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TC's Gordon Lecture: Siddle Walker Shares Lessons from Segregation-Era Schooling

Leaders of black schools in the segregation-era American South faceddaunting odds. They operated in a system that, at best, deprived them of basic resources and, at worst, was set up to produce students conditioned to occupy a place at the bottom of society. Yet southern black schools prepared generations of students who would eventually win the battle for civil rights – and black educators created a professional community that would be the envy of many districts today.

“What I want to consider,” said Vanessa Siddle Walker, Emory University’s Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Educational Studies, “is whether we can loop it back and see whether or not there’s anything about their story that will allow us to ask new questions in our own context.”

Delivering TC’s second annual Edmund Gordon Lecture this past fall in the College’s Milbank Chapel, Siddle Walker repeatedly answered her own question in the affirmative.

Leaders of southern black schools “never worked in isolation,” she said, but instead created “sophisticated mechanisms for the exchange of ideas” that reinforced their already strong focus on “what was happening pedagogically, what was happening in Washington and what was happening in the world.” These “mechanisms” included alternatives to the Southern Association, the accredited teaching body in the South, and the National Education Association, both of which denied acceptance to blacks. In Georgia alone, black professional organizations held annual regional meetings, local study groups, and principals’ conferences, and they published a professional journal, as well.

Black educators in the South made particularly effective use of civics curricula to increase students’ awareness of what the government was not doing for black citizens. Students voted in mock elections, headed pretend political parties and took educational trips to Washington, D.C., all organized by teachers who were not allowed to vote.

“Curriculum for African American educators [during segregation] is a form of resistance,” Siddle Walker said. “They are attempting to build resilience in these children, and curriculum is a way to do it. They cannot let the superintendent come in and catch them saying, “Y’all need to start a revolution.’ They would lose their jobs immediately. So they craft curriculum to get at their own ends. They incorporate the language of the wider society but appropriate its purposes.”

The results could be dramatic indeed. For example, in a 1942 commencement address, Charles Harper, Principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Georgia, that city’s first public high school, told graduates, “You are to reorganize the world. You must not hate. If other people hate you must respond with love.” At least one student – ninth grader Martin Luther King Jr. -- took those words to heart. “The assumption that Martin Luther King learned everything he learned at Boston University from Gandhi is a little bit problematic,” Siddle Walker joked. “They were communing with Gandhi, but he had first learned it in another place.”

Siddle Walker, who has spent her career studying the South’s segregated school system, “is a focused and committed scholar who never wavers from her mission to tell us the untold stories,” said Professor of Sociology and Education Amy Stuart Wells in her introduction.  Referring to the black educators whose work Siddle Walker has memorialized, Wells said, “Because these voices were not heard the first time, I suggest we listen very carefully tonight."


One voice that Siddle Walker has worked hard to amplify is that of the late Teachers College alumnus Ulysses Byas, the subject of her book, Hello Professor: A Black Principal and Professional Leadership in the Segregated South (UNC Press).

During her talk, Siddle Walker described the adept maneuverings employed by Byas (M.A. ’52) during his tenure as principal of all-black Fair Street High School in Gainesville, Georgia, during the 1950s.  A former journeyman carpenter and Navy cook who would eventually serve as superintendent of the Macon County, Alabama, and Roosevelt, New York, school systems,  Byas persuaded his the Gainesville superintendent to  undertake a curricular survey and release the results to the public. When the local paper published findings that reflected the stark conditions at Fair Street High, the superintendent was compelled to spend money on improving the school.

Siddle Walker traced the provenance of this “trickster motif” back to something much broader than the realpolitik of the U.S. school system. ”Byas is in effect an oral artist,” she said. “In West African culture you will see examples of that — changing words to fit particular situations or circumstances that fit a community. Embedded in all this is what we call now self-efficacious behavior. The belief that they were actually able to move themselves and their children beyond what anybody expected.”

For Siddle Walker, educators like Byas must not fade to become mere historical footnotes. “If just this little bit I’ve told you about them can allow a few people to think, ‘Is there unharnessed power in my own school setting? How can I exploit it – without getting fired – for the good of my children?’, then my time at TC will have been well spent.”

Published Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015

TC's Gordon Lecture: Siddle Walker Shares Lessons from Segregation-Era Schooling

Leaders of black schools in the segregation-era American South faceddaunting odds. They operated in a system that, at best, deprived them of basic resources and, at worst, was set up to produce students conditioned to occupy a place at the bottom of society. Yet southern black schools prepared generations of students who would eventually win the battle for civil rights – and black educators created a professional community that would be the envy of many districts today.

“What I want to consider,” said Vanessa Siddle Walker, Emory University’s Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Educational Studies, “is whether we can loop it back and see whether or not there’s anything about their story that will allow us to ask new questions in our own context.”

Delivering TC’s second annual Edmund Gordon Lecture this past fall in the College’s Milbank Chapel, Siddle Walker repeatedly answered her own question in the affirmative.

Leaders of southern black schools “never worked in isolation,” she said, but instead created “sophisticated mechanisms for the exchange of ideas” that reinforced their already strong focus on “what was happening pedagogically, what was happening in Washington and what was happening in the world.” These “mechanisms” included alternatives to the Southern Association, the accredited teaching body in the South, and the National Education Association, both of which denied acceptance to blacks. In Georgia alone, black professional organizations held annual regional meetings, local study groups, and principals’ conferences, and they published a professional journal, as well.

Black educators in the South made particularly effective use of civics curricula to increase students’ awareness of what the government was not doing for black citizens. Students voted in mock elections, headed pretend political parties and took educational trips to Washington, D.C., all organized by teachers who were not allowed to vote.

“Curriculum for African American educators [during segregation] is a form of resistance,” Siddle Walker said. “They are attempting to build resilience in these children, and curriculum is a way to do it. They cannot let the superintendent come in and catch them saying, “Y’all need to start a revolution.’ They would lose their jobs immediately. So they craft curriculum to get at their own ends. They incorporate the language of the wider society but appropriate its purposes.”

The results could be dramatic indeed. For example, in a 1942 commencement address, Charles Harper, Principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Georgia, that city’s first public high school, told graduates, “You are to reorganize the world. You must not hate. If other people hate you must respond with love.” At least one student – ninth grader Martin Luther King Jr. -- took those words to heart. “The assumption that Martin Luther King learned everything he learned at Boston University from Gandhi is a little bit problematic,” Siddle Walker joked. “They were communing with Gandhi, but he had first learned it in another place.”

Siddle Walker, who has spent her career studying the South’s segregated school system, “is a focused and committed scholar who never wavers from her mission to tell us the untold stories,” said Professor of Sociology and Education Amy Stuart Wells in her introduction.  Referring to the black educators whose work Siddle Walker has memorialized, Wells said, “Because these voices were not heard the first time, I suggest we listen very carefully tonight."


One voice that Siddle Walker has worked hard to amplify is that of the late Teachers College alumnus Ulysses Byas, the subject of her book, Hello Professor: A Black Principal and Professional Leadership in the Segregated South (UNC Press).

During her talk, Siddle Walker described the adept maneuverings employed by Byas (M.A. ’52) during his tenure as principal of all-black Fair Street High School in Gainesville, Georgia, during the 1950s.  A former journeyman carpenter and Navy cook who would eventually serve as superintendent of the Macon County, Alabama, and Roosevelt, New York, school systems,  Byas persuaded his the Gainesville superintendent to  undertake a curricular survey and release the results to the public. When the local paper published findings that reflected the stark conditions at Fair Street High, the superintendent was compelled to spend money on improving the school.

Siddle Walker traced the provenance of this “trickster motif” back to something much broader than the realpolitik of the U.S. school system. ”Byas is in effect an oral artist,” she said. “In West African culture you will see examples of that — changing words to fit particular situations or circumstances that fit a community. Embedded in all this is what we call now self-efficacious behavior. The belief that they were actually able to move themselves and their children beyond what anybody expected.”

For Siddle Walker, educators like Byas must not fade to become mere historical footnotes. “If just this little bit I’ve told you about them can allow a few people to think, ‘Is there unharnessed power in my own school setting? How can I exploit it – without getting fired – for the good of my children?’, then my time at TC will have been well spent.”

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