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A Long Struggle for Justice

In the Harvard EdCast, Vanessa Siddle Walker uncovers the lost history of black educators — and the compromised promise of desegregation.
Vanessa Siddle Walker

Eighteen years ago, Vanessa Siddle Walker, Ed.M.’85, Ed.D.’88, professor of African American Educational Studies at Emory University, was given the key to unlock a little-known history: the history of black educators’ struggle for educational justice in the era of desegregation. 

After spending the bulk of her career researching the history of segregation in America, Walker found out that there was a lot more to tell about school integration efforts, especially around the question of why schools are more segregated today than 50 years ago. The story begins with a man many of us are not familiar with, a Civil Rights–era educator named Horace Tate. 

Tate, who started his career as a teacher and principal in the 1940s, went on to become head of the Georgia Association of Educators and, in the 1970s and 1980s, a member of the Georgia State Senate. He is the subject of Walker’s latest book, The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools. “He’s an exemplar, if you will, of what we left behind,” Walker says. She explores Tate’s contributions, as well as the many unknown black educators who advocated for their students in the years before and after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Before Tate’s death, he welcomed Walker into his massive personal archive, giving her access to decades of records that, in many cases, had otherwise been destroyed or forgotten following desegregation. 

Walker describes black educators as being “full of hope” about desegregation, thinking that black children would finally be given the same access to educational opportunities as white children. But, as Walker points out, “in real time, that’s not what happened.” As she worked through Tate's archive, she pieced together how many black educators —Tate included — came to foresee what she calls a “desegregation compromise,” which ultimately played out right before their eyes. 
Black educators were forced to give up their schools and their advocacy networks. What they got in exchange is access, but never full access, Walker says. “Many [schools] didn’t fully desegregate, and we also know in the years since that … we have less access, more segregation then we had in 1970,” she adds. 

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Walker discusses the significance of Tate and figures like him, where we went wrong with school integration, and whether we can do better. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Vanessa Siddle Walker thinks a lot about the many black educators who were left behind following the landmark Brown versus The Board of Education. 

A professor of African-American educational studies at Emory College, Vanessa has spent her career studying segregation in America. Her most recent effort focuses on a man many of us may not be familiar with named Horace Tate. He gave her access to a massive archive that took her nearly 18 years to piece together. And what she would discover was this archive was a key piece to the history of black educators before and after the Brown ruling. 

It turns out there is a lot more to tell about school integration efforts and perhaps why schools are more segregated today than 50 years ago. Before I spoke to Vanessa, I wanted to know more about Horace Tate, and was surprised to discover there wasn't much on the internet, not even a Wikipedia page. So I asked her who was Horace Tate and why he mattered. 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: Horace Tate would be an exemplar of the black educators we left behind. When we think about desegregation, you have to remember that by and large, we not only fired teachers and principals, but we also got rid of those black teacher education associations. 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: People like Horace Tate across the South led these teacher associations. And they function something like black governors in their states. They could put their hand on the pulse of anything happening in the state, and actually across the country in a matter of days and weeks. 

We got rid of these people in part, because it never occurred to us how fully they were involved in the education, both of black children and of the desegregation that we wanted. But also, we got rid of their materials. And so if you fire the people and you get rid of the materials for the associations, then you lose the capacity to actually write a history that represents what people were doing from their perspective. 

So it makes perfect sense, right, that Horace Tate would not be available in all these kind of spaces that we think about today that people of note should be, because he is an exemplar, if you will, of what we left behind. 

Jill Anderson: The whole story is really intriguing, especially how he went to such lengths to document and archive and protect so much material, and the fact that it took you 18 years to kind of piece it all together. So one of the things-- 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: It did. 

Jill Anderson: --I wondered about was whether he ever talked at all about why he was so protective and secretive? I mean, it sounds like he was just hoarding, in a way, of these documents and material. But I'm wondering if he ever talked about why he waited so long to hand that stuff off? 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: Well, first of all, his wife would love to hear you use the word hoard, because that's exactly how she felt about it. Mrs. Tate, on multiple occasions, tried to get rid of the materials that were in the basement of their home, not the ones that he hid at the Teachers Association building, but the papers that were in the basement. 

And sometimes, she would secret some out. And he would find them and literally place them on the driveway, on one occasion, to dry, because they had gotten a little wet. And then he would, with great triumph, take them back to the basement. 

I understood these things about his desire to preserve the materials during the two years that I actually knew him-- those two years that I met with him several times a week before he died. Thank you, Spencer Foundation. But despite my efforts to ask Dr. Tate, why did you keep all of this, right, because he'd show me a little bit out of time, and then a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. And I'd ask him, why are you keeping it all? 

And at the time, he really couldn't answer. The best that he said was that he hoped one day to do his memoirs. You know, he hoped to write about them. But the idea of, did he understand his place in history-- when I would press him on that question, he really did not have an answer that made sense to me, at least at that time. And remember, he was just about 80 with these conversations. 

However, in the 16 years I spent after he died, I now understand why he did it. There are almost 300 hours of audio files. And in the audio files, there's a place where he's speaking to black teachers and principals at one of their meetings and he says, in another 40, 50 years, people won't even know we existed. 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: They won't remember anything that we have done. And I think while he did not articulate to me that he was trying to preserve their place in history, I think he understood what they were doing and that their history needed to be preserved. 

Jill Anderson: I was wondering if you would talk a little bit more about his vision of integration and how we fell short. 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: I'd love to talk about that, because I think if we own his interpretation of what was happening in real time, it helps us to think much more deeply and richly about how we need to move forward in the confounding space that we find ourselves today. If we back up for a moment and we say that these are Dr. Tate's words in some ways, but they represent the thinking of many, many southern educators, particularly those who were the executive directors of these teachers associations. 

So when we talk about-- when we think about these black educators, historically, we have just thought, well, they were just afraid of losing their jobs, right? They didn't have an opinion about desegregation. They were just scared. 

People, like the newspaper editor in South Carolina, according to Richard Kluger would say the teachers were the most worthless of citizens when it comes to helping with equality and helping the children move in this era. And I think we have to understand-- and that's what the Dr. Tate story shows us first and foremost-- is that these are the people who provided vision, money, plaintiffs, data. They were very much in support of Brown v. Board. And they were anticipating a fully integrated society. It's the kind of world that they had been teaching about for decades when they taught about democracy and what it should be for all of America's children. 

So as they move into this era of what we now call desegregation, they are full of hope in the earlier periods despite the fact that southern educators and politicians do not share this same hope. But black educators are full of hope. And they're anticipating that this is going to give black children what white parents are able to take for granted, right, full access to facilities and resources and so on and so forth. 

But in real time, that's not what happens. And this story of what actually happened I think has flown below our radar. And we've not thought a lot about it. So these are my words and not Dr. Tate's. But I think they capture the essence of what he's trying to say. 

And I'd like you to imagine it with me. It's just kind of three A's, in circles if you will. If you think about what is it that black educators who had given so much-- what did they envision in this desegregated world for little black children, I will add, just like myself? 

Black educators imagined an additive model with desegregation. In other words, we will keep the things that we have been able to put together that we know support the education of black children. And we will be able to have the things that the children have not yet had. So you have to ask yourself, what did we have, right? 

So here the A's. The schools created climates that allowed little black children to Aspire, A, to believe they could achieve, believe we could be anything we wanted to be. I mean, in that sense, they were preparing us for a world that didn't even yet exist, right? Because you couldn't really be anything you wanted to be, not in the '40s and '30s and '50s. 

But the schools, throughout this era, create aspiration among black children. They figured out how to do that, how to let the schools send a message different than the larger society. They understood that. 

They also understood the second A, Advocacy. They knew that you needed to have networked organizations who would be able to make appeals and/or litigate or use any other strategies possible to make sure the children would have what they needed. They had figured out how to do networked advocacy. 

So what is it that they wanted in a desegregated world? They wanted access. In an additive model, the children would be in climates where they aspire to achieve. They would have networks of people who are paying attention to when they are not receiving what they should receive and who can lobby on their behalf. And they would also have access to all the facilities and resources that they have been denied. 

So in an additive model, we'd have all three. And that's what they hope for. In real time, what happened? The aspiration-- well, those climates go away. Think about the first thing that happens with desegregation. And we see this threatened even before desegregation actually happens, so we know it's intentional. 

They get rid of black schools, right? The schools are either demoted-- high schools become elementary schools or middle schools. We get rid of the principals. One principal said, you know, they knew we were the key to all of this, so they got rid of us first. 

They get rid of the principals. They get rid of the teachers. If you get rid of the schools and the people who know how to run them, then what does that do for aspiration and making sure, as Dr. Tate says in 1970, that little black boys and girls would understand that they could be the thing they wanted to be. He said, who's going to tell them in 1970. 

So the schools lose the aspirational climate that is a part of segregated schooling. What about the advocacy networks? Well, the National Education Association wants the federal money that now can be put into schools across the South. We finally have the federal money that they've been advocating for for decades. 

But the federal money comes initially with certain expectations. An expectation is a desegregated school system. If you desegregate the schools, now NEA has a problem, because its southern white teacher associations have in its membership the white principals and superintendents who have been denying black children in schools the opportunities that they need on the local level. 

How are you going to blend a black teacher association with a white teacher association when the white teachers association has historically been implicated in at minimum, benign neglect with regard to black children? But NEA has to put these together, because if you don't put them together, we can't get federal money. So NEA insists on the merger of the black and white teacher associations. 

The merger in the beginning, the black associations thought would be wonderful. But over time, they began to see even before the mergers are fully accomplished, particularly in Georgia, which is one of the states that held out until close to the end-- they find that their agenda and the agenda of their white colleagues is not matching very well-- 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: --even when the black educators agree to vote themselves out of existence, because they hoped that everything would be OK. And we get new integrated associations. The new integrated association never takes up the advocacy agenda that the black teacher association had. 

So rather than an additive model, what happens in real time is an exchange model. Black educators are forced to give up their schools and what they understand about how to educate children. Aspiration, gone. They're forced to give up their advocacy networks, because of their teacher professional associations. Advocacy networks, gone. 

And what do they get in exchange? Access. Now, we know in real time, they did not get full access, even in 1970. There are many schools that did not fully desegregate. And we also know that in the years since, we have less access, more segregation, than we had in 1970. 

It raises for us the critical question for our present, which is, where are now? We had something like what I have sometimes called a desegregation compromise, one that allows us to have the language of desegregation by providing access to buildings for some students, but not fully engaging integration the way in which it was envisioned by those who fought the hardest and the longest for it. 

Jill Anderson: We have so many people rethinking integration and how to do it. I guess the question would be, do you have a hope about moving forward with integration and how we do that? 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: I mean, if you just kind of went down the list of all the problems with expectations and discipline and test scores and-- I mean, it's just a list. It's just-- it's depressing. And yet, I'm not depressed. 

I'm not depressed about it because we've been here before. 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Vanessa Siddle Walker: It's not as though people just decided to make education access difficult for black children today. We've been here throughout the history of black people in America, striving for literacy and opportunity that has often been denied. 

And so I'm hopeful, because if I could spend 18 years learning about, writing about people who remained hopeful in the midst of circumstances that were more oppressive than those that we face-- Horace Mann Bond said the will to survive had to come from within. And they found that hope and that will to survive. 

Now, if they could do that, I'm not willing to let myself or my generation off the hook just because it's hard. You know, because you know, we don't want public education. We want charter schools, right? Or whatever the many difficulties are that we confront. 

There are things that we can do. If we have the will to do it, we can do some of those things. So for example, let's think about this. 

What is it that we teach in teacher education? How much of this history do we actually teach? See, I would argue that we don't teach very much of it. 

Now, in part, we don't teach it, because we haven't known a lot of it, OK, that's part of the reason. So I'm not trying to indict us greatly. They thought of themselves as professional educators. And we can resurrect that model. 

But other people may have fired them. But because they were physically fired in the past doesn't mean we should ignore them in the present, right? It seems to me that we could resurrect that model. Because many of the problems that we're talking about today aren't new. 

I was reading something the other day, where the leaders were talking about how, well, you know, now schools have to take care of everything. They have to feed the students and counsel them and do instructional leadership and violence prevention. And that is a direct quote. These are relatively new requirements for schools. 

Except these are not new requirements for schools. And if we looked backwards, we would see models of faculty meetings as professional development. We would see a plethora of material about guidance and counseling. We would see structures to protect children from violence outside the school. 

I mean, there was a lot of white violence against the psyche of black children. And they figured out ways, both institutionally and interpersonally to protect children from that, we'd see creative programming, we'd see the principal as instructional leader, professional development networks. I mean, we would see in a number of possibilities for how we might train teacher educators, principals, leaders, and how we might work if we were to think about how we could import some of the ideas of this vision. 

Now, this is history. Clearly, we can't do exactly the same things. But I don't think we should ignore the ideology and the strategies. I think that ideology and the strategies create possibilities for us if we are willing to look backwards and pull those possibilities and strategies into the present. 

Jill Anderson: Vanessa Siddle Walker is a professor of African-American educational studies at Emory College. She is the author of many books, including her most recent, The Lost Education of Horace Tate. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 


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