Charleston City Paper: Rachel Devlin's new book recounts the unsung heroes of school desegregation
Charleston City Paper
by Vincent Harris
Many of the historical facts we once considered set in stone have eroded over time. The idea that Columbus discovered America, for example, or that the Civil War was fought entirely because of slavery. Time and further investigation have revealed both of those concepts to be gross oversimplifications, even if there is a kernel of truth in them.
In her new book, A Girl Stands At The Door: The Generation Of Young Women Who Desegregated America's Schools, author, professor, and historian Rachel Devlin takes on another oversimplification: The idea that the legal arm of the NAACP, led by brilliant attorney (and future Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, took on the separate-but-equal laws that segregated the nation's schools and took them down when the Court declared them unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board Of Education case. And that case is, no doubt, the most significant blow landed against school segregation in civil rights history.
But there's a forgotten chapter of history leading up to that 1954 court case; beginning in the 1940s, African-American families all over the South and the Midwest began filing lawsuits against individual segregated schools, fighting to have their children admitted. And it was these lawsuits, which were most often filed by and for black female students of elementary, junior high, or high school age, which ultimately moved Marshall and the NAACP to act. These are the groundbreaking moments chronicled in A Girl Stands At The Door.
"There were two different kinds of lawsuits," Devlin says. "Equalization lawsuits and school desegregation lawsuits. There were about a dozen of them filed between 1947 and 1949, in a range of states from Kansas to Texas to Louisiana and Washington D.C., and all of them were filed on behalf of young women of junior high school or high school ages. So, they required the full participation of the young women."
In fact, in order to have grounds to file these suits in the first place, these young girls, accompanied by their parents, would often have to physically attempt to enter the schools and be barred from doing so, a process Devlin describes in vivid detail.
"It was a very radical thing these young girls were doing," she says. "Huge crowds would gather when they would approach the schools. The white students would press up against the windows, and often, the black community got word that a black child was going to walk into a white school, so they would come watch. They'd be assembled on the opposite side of the street, and there would be this very dramatic moment when the parents and their daughter would walk up the steps of this white school. Usually the principal would've gotten word that they were coming, and he would meet them at the steps and bar the schoolhouse door and not let them in."
What's perhaps most frightening is the fact that the children were often forced to act as adults in these situations, often putting themselves in physical danger.
"These girls were expected to speak to these very angry school principals and announce that they did want to go to that school," Devlin says. "These moments happened over and over again, and then after they were turned away, their parents would file these school desegregation lawsuits."
One of the most nagging questions when one hears these stories is how we knew so little about these incidents before now. Devlin theorizes that these parents and young girls were forgotten by history because the author of what was considered the definitive work on the end of the segregation era, called Simple Justice, wasn't aware of the lawsuits when he wrote the book in 1975.
"In 1975, I don't think the papers of the NAACP were organized at the Library Of Congress," says Devlin, "I had access to NAACP files that I don't think (author) Richard Kluger had access to. It's a very important book, but he started by looking at the cases that went to the Supreme Court, and those cases didn't start til 1949 at the earliest. And he assumed when he wrote the book that it was the NAACP lawyers themselves that went looking for these lawsuits. But if you go back you find that these cases were happening all over, and these lawyers were responding to what was happening on the ground."
Devlin will be taking part in a discussion about school integration at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston on Sunday along with Pamela Grundy, author of Color & Character: West Charlotte High & The American Struggle Over Education Equality, and another guest who can tell people exactly what it was like on the ground because she was there: Dr. Millicent Brown, one of the interviewees for Devlin's book.
"Millicent Brown was one of the plaintiffs in a case to desegregate the schools in Charleston," Devlin says. "And she was sent in to speak to the school board all by herself when she was 12. They wanted to know why she wanted to go to a white school. And she did a fantastic job. She was one of seven young women and several young men who desegregated the schools in Charleston, and she's going to speak about her experiences."
The experiences recounted in the 30 interviews Devlin did for A Girl At The Door are harrowing.
"These interviews were among the most astonishing and humbling experiences I've been through in my life," she says. "What these women faced, the physical danger, the hatred, the harassment that was orchestrated by students and teachers, it was like a war. It was like interviewing veterans. They described how they survived, they talked about what it was like having an entire school organized against their presence, and how they made sense of it later in their lives and the sacrifice they made for this country. It's going to be the best part of the event hearing Millicent talk about all of that."