New York Times Book Review: Who Desegregated America’s Schools? Black Women
Who Desegregated America’s Schools? Black Women
by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant
April 13, 1947, holds little significance in the American historical memory, and yet that day was one in a long series that led to the legal desegregation of American schools. On that morning, Marguerite Daisy Carr, a 14-year-old black girl from Washington, D.C., attempted to enroll at Eliot Junior High School, the all-white middle school closest to her home. Carr’s efforts to integrate the school, which were supported by her family and local black community, preceded the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education by seven years.
Recognizing the young black girls and women who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement is the central achievement of Rachel Devlin’s meticulously researched history, “A Girl Stands at the Door.” Devlin’s interest in the role such women played in the struggle for desegregation leads her briefly back to 1850, to Sarah Roberts, a 5-year-old African-American who lived closer to several white schools than to the one designated for black students, and who became a plaintiff in the country’s first school desegregation case: Roberts v. City of Boston. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Boston, which resisted the desegregation effort on the grounds that adequate provisions had been made for black students in the form of separate schools. Roberts’s case was later cited to support the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, but it also shed public light on the underfunding and inadequate conditions prevalent in black schools — conditions that endured, virtually unchanged, for another 120 years. Devlin’s account is necessarily situated largely in the 20th century and includes the stories of Ruby Bridges and Melba Pattillo Beals (one of the “Little Rock Nine”), among many others; she reveals the creative tactics these young people used — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to integrate public schools, a battle in which black girls outnumbered black boys as plaintiffs two to one.
Devlin, a historian at Rutgers, cites Carr’s case as one of the first of nearly a dozen that went to court before the N.A.A.C.P. resolved to tackle the contentious matter of school desegregation. The successful class-action suit the group eventually filed featured 13 mothers and 1 father, acting on behalf of their children, and the question Devlin stresses is Why so many girls? Her answer, while somewhat unsatisfactory, is also revelatory: Like the young black American men who were inspired to serve in World War II, young black women experienced their own “call to arms” — an ethical obligation to participate in the struggle for integration. They maintained this sense of mission even when their families, aware of the verbal and physical abuse to which they were frequently subjected, encouraged them to give up their educational pursuits.
As Devlin wrestles with the question “Why girls?,” she offers readers a pill that is difficult to swallow. She detects “a strong, though unstated cultural assumption that the war to end school desegregation was a girls’ war, a battle for which young women and girls were especially suited.” Yet black girls were not obliged to serve because desegregation was considered feminine work. Rather, black girls’ familiarity with domestic servitude and the most intimate forms of racism gave them an uncanny, collective ability to cope with white violence; many endured harassment and worse with extraordinary deference and self-control.
Devlin reminds us that the task of publicly and constitutionally challenging racial discrimination in education was laid on the bodies of black girls. This is a reality with which America has yet to reckon. Sixty-four years after Brown v. Board, the promise of that decision, and of integration more generally, remains unfulfilled. “A Girl Stands at the Door” tells an important story about young black women who ushered in a movement. Just as black women “set the world on fire” — to quote the historian Keisha N. Blain — in global freedom struggles, young black girls took it upon themselves to stand up when others would not.
LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is an associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College.