In the beginning, there was no segregation, certainly not in the sense that we commonly use that term today. Consider in evidence our Southern distinctiveness, which is rooted in a folk culture compounded of black and white influences: our modes of speech; our rich cuisines and rites of conviviality; our varied and original musicality; our arts and crafts; our story-telling traditions; our sometimes unbridled passion for sport; our legends and superstitions; our humor; and our attitudes towards work and leisure. (For an exhaustive catalog, see The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, now four volumes long.) From the South Carolina Sea Islands to the Piney Woods of east Texas, these overlapping folk traditions thrive, and, despite many local variations and anomalies, they bind Southerners together into a unique people, regardless of race or class. Nor is Southern folk culture exclusively a product of the rural South. Charles Joyner, in his Shared Traditions (1999), insists that for the most part folk culture is portable, and also thrives (and is sometimes transformed) in urban milieus. As more than one historian has noted, African slavery was a relatively late development in the Northern states. When slaves arrived in places like New York or Pennsylvania, they entered long-established communities and had very little role in shaping the local cultures. Indeed, in the North, they were never more than 10% of the slave population of colonial North America. In the South, slaves were among the earliest settlers. Blacks and whites in the South have always been fellow travelers, and have as often as not lived cheek by jowl, at least until recently.
Nowhere is the reality of African influence so forcefully illustrated as in the history of Charleston, where enslaved Africans arrived with their Barbadian masters in the 1670s. Together they cleared the swamps, together they shared the perils of the Yemassee War and harvested the first crop of Carolina Gold, creating the rice culture which would make Charleston one of the busiest and wealthiest ports in the New World. Indeed, the folk culture that emerged in the Carolina Lowcountry was a unique blend of European and African practices. If the foodstuffs which graced the table of the “big house” were more plentiful than the fare consumed in the slave quarters, the recipes were often much the same, and often African in origin (think yams and hominy grits). If black slaves brought with them indigenous musical styles, they also adopted European instruments like the fiddle (without which no Christmas feast on Lowcountry plantations would have been complete). Similarly, the Lowcountry dialect was a fusion of English, West African and Caribbean speech; the Gullah of the slave population was distinct but not so far removed from the common speech of the masters. Most importantly, perhaps, blacks and whites in Carolina shared a common piety, and if the black expression of that shared faith veered toward a more potent “enthusiasm,” it is also true that the plaintive hymns of the enslaved subtly shaped and informed the spiritual lives of the masters. It might be interesting to attempt a counterfactual history in which a strict segregation had been imposed upon the African population from the start — something not unlike the Jim Crow regime which came later – and consider whether this shared and distinctive Southern culture could ever have flourished. But “what if” histories are a fool’s game (or, as the Gullah proverb would have it: “Dog got four feets but can only walk one road.”).
While colonial and antebellum Southern society was undoubtedly a hierarchically arranged system of white dominance, one which involved some degree of exclusion, segregation was not a significant factor. What was true of the Carolina Lowcountry was true across the South. To understand the extent of the integrated lives of blacks and whites in the Old South, it will be helpful to consider how their lives played out daily on those plantations large, middling, and small that were the site of the predominant mode of life, keeping in mind that roughly only 10% of the Southern population, until well into the 20th century, resided in towns or cities. The key idea here is the idea of the plantation household, which was so much more than a private dwelling. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has written in her book Within the Plantation Household (1988), “[It] contained within [itself] the decisive relations of production and reproduction.” And each of these was part of a vast network of such households that pervasively shaped the character of Southern society. In the North a separation of spheres had already emerged, in keeping with the evolution of the capitalist market economy, which divided the private realm – the realm of familial affections – from the public sphere of production. Any attempt to understand Southern society without drawing this contrast is doomed to fall well short of the mark. In the Southern household, masters, mistresses, their children, and their slaves all considered themselves a part of an extended family, sharing both familial affection and the labor which was essential to their flourishing.
Naturally, most 21st century Americans would scoff at such an assertion. How could those who were subjected to such a brutal and unjust system genuinely consider themselves part of the plantation family? But the evidence for this goes well beyond proslavery polemics or the idealized worlds of Lost Cause fiction; it is borne out not only in the diaries and letters of masters and mistresses, but in voluminous slave narratives taken down after the War. This is not to say that slaves did not often resent and resist the power of the master, or that they preferred their enslavement to freedom; rather, it seems that resentment and resistance co-existed with a tradition of mutual expectations and reciprocal responsibilities that Eugene Genovese, in his Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976), calls “paternalism.” This paternalistic ethos, widely accepted by the planters, was succinctly stated by antebellum Mississippian E. N. Elliot, who wrote that “Slavery is the duty and obligation of the slave to labor for the benefit of both master and slave, under a warrant to the slave of protection, and a comfortable subsistence ….” Elliot placed great stress on the rights of the slave, not only the right of protection and subsistence, but of “counsel and guidance … of care and attention in sickness and old age.” There were, no doubt, planters who fell short, even woefully short, of this standard, but the paternalist idea (leavened by Christian influence) was deeply internalized by the planters; it was, for most of them, the cornerstone of their self-respect.
Consider some of the ways in which blacks and whites interacted in the plantation household, whether under the demands of mutual obligation or by the simple exigencies of daily life. The middling sort of plantation – those having less than 50 slaves and not more than a thousand acres under cultivation – were predominant. But aside from the smallest “yeoman” plantations, most of these were like little self-sufficient villages in which the races mingled unceasingly. At the center was the “big house,” of course, and surrounding it in close proximity were numerous other structures: barns, smokehouses, carriage houses, various kinds of storage facilities and workshops, mills, slaughter houses and slave quarters – these latter almost always within sight of the big house. Hardly an hour of the master’s day would pass without some dealings with slaves or “servants,” as they were usually called – at the breakfast table, in dealing with slave disputes or requests, in riding his fields to ensure that the work was proceeding properly or inspecting livestock, in the evenings at meals, or at his leisure, which might take many forms, most of which entailed the presence or the active involvement of slaves. This was especially true of hunting and fishing, usually male activities and almost always involving both masters and salves, young and old. And it is likely that this same master was in infancy nursed by a slave, just as his own children would be nursed – perhaps by the same slave woman or her daughter, since these roles were often passed down. Indeed, slave children and white children were often nursed together. One slave, Mattie Logan, recalled that she was born about the same time as her mistress’s daughter, Jennie: “They say that I nursed on one breast while that white child … pulled away at the other!” (quoted in Plantation Household). Visiting Northerners were often shocked by this sort of thing, needless to say.
As for the mistress of the household, if anything she was even more deeply involved in the lives of the servants. While she did not typically work in the kitchen alongside her black cook, she supervised the menus, managed the kitchen garden, and generally kept watch over all household activities related to the woman’s sphere. Providing for the clothing of the slaves, sometimes a huge job, fell within that sphere, so her duties included the management of all spinning, weaving and dying, some of which she was adept at herself, but most of which involved skilled slave women. She was expected, as well, to attend to the health of the slaves, to visit the sick in the slave quarters and to ensure their proper medical care. In the event of a slave death, it was her duty to arrange proper burial. The diaries and narratives attest frequently to the sincere grief that many masters and mistresses felt over the deaths of trusted and beloved servants, some of which may well have been their playmates when they were children.
Finally, before moving on to the period following the War, I must note the shared traditions of worship of the plantation. The literature on this issue is quite complex. Early on, prior to the Revolution, masters appear to have been largely indifferent about the beliefs and religious practices of their slaves (and in the 18th century, it must be noted, fervent religious practice was not habitual among the planters themselves). With the advent of the 19th century and the growing influence of evangelical religion (propagated especially by Baptist and Methodist preachers / missionaries), the large numbers of slave conversions to Christianity appear to have been mostly sincere. The planters were not untouched by those same currents. Many pious masters provided for chapels on the plantation grounds, encouraged slave worship, and in some cases even presided over worship, including daily worship. After the Nat Turner and Stono uprisings, the planters became especially attentive to the spiritual needs of their slaves, believing that Christian influence, properly supervised, would help to prevent further disturbances of that kind. In any case, mutual participation in worship was common, and some slave preachers were popular not only with slave congregants but with the planters, too.
After Appomattox, everything changed, and yet in a certain sense much stayed the same. Initially, the freed plantation slaves were reluctant to return to the plantations, even as wage laborers, but other economic opportunities were scarce. Some, it’s true, were able to purchase confiscated land for very low prices, as was the case in parts of the Lowcountry, especially in the Sea Islands – properties which became known as “heir’s properties.” Many did eventually return to land as wage laborers, and many others eventually found a place, all over the South, as sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the crop-lien system, which gave them at least the semblance of economic independence. But despite such changes the integration of black and white cultures remained the norm in the rural areas and, to a lesser extent, in the towns, though it is true that some voluntary segregation occurred, most notably in the churches.
However, it is at this point that I must briefly review the central controversy in the history of the segregation story prior to Jim Crow in the early 1890s. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Van Woodward had argued (in the first edition of the work, pub. in 1955) that when segregation did appear during Reconstruction, it was with a few exceptions voluntary, and even then not extensive enough to justify any attempt to “equate this period in racial relations with either the old regime of slavery or with the future rule of Jim Crow.” The old antebellum paternalism did not dissolve overnight, though it was often strained. Of course, one of the aims of the Radical Republicans was to achieve both political equality and social integration, and we must allow that segregation might have accelerated more rapidly prior to the rise of the Redeemers had not Republican dominance enforced some degree of integration. Yet even under Reconstruction rule, some forms of segregation appeared without interference from the Republicans – for example, public school segregation in NC has been well-documented.
Joel Williamson, in his After Slavery: The Negro in SC During Reconstruction (1965), challenges Woodward’s argument at some length, concluding that during Reconstruction “segregation had [already] crystallized into a comprehensive pattern.” Williamson makes much of the few cases of documented non-voluntary segregation, and a good deal more of what he sees as a clear pattern of voluntary segregation. But he does so without properly contextualizing the frequent instances of mutual distrust that had emerged between the races at the War’s end. For example, he quotes a traveler from Boston who, passing through Charleston in 1865, reported on the “growth of a bitter and hostile spirit between blacks and whites.” Williamson cites a number of examples of such a hostile spirit, but leaves the impression that this hostility on the part of whites was a fundamentally irrational racism that had always been implicit in the ideology of white superiority, and which became uglier and more aggressive when blacks were no longer retrained by the yoke of slavery. Yet, in spite of all this, he admits that there is “no clear, concise answer to the question of why separation occurred …,” while failing to give proper weight to the degree to which whites felt threatened by the Radical Republican regime. It is well to remember that this was a time when the Northern armies had not yet withdrawn, when land confiscation (and the threat of widespread redistribution) was still an ongoing enterprise, and when state legislatures were dominated by radical Republicans – to say nothing of the daily frictions which occurred in the towns and cities when whites accustomed to obeisance were confronted by sometimes unruly and aggressive displays of social equality on the sidewalks and in public conveyances.
This all seems to point toward a fairly “clear and concise” answer to Williamson’s question. Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that some degree of voluntary separation occurred during Reconstruction, though the measure of that distance is hard to ascertain. The circumstances varied a good deal from state to state, and hard evidence is sparse. Much of Williamson’s argument relies on anecdotal evidence, a good deal of which has the appearance of cherry-picking, and, of course, he was focused almost exclusively on South Carolina. Nevertheless, a number of contemporary historians lean toward his side in the debate. Responding to his critics in the 3rd edition of Strange Career, Woodward doesn’t deny the existence of pockets of voluntary segregation, or, for that matter, some instances of enforced segregation, but rejects the notion that any substantial pattern of proto-Jim Crow segregation was already being established. Instead, he views the period as one full of “cross-currents and contradictions, revolutionary innovations and violent reactions,” within which the racial relations of “the old regime often persisted stubbornly into the new order ….” In short, it was a period of instability that could not endure for long.
After 1877 the so-called Redeemers ushered in a new era of “Home Rule” but initially changed little in the realm of race relations. They did not seek to expand segregation in the sweeping fashion that would be typical of the Jim Crow regimes of the 1890s. On the contrary, they for the most part acquiesced, at least in the early years of their rule, to the reality of the black franchise and went out of their way to appeal to black voters. And what they offered the Freedmen can be summed up in a single word: protection. The Redeemers were transitional figures in a period fraught with political and economic hostility. At one extreme of the Southern political spectrum was the rising power of the radical wing of the Democratic party – the faction of racial extremists – at the other, the increasingly influential voices of the Populists (initially the Farmers Alliance), for whom the racial question was secondary to the message of class warfare that drew millions of small farmers to their ranks (both black and white). The Redeemers needed black votes to solidify their own vulnerable position, nor did many of them seem to have any stomach for a segregationist message that they associated with the white lower classes. Thus, the leading Redeemers sought to keep alive the old paternalism, to offer themselves to black voters as their protectors against the increasingly rancorous threat of the radical segregationists.
It may be the case that what Eugene Genovese calls a “residue of the old sense of duty” was more important than their political ambition, yet it should also be noted that large numbers of Redeemers were old Whigs in new wigs, so to speak, and were closely allied with the economic forces that would come to be associated with the New South: They sat on the Boards of railroads (alongside their Yankee counterparts), as well as the boards of textile and steel enterprises (see Woodward’s Origins of the New South) and generally saw the Populists, especially as the 1990s approached, as their bête noire. If it was necessary to compromise with the segregationists to maintain power against what was widely perceived as a “socialist” threat, so be it.
By the late 1880s the tide was beginning to turn and, in the midst of a major economic recession, the policies of the Redeemers were compromised, either by their own willingness to collude with the extremists, or by the growing power of the extremists as power brokers. (Even as early as 1877, it should be noted, even so venerated a figure as Wade Hampton won the governor’s race in SC only with the support of the infamous Ben Tillman, who by then already controlled a decisive bloc of Upcountry Democratic voters.) But there are other factors involved in the almost two decades’ delay in the onslaught of Jim Crow legislation, which had begun in the late 1880s but did not really achieve a full head of steam until the mid-1890s, especially after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which opened the legal door to “separate but equal” segregationist policies. While Woodward’s critics saw plenty of evidence of continuity where he saw discontinuity, and while a good deal of that evidence is valid, Woodward’s thesis remains relevant. The Jim Crow era was not inevitable, and one overlooked factor in the sudden rush to de jure segregation is the issue of class. In an uncertain economic environment, many white voters, especially poor whites (but not exclusively so) feared black competition. It is difficult to disentangle deeply felt racial hatred from the fear that one’s economic well-being or one’s fragile class status might be imperiled. One thinks here of William Faulkner’s memorable short story “Barn Burning,” in which a white sharecropper of the 1880s, Abner Snopes, justifies his barn burning as an inchoate act of class warfare against the Bourbon whites. “I reckon I’ll have a word with the man who aims to begin owning me tomorrow, body and soul,” he says, just a few days before he burns his last barn. The owner of the barn in question is Colonel Sartoris, whose stately white mansion represents for Abner something built on “nigger sweat,” and if he, Abner, is going to be exploited by that same landowner, it must mean that his own sweat will be of no greater value. In short, it is no real stretch to imagine that the radical segregationists were prepared to exploit such class resentments for their own purposes, and to make blacks convenient pawns in their game.
The fact is that black labor was essential to the rise of the New South, and blacks somehow had to be accommodated while white agrarian radicals were appeased. Blacks were increasingly disenfranchised by poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means, but there is some evidence that, among a segment of the black leadership, the segregation solution offered certain benefits. As Woodward had suggested and as Howard Rabinowitz argued at greater length in “Assessing The Strange Career of Jim Crow” (1988), the alternative to segregation (by the 1890s) appeared to be exclusion. The failed Black Codes of the late 1860s had been an attempt at exclusion, a partial restoration of the antebellum status quo, and from the point of view of the black leadership, this remained an undesirable possibility, especially in view of the retreat of Northern Republicans from the goals of Reconstruction. The importance of this retreat, co-incident with the rise of the reconciliationist sentiment in both the North and the South, is a factor that can hardly be overstated. As Joel Williamson has argued at some length, Northern Republican interest in black equality began to wane considerably after Reconstruction, and by the 1890s “politicians of both parties showed a disposition to use black people when they could and to abandon them when they could not.”
Moreover, as a number of historians have noted, the North was quite familiar with segregation laws, since those laws had been pioneered in the North prior to the War, and some persisted well after. In most Northern states during the colonial and antebellum eras, numerous local ordinances restricted the movements of free blacks, segregated them by occupation, relegated them to undesirable neighborhoods, and ensured separation in education. Some states in the Midwest and the West sought to exclude blacks entirely. After 1896 Northern attitudes began to harden considerably, and even many of those who had most ardently supported the Abolitionist cause looked with trepidation at the possibility of large numbers of poor blacks moving North, particularly since social and economic unrest among poor whites in the larger Northern cities was at a critical stage. Hence, after the turn of the century, the North tacitly, and then quite openly, adopted a hands-off policy toward the South, allowing the proliferation of Jim Crow laws below the Mason-Dixon line, and, by various means, maintaining de facto segregation within their own states.
During the late 1890s and in the first decade of the new century, Jim Crow laws in the South, now with the support of both the radicals and the Conservatives, proliferated dramatically. Segregation became the norm in restaurants, waiting rooms, hospital wards, sports and sporting facilities, prisons, transportation, education, burial grounds, and in many other areas of Southern life. Notoriously, even some courtrooms had Jim Crow Bibles for the swearing in of blacks (a reality that, some 20 years earlier, had been proposed in jest by an anti-segregationist wag writing for the Charleston News and Courier). All of this is the fodder of high school textbooks and I don’t need to belabor it here. However, I would like at this point to delve into two areas of concern that have not been so widely discussed or appreciated. The first of these involved the economics of what is called the “job-reservation system.” Simply put, this means that under the Jim Crow regime economic exclusion was used to reinforce the segregation system by forcing blacks out of (or barring their entrance into) whole categories of occupations: white collar jobs, of course, but also various kinds of skilled labor and supervisory positions. This exclusion was not always written into law but often took the form of a widespread understanding among white employers.
John W. Cell, in his The Highest Stage of White Supremacy, notes that “coercive mechanisms” were a “mixture of formal arrangements and informal understandings,” and were pervasive. What is most interesting about this is that the job-reservation system, in effect, prevented whites “from behaving as rational economic persons …,” meaning that individual employers were unable to hire blacks for certain positions even when doing so would have made more economic sense, since blacks, even when their level of skill was equal to that of while workers in a given occupation, could always be paid less. The importance of this observation is that it brings us back to the issue of class, and to how the system of segregation was sometimes only superficially about race, per se, but just as importantly about the manipulation of the white labor force in an era when the South’s economy had begun to rebound but was still trailing far behind the rest of the country in its productive capacity and standard of living. In short, the millions of blacks excluded from competing directly with whites in hundreds of occupations constituted what Cell calls a “reserve army of labor” and was thus “a potent weapon with which white workers could be threatened, intimidated and isolated.” Needless, to say, under such conditions, labor unions made little headway in Dixie, and that remains largely true today.
The second concern I wish briefly to address is education, for in the long and strange tale of segregation, black education is perhaps the strangest part of the story. Prior to Reconstruction, few blacks in the South had any education at all, and most were simply illiterate (as were many poor whites). Under Reconstruction mandates, what few public schools there were, were integrated, and in some places like New Orleans, successfully so for more than a decade. With the arrival of the Redeemers the literacy rates were still dismal, but in the rush to industrialize, public schools were in greater demand. During the Jim Crow era, virtually all public schooling in the South was segregated, but black schools were hardly “equal,” if the disproportionately low funding they were allocated is any indication. Yet many black leaders in the South remained optimistic about black education. They recognized that things could be worse and that many Conservative white legislators across the South were at least making an effort to adhere to the letter of the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson. Black leaders foresaw the possibility of gradual advancement and worked to improve what access they had to public schooling, and, of course, to found black colleges. The most important of these leaders was Booker T. Washington, who had been born into slavery, and who established himself as the pre-eminent voice in the South for a philosophy of “gradualism,” most memorably expressed in his famous address known as the “Atlanta Compromise” in 1915, focusing especially on black businesses and education. As early as 1881 he had established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for the primary purpose of training teachers who would then spread across the rural South to instruct black youth in the skills they needed for participating in the work force as skilled laborers, farmers, and tradesmen.
Within a few years of the “Atlanta Compromise” speech, Washington’s ideas and influence were routinely attacked by Northern black activists such as W.E.B Dubois, who was active in the recently formed NAACP, which regarded Washington as an obstacle to racial equality. In their view, he was infinitely prolonging the march to full equality, while pandering to white elites in both the North and the South and encouraging an attitude of quiescent acceptance of the status quo among the black masses. This is the view that prevails even today, and few Americans have any idea just how successful Washington and his followers were in improving the lot of blacks in the South. While much of the damage to his reputation is the result of the way he is caricatured in history textbooks or in the popular media, much can also be attributed to the scathing portrait of his philosophy offered up in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, a chapter of which is commonly anthologized in high school and college texts under the title “Battle Royal,” where the philosophy of gradualism is mocked relentlessly.
Yet well before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, bringing the era of school segregation to an end, Washington’s disciples (he having died in late 1915) had done a great deal to build the character and effectiveness of black education in the South. Washington himself regarded segregation not chiefly as an obstacle to his goals but as an opportunity. Direct competition with whites, perhaps especially in the area of education, was premature. Separated from that debilitating arena, black children might thrive. And, indeed, there is evidence that in many cases across the South they did. One of those who looked upon Washington’s accomplishments with approval was Zora Neale Hurston, whom many would regard as among the two or three most accomplished black writers of the 20th century.
While Hurston was by no means a friend of Jim Crow, a system she denounced on numerous occasions, she was wary of the exclusive focus on civil rights promoted by the “better- thinking negro,” who ever more stridently called for political equality without providing poor blacks with the “tools” they needed to achieve real equality. Thus she looked behind the militancy of DuBois and the Harlem cabal (and their friends in the NAACP) to the example of Booker T. Washington, whose philosophy of self-help sought to empower individuals and local communities. She notes with barely concealed scorn how the “better-thinking negro” looked upon Washington “as absolutely vile for advocating industrial education” for blacks. By contrast, left-leaning black leaders were already preparing the ground for the affirmative action policies of the present, policies which have worked to the advantage of the “better-thinking negro,” while leaving the masses of poor blacks mired in a swamp of dependency. For her candor Hurston was spurned by the liberal establishment and attacked by the likes of Langston Hughes, whose communist sympathies were well known, and who sought to portray Hurston as a traitor to the cause of black solidarity. But her greatest transgression against the dogma of racial pride was her denunciation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The crux of Hurston’s argument, published as a letter to the Orlando Sentinel in August, 1955, is that the stated intent of the Court—to ensure equality of education for black school children—was, in effect, a ruse. As is so often the case in her writing, she draws upon her store of Southern folk wisdom to present her case in quasi-allegorical fashion: “Those familiar with the habits of mules are aware that any mule, if not restrained, will automatically follow a white mare. Dishonest mule-traders made money out of this knowledge in the old days.” One needed only to lead a white mare down a country road and “slyly open a gate, and the mules in the lot would … follow this mare.” In the Brown decision, the white mare is the allegorical bait used to lead black folk (the mules) into a new captivity, an illusory equality that promised little in the way of substantive improvement in the quality of black children’s education. Critics of Hurston’s argument, including her biographers, then and now, often dismiss it with the claim that only a woeful ignorance of the poor quality of education in segregated black schools could explain her failure to support Brown. But that isn’t very likely. Hurston’s own mother was a school teacher, Hurston herself worked, among her many jobs, as a substitute school teacher, and she travelled widely in the segregated South as an anthropologist (the discipline in which she was trained under Franz Boas) over the course of several decades.
What Hurston’s critics have ignored—some self-styled “conservative” critics among them—are her apprehensions about the long-term implications of Brown. Though she doesn’t say as much in the Sentinel letter, it is likely that Hurston was fully aware that the Court’sdecision was reached, not upon Constitutional but psychological grounds. Among other studies cited by the Court was psychologist Kenneth Clark’s finding that, when given a choice between black and white dolls, black children more often chose white dolls. From this Clark inferred that black children saw themselves as inferior, and the Court agreed. As one legal expert has recently asked, “Isn’t it telling that the Court [did] not even attempt to explain the less-than-obvious connection between how a black child describes black and white dolls and the relative effect of integrated versus segregated schools on that child’s ‘feeling of inferiority’?” One might conclude, of course, as even some Constitutional originalists like Robert Bork have, that while the methodology of the Brown decision was flawed, the decision itself was nonetheless correct. If one measures correctness in this context by the achievement of a purely factitious equality, then perhaps Bork is right. But it is blindingly clear that, in the half century since the implementation of Brown began “with all deliberate speed,” very little real improvement in the quality of education for black children has been achieved. On the contrary the American public-school system is scandalously dysfunctional, and, among other factors, Brown made this possible.
What Hurston understood better than most in 1955 was that the Brown decision was a flagrant attempt at social engineering by the Court, the sort of thing that has become all too frequent in recent decades. She warns in no uncertain terms against the implications of judicial activism: “In the ruling on segregation, the unsuspecting nation might have witnessed a trial balloon. A relatively safe one, since it is sectional and on a matter not likely to arouse other sections of the nation in support of the South. [But] …a precedent has been established. Government by fiat can replace the Constitution.” Hurston also understood that segregated black schools were important centers of cultural life in black communities all across the South, centers that provided cohesion and support for precisely the kind of “self-help” ethic that Booker T. Washington had worked tirelessly to cultivate.
Indeed, Hurston’s opposition to Brown, despite the claims of her detractors, was not at all eccentric. As Lynn Moylan, one of Hurston’s biographers, notes, “despite the lofty premises of Brown, … the cultural connection and the vital sense of belonging and ‘ethic of caring’ characteristic of … former all-black schools were in effect destroyed by the court system.” Even former NAACP Legal Fund attorney Derrick Bell, who at one time believed Brown to be the “Holy Grail of racial justice” has recently conceded that he was woefully mistaken, that in fact the Court should have enforced separate but equal funding for black schools. Such views, while not necessarily embraced in their entirety, are reinforced by the works of a major scholar in this area, Adam Fairclough, whose books Teaching Equality (2001) and A Class of Their Own (2006) have provided abundant evidence of the vitality of segregated black schools, which became not only centers of education but the focal points of community and self-help all over the rural and urban South. Moreover, several recent studies by black scholars such as Betty Jamerson Reed, herself once a student in an all-black school in North Carolina, build upon Fairclough’s work and demonstrate, among other things, that as school integration approached in the wake of Brown, many black teachers and administrators viewed that transition with a mixture of hope and trepidation. While in their public statements they remained on the good side of the NAACP, in their letters, memoirs and private statements they expressed fears that have been borne out by events.
Of course, the final irony in this strange tale is that today, well over half a century after the Brown decision, and despite any number of attempts to force the issue through social engineering, American public schools and American society in general, remain largely segregated, but less so in the South than elsewhere. Why this is so is another, quite complex story, but I might venture to say – by way of ending where I began – that it has something to do with the fact that in the South blacks and whites, despite many trials and tribulations, share a common identity that is not so prevalent in other regions of the county. Perhaps, too, it has something to do with the still dominant belief across the Christian South, in the saving power of forgiveness, as demonstrated so vividly by the outpouring of forgiveness and generosity that prevailed in the wake of the Emanuel church shooting on that terrible evening in June, 2015, here in Charleston, from whence I write.