Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”
In public segregated schools in Savannah we were taught by first-rate teachers but I always felt we were recipients of a second-hand education. Our black teachers often earned less money than teachers at white schools and they had to be more creative in getting needed school supplies. But our teachers did something that black students missed when schools were ultimately integrated in the late 1960s and through the 1970s and beyond.
Our teachers cared — really cared about us. Our communities were cohesive. Our black teachers lived in our neighborhoods, went to church with us, and stopped and talked to our parents in the Post Office, at the beauty parlor or in the grocery store.
And if students somehow turned up missing in class for more than a couple of days, black teachers would often get on the phone or stop by the house and knock on the door to reach out to parents. No matter our economic or social status, it was difficult for black students to fall through the cracks like we see happening so much these days.
And let no one denigrate the value of education at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Looking back through the 1967 “Golden Bulldog,” the yearbook for my senior year at Alfred Ely Beach High School in Savannah, there is documentation that our teachers got their early post-secondary education at HBCUs in the South. Many attended Savannah State College (now University) and most others were graduates of other HBCUs in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. But when it came to getting graduate degrees, most of our teachers had to leave the state to study at places like the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University and New York University.
In the introduction to his book Bus Ride to Justice, Fred Gray, the much-celebrated attorney in Alabama who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, described the law that allowed black teachers to be supported by segregated education systems.
“The State of Alabama, as did all of the southern states at that time, had out-of-state aid arrangements for African American students who on their merits should have been admitted to white colleges, universities, and professional schools,” Gray wrote in his book first published in 1995. “Many Southern states inaugurated these schemes to circumvent the 1938 United States Supreme Court decision, Gaines V. Canada, ex rel. The Gaines case held that states that had a segregated higher education system must provide African Americans with equal educational facilities.”
Such was the law that also compelled Georgia to send black scholars out-of-state when they wouldn’t admit them to graduate programs at white schools in the state. To comply with the law of equal opportunity for education, the state paid the tuition and other expenses for teachers to go “Up North” for their graduate education.
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