling and its cultural context--including jurist personalities and interests leading up to and subsequent to the Brown decision. But he is particularly acute at analyzing the consequences of the decision, including the broken promises of equality of opportunity through education. Since the early 1990s, the Court's ruling has clearly sanctioned re-segregation, allowing for schools where segregation stems from causes beyond legal remedy, such as white flight. In later chapters, Irons notes the interconnection of poverty and race, indicating not only the unfulfilled promises of the Court now but also into the future. Irons brilliantly exposes the gaping divide between our ideals, laws, and social realities. --Vernon Ford

Publisher's Weekly Review

Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that mandated the desegregation of U.S. schools, is popularly seen as a hallmark of American justice. But Irons, author of May It Please the Court: Courts, Kids, and the Constitution and professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, surveys recent U.S. history to reveal a quite different picture: many states have found ways to delay implementation of, or totally evade, the ruling. Further, in response to the often violent battles around school busing and a clear rise of conservatism in the country, Irons argues that in 1991 the court began "judicial burial" of Brown by setting precedents that continued to allow segregated schools. Irons supplies fascinating and vital contexts for his narrative, beginning with examples of how slave literacy was clearly connected to slave revolts and other demands for freedom. He looks in detail at how the politics of nominating Supreme Court justices have affected the ongoing battle for desegregation; he also provides a detailed analysis of how, in 1948, Thurgood Marshall worked to secure legal access for African-Americans to graduate schools in states that bordered the South, then built upon those decisions toward Brown. Gripping stories of internecine Supreme Court battles as well as the "war against the constitution" waged by Southern politicians who defied Brown punctuate this account, which ends with a cogent overview of recent studies indicating the win-win benefits of integration. (Sept. 16) Forecast: With education one of the main political issues of this fall's midterm election, look for this book to garner national reviews and to be brandished on Sunday talk shows. While that might not translate into big sales, the book should spawn think pieces and provoke policy discussion. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

For this work, yet another excellent study by Irons (political science, Univ. of California, San Diego; A People's History of the Supreme Court), the moral is the message in the title. Irons does celebrate the nearly revolutionary work of the Warren Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling of May 17, 1954. However, he also convincingly cautions us that if Brown wrought a revolution, it produced a partial one at best, for now we find ourselves in what he sees as the throes of resegregation. Other recent works have explored the legacy of Brown and its progeny. But Irons, a sage veteran of Supreme Court analysis, including its disappointing rulings concerning Japanese internment during World War II, vividly illustrates the promise of the past and the perils of the present in his cogent commentary concerning a revolution unfulfilled. This engaging, insightful work covers the 150-year struggle to realize the ideal of equality in public education and demonstrates that the struggle continues. Highly recommended.-Stephen K. Shaw, Northwest Nazarene Univ., Nampa, ID (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



"Cut Yer Thumb er Finger Off" "None of us niggers never knowed nothin' 'bout readin' and writin'. Dere warn't no school for niggers den, and I ain't never been to school a day in my life. Niggers was more skeered of newspapers dan dey is of snakes now, and us never knowed what a Bible was dem days." These are the words of Georgia Baker about her life as a slave, growing up on a Georgia plantation before the Civil War. Both the land and her body were owned by Alexander H. Stephens, a planter who became vice-president of the Confederate States of America. Like most black people who were born into slavery, Georgia was illiterate, because it was both illegal and dangerous for a slave to learn how to read and write in the days before Emancipation. Arnold Gragston told of his master in Macon County, Kentucky. "Mr. Tabb was a pretty good man," Arnold said. "He used to beat us, sure; but not nearly so much as others did." When the master suspected that his slaves were learning to read and write, he would call them to the "big house" and grill them. "If we told him we had been learnin' to read," Arnold recounted, "he would near beat the daylights out of us." Sarah Benjamin, who was born on a Louisiana plantation, recalled the fate of fellow slaves whose masters discovered that their "property" had secretly learned to read and write: "If yer learned to write dey would cut yer thumb er finger off." But some slaves took the risk of beatings or amputations. Mandy Jones described the way that slaves in Mississippi would educate themselves. "Dey would dig pits, and kiver the spot wid bushes an' vines," he said. "Way out in de woods, dey was woods den, an' de slaves would slip out of de Quarters at night, an' go to dese pits, an' some niggah dat had some learnin' would have a school." But not all learning took place in "pit schools" in the woods. The children of slave owners sometimes became the teachers of slave children. "De way de cullud folks would learn to read was from de white chillun," Mandy Jones recalled. "De white chilluns thought a heap of de cullud chilluns, an' when dey come out o' school wid deir books in deir han's dey take de cullud chilluns, and slip off somewhere an' learns de cullud chilluns deir lessons, what deir teacher has jes' learned dem." Too much learning, however, could give a slave the tools to escape from bondage. William Johnson told the story of a "smart slave" on his Virginia plantation, a coachman named Joe Sutherland. "Joe always hung around the courthouse with master," William said. "He went on business trips with him, and through this way, Joe learned to read and write unbeknownst to master. In fact, Joe got so good that he learned how to write passes for the slaves. Master's son, Carter Johnson, was clerk of the county court, and by going around the court every day Joe forged the county seal on these passes and several slaves used them to escape to free states." But Joe was betrayed by another slave, William said, "and Joe was put in shackles until he was sold to a man in Mississippi." Helping another slave to escape was a capital offense in the South, and Joe Sutherland was lucky to survive. Freedom finally came for the slaves, first announced by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Only a handful of slaves could read that document, but those who could spread the news to others. Mary Bell talked about her father, Spotswood Rice, who supervised his owner's tobacco plantation in Missouri. "His owner's son taught him to read," Mary recalled, "and dat made his owner so mad, because my father read the emancipation for freedom to de other slaves, and it made dem so happy, dey could not work well, and dey got so no one could manage dem, when dey found out dey were to be freed in such a short time." These stories of former slaves, recorded in the 1930s by interviewers from the Federal Writers' Project, tell in poignant words of the struggle for education of people the Supreme Court described in its Dred Scott decision of 1857 as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race." Perhaps the main reason that blacks were "inferior" to whites, both in the days of slavery and after their emancipation, was that educated blacks were likely to aspire to more than plantation life, an enforced regimen of plowing, planting, weeding, chopping, and picking crops. "They didn't want us to learn nothin'," Annie Perry recalled of her childhood as a slave. "The only thing we had to learn was how to work." The full impact of depriving blacks of education can only be measured against the historical record of slavery and segregation. From the very first importation of blacks into the British colonies, initially as indentured servants but soon as slaves, education of this servile class was both feared and forbidden. The Virginia legislature enacted a law in 1680 that prohibited gatherings of blacks for any reason, punishable by "Twenty Lashes on the Bare Back well laid on," a law designed to keep slaves from holding clandestine schools as well as meeting to plot rebellion against their masters. In 1695, Maryland imposed a fine of one thousand pounds of tobacco on teachers who instructed blacks. As time passed, other states followed suit. South Carolina made it a crime in 1740 for anyone "who shall hereafter teach, or cause any Slave or Slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any Slave as a Scribe in any manner of writing, whatsoever." The legal bans on teaching slaves to read and write did not completely prevent all blacks from becoming literate, at least at a basic level. Some masters found it advantageous to have a few slaves who could read instructions and keep records of production. On many plantations, trusted and favored slaves acted as overseers of "field slaves" and needed to keep records of who worked, became ill, or was injured. One former slave recalled that his master had a "special slave" who could "read and write and figger." Other masters believed in converting their slaves to Christianity, and felt that teaching them to read the Bible would not only save their souls but make them more amenable to their state. Christian missionaries sent teachers among the slaves, particularly in cities like Charleston, South Carolina, with support from their owners. And as Mandy Jones recalled of his early life in slavery, white children on plantations often taught the black children of "house slaves" to read and write as they did their lessons. The successful revolution against British rule, and the adoption of the Constitution by the newly independent states, did nothing to alter the system of slavery. The "Great Compromise" that kept the slave states from bolting the Constitutional Convention included three provisions in the final charter that explicitly recognized the lawfulness of slavery: the clause that counted slaves as "three fifths" of a person in apportioning House seats; the "fugitive slave" clause that required northern states to return escaped slaves to their masters; and the clause that prohibited Congress from banning the further importation of slaves before 1808. But the winds of freedom and independence that blew across the new nation stirred the yearnings of some slaves for their own freedom from bondage. And the most powerful tool they could use to unlock or break their shackles was literacy; slaves who could read and write could also reach other literate slaves with letters and pamphlets. Frederick Douglass, born on a Maryland plantation in 1817, was separated from his slave mother as an infant and sent by his owner at the age of eight to live in Baltimore as a house servant with the family of Hugh Auld, whose wife defied state law by teaching her young servant to read. When Auld learned of this schooling, he snatched books and newspapers from the boy's hands and ordered his wife to end the lessons. But Frederick snuck from his master's house whenever he could and enlisted white children in the neighborhood to continue his education. After one attempt to escape from slavery was foiled, Douglass finally put on a sailor's uniform and fled from Maryland to New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-one. After his escape from slavery, Douglass spread his knowledge to other blacks, teaching them in Sunday schools, despite the hostility of whites who broke up his classes with rocks and clubs. But he wielded his pen as a powerful weapon against slavery, becoming the most articulate and influential black abolitionist, speaking widely and publishing his own crusading newspaper, the North Star, from 1847 to 1860. "He who has endured the pangs of slavery," Douglass wrote in the first issue of his paper, "is the man to advocate liberty," which he did with words that other literate slaves read in secret, from smuggled newspapers and pamphlets. What many slave owners feared even more than their "property" following the North Star to freedom was the greater danger of slave revolt and insurrection, which might take the lives of their wives and children. The connection between literacy and slave uprisings was not an imaginary one. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, who organized slave revolts that failed but that terrified many whites, were both literate; after Turner's bloody rebellion was crushed in 1831, black children were expelled from the white Sunday schools in Washington, D.C., where many had been taught to read the Bible. One prominent defender of slavery asked in 1855: "Is there any great moral reason why we should incur the tremendous risk of having our wives and children slaughtered in consequence of our slaves being taught to read incendiary publications?" Before the Civil War began, the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee were the only slave states that did not prohibit the teaching of slaves. Opposition to educating blacks was not limited to the South. In 1831, Prudence Crandall, a white Quaker, admitted Sarah Harris, the daughter of a respected black farmer, to her school in Canterbury, Connecticut. Led by a local politician, Andrew Judson, who later served as a federal judge, townspeople objected loudly and passed a resolution that educating black girls would damage "the persons, property, and reputations of our citizens." Judson voiced the sentiments of many northern whites: "The colored people can never rise from their menial condition in our country; they ought not to be permitted to rise here. They are an inferior race of beings, and never can or ought to be recognized as the equals of the whites." Fueled by Judson's rhetoric, Canterbury's white residents refused to trade with Miss Crandall, threw filth into her well, hurled rocks and rotten eggs at her home, and set fire to her schoolhouse. None of these attacks eroded her determination to keep her school open, and she admitted more black girls. The Connecticut legislature then passed an act making it illegal to teach blacks and whites in the same school, and a defiant Prudence Crandall was arrested, convicted, and jailed, although the state supreme court later quashed her indictment and she returned to her school. Finally, a mob attacked the schoolhouse with iron bars and virtually wrecked the building. Miss Crandall decided not to risk her students' lives and reluctantly closed her school in 1834. The next year, after the Noyes Academy in New Hampshire opened its doors to black students, "a mob of several hundred men and nearly a hundred yoke of oxen dragged the seminary to a swamp, left it there in ruins, and drove the teacher from town." Also in 1835, white mobs attacked the black schools in Washington, D.C., destroyed several buildings, threatened the white teachers, and ransacked the homes of black students. One of the white teachers, Miss Miner, asked a mob member, "What good will it do to destroy my school-room? I shall only get another and go right on." She continued teaching black children until the eve of the Civil War in 1860, when another mob burned her school to the ground. The Civil War ended the legal institution of slavery, at the cost of six hundred thousand lives, most of them young men who fought neither to abolish nor defend slavery but simply to survive the carnage of the bloodiest war in American history. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, three years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, conferred state and national citizenship on the former slaves and promised a federal guarantee of "the equal protection of the laws." Firmly in the control of "Radical Republicans" whose Reconstruction policy imposed a military government on the former Confederacy, Congress granted the franchise to the former slaves, who flocked to the ballot boxes and elected delegates to conventions that rewrote the constitutions of the southern states. Several of these constitutions provided for systems of free public education, and black children began attending school in large numbers. In Mississippi, for example, the legislature-controlled by black members and their white Republican allies-established a school system in 1870 that enrolled 127,000 black children the following year, 39 percent of the school-age black population. Even under Reconstruction and black rule, Mississippi's public schools were segregated, because white parents refused to pay taxes for integrated schools. Close to a century passed before the first black child in Mississippi attended school with whites. The South Carolina constitution, written by black legislators, required that all schools be racially mixed, and black and white children attended classes together in many communities. The state also established an integrated teachers college, which trained many black teachers. Other southern states, however, experienced serious problems with public education, largely because many white voters refused to pay taxes to support black education. Even in states that funded black schools, the lack of qualified black teachers made it difficult to maintain academic standards. Continue... Excerpted from Jim Crow's Children by Peter Irons Copyright © 2002 by Peter Irons Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

preface ""Where Are the Buttonwood Kids?""p. ix
chapter 1 ""Cut Yer Thumb er Finger Off""p. 1
chapter 2 ""Forcibly Ejected from Said Coach""p. 24
chapter 3 ""We Got a Good Bunch of Nigras Here""p. 43
chapter 4 ""Give Me the Colored Doll""p. 62
chapter 5 ""We Are Tired of Tar Paper Shacks""p. 80
chapter 6 ""I Thanked God Right Then and There""p. 95
chapter 7 ""Study Hard and Accept the Status Quo""p. 118
chapter 8 ""We Only Took a Little Liberty""p. 133
chapter 9 ""We Cannot Turn the Clock Back""p. 156
chapter 10 ""War Against the Constitu