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Author interview: 'Jim Crow's Pink Slip'

MILES PARKS, HOST:

It's no secret that K-12 education in the U.S. has become a culture war battleground, with race often at the core. We're talking about everything from false allegations that critical race theory is being taught to small children to questions about police presence in schools. But what many people might not know is that the question of who gets to teach and lead in schools has also been at the heart of fierce battles in U.S. education. And here again, race is at the center.

That's the argument in a new book called "Jim Crow's Pink Slip: The Untold Story Of Black Principal And Teacher Leadership." In it, author Leslie Fenwick argues that the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation in American schools also led to the dismissal or demotion of tens of thousands of teachers and principals, not because they weren't qualified, but to avoid white students being taught or led by Black educators. She also argues that has led to untold consequences, a massive brain drain to the educational system and hostile school environments for Black students. Our colleague Michel Martin spoke with Fenwick about the book, and Fenwick, who is herself an educator and spent years as the dean of Howard University's School of Education, explained why she chose to write this book.

LESLIE FENWICK: We talk a lot about educator diversity and the underrepresentation of Blacks and other people of color in the teaching force. You know, about 7% of the nation's 3.2 million teachers are Black. About 11% of the 93,000 principals are Black. And less than 3% of the nation's 14,000 superintendents are Black. But we've never talked about the history about why this is so. And one of the things I was trying to do in the book was push against the myth that after Brown and desegregation, that Blacks pursued careers en masse in other fields outside of education. Well, the historical record shows that the Black educator pipeline was purposely decimated after Brown.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This is so fascinating because one of the things you point out in your book is that there are these facts, but then there's this mythology that has built up around it, which is the opposite of what the facts indicate. I mean, one of the things you say is that there's mythology that, well, after Brown, all these Black educators just decided to do something else, you know, make more money in other fields. And you're saying that that is the opposite of what actually occurred, that these people intentionally wanted to teach in these schools and were basically pushed out. And you pointed out, of course, you know, it's not just the kind of loss of academic - loss of professional standing, but that that then forced Black children to be in classrooms with people who, in many cases, did not want them there because this is all occurring in the context of forced desegregation, right?

You quote this Time magazine article published in 1965, which just - you quote an article about the findings, quoting then-U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel, who said, we must not deceive ourselves that the exclusion of Negroes is not noticed by children. What can they assume but that the Negroes are not deemed by the community as worthy of a place in mixed classrooms? What can the white child assume but that he is somehow special and exclusive? How can the world of democracy have meaning to such children? Talk more about that, particularly your concern about the educational environment that was then left for Black students.

FENWICK: The integrating previously all-white schools now have more students in those schools, and there's a need for more principals and teachers. But with Black educators locked out of that equation, now we see the proliferation. We actually see the roots of the Black male educator crisis during this time period of white resistance to Brown. The majority of principals prior to Brown and directly after Brown were male. And so we begin to see the origins of the Black male educator crisis. After Brown, they're being pushed out of schools. And so, you know, there's a need to increase the number of principals and teachers to teach in these schools that have burgeoning student populations and emergency certification, the ability to become a teacher without credentials. We see all these loopholes being created to get a warm body in front of students rather than to hire Black principals and teachers.

And so not only are Black educators at the time affected by being fired, demoted and dismissed, they also lose economic power because they're not hired into the newly integrated system. This then means that the newly integrated system has been orchestrated to be a white space, a white controlled space where the levers of leadership, the levers of teaching, the levers of what the curriculum will include, the levels of funding are primarily controlled - almost exclusively controlled by white hands. And so students, what they experience then and now is a curriculum that is almost exclusively white in authorship, in imagery and content.

MARTIN: So I'm sure that some people will be listening to this conversation - first, they'll have a hard time believing it. They'll have a hard time believing it, and they will have a hard time seeing a connection to the current - you know, current concerns in American education. So for people who feel that way, you know, what would you say? To people who would say, well, that's all in the past, you know, that was a long time ago, you know, why do we need to talk about this now? - what would you say?

FENWICK: I would say that we're still living with this history. This history is not dead. And it inflicted traumas that we still feel today - the trauma of the damage done to the public school system because of the loss of this high-caliber principal and teacher workforce that was more credentialed than the educators who replaced them, the trauma of the near total, you know, disintegration of Black authority in every area of public education, you know, the - there was economic trauma as well - you know, the loss of 100,000 black principals and teachers and the transfer of about $2.2 billion worth of income in today's money. And probably the - not probably, but the most severe trauma, which was the trauma inflicted to Black students who were now in schools that were hostile to their intellectual and social development. So these are, you know, hostilities and traumas that we still live with. They still have, unfortunately, breadth and reach.

Now, I do think that there's a way out, and the way out is threefold. One, let's acknowledge this history and begin to frame the efforts to diversify the nation's educator workforce, you know, mindful of this history. The second way out is to better fund those institutions that have been strong engines for the production of teachers of color. And third, I think we need to message what continues to show up in polls of American parents with school-age children, and that is that they value a diverse teaching force, that they believe in an integrated school system. And I don't think that that message is heard enough, that American parents of school-age children value integrated schools, and they believe in a diverse educator workforce.

MARTIN: That is Leslie T. Fenwick. She's dean emerita of the Howard University School of Education. Her new book, "Jim Crow's Pink Slip: The Untold Story Of Black Principal And Teacher Leadership," is out now. Dean Fenwick, it's a very riveting and disturbing story. Thank you so much for telling it to us.

FENWICK: Thank you. Thank you for making time. It's a delight to be with you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.