Seventy Years After Brown v. Board: The Erasure of Black Educators

Schools may be legally desegregated, but the profession is mostly white and female – and that’s not good for Black children

By Sharif el-Mekki
Guest Column

I celebrate the upcoming 70th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Educationthe Supreme Court decision that put America squarely on the road to eliminating the scourge that was “separate but equal.” I truly do.

“Separate but equal” condemned generations of Black Americans to a lesser life under the law. To barely camouflaged contempt and outright racism from the governments they themselves paid taxes to sustain. To artificially limited opportunity and potential.

But its abrupt end in education 70 years ago had an unforeseen consequence—one that should be of great concern to anyone who cares about racial justice, educational equity, and true equality of opportunity: Black educators and their pedagogy.

Bottom of Form

In antebellum America, teaching Black children was illegal in many parts of the country. A Black person learning to read could face a literal death sentence. But even during these abject years, there were brave Black educators who continued to teach in hidden corners of society.

How many Black role models, mentors and protectors did we miss out on as a result of the gutting of Black educators after the end of separate but equal?

After the Civil War, during the separate-but-equal era, schools at all levels were segregated, especially but not exclusively in the South. Black-serving institutions were, of course, chronically underfunded and marginalized by the white power structures of the day.

This systemic bullying belied the “…but equal” part of the equation, impacting the quality of education Black students received. However, there was one clear “upside” to having a white power structure that truly didn’t care who taught Black students.

It gave space and opportunity for generations of exceptional Black educators who created, sharpened, and shared their craft and delivered the best possible education to their Black students, despite working within, and often adjacent to, the most inequitable system imaginable.

But school integration and the dismantling of segregated schools changed this dynamic. Those in power cared very much about who led these newly formed integrated classrooms.

It was so taboo for Black teachers to instruct white children, let alone lead “their” schools. It didn’t matter that the white teachers who were kept were often far less qualified and credentialed. In this cruel way, Black educators were systematically driven from the profession.

Today, as a direct legacy of this injustice, Black teachers remain drastically underrepresented in the American teaching force, especially when you consider the growing diversity of the student body.

Although 15 percent of public school students in the United States identify as Black, only seven percent of public school teachers identify as Black. The number of Black teachers would need to grow by approximately 280,000, based on today’s numbers, to meet the proportion of students of color in America’s schools.

The result is that most students go through 13 years of public education without a single Black teacher to support and mirror a future of greater possibilities. And all indications are that things are about to get worse.

Typifying what’s happening nationwide, in Pennsylvania, there has been a 60 percent drop in interest among Black college students enrolling in educator prep programs and declaring education as a major, even as the demand for new teachers is expected to increase significantly over the next few decades.

Why should Black youth have an interest in teaching when studies show the teachers they know, the majority of whom (if not all of them) are white, have under-expected them to achieve while unfairly over-disciplining them?

A Black teacher can change a Black child’s life trajectory. Research shows when a Black student has one Black teacher by third grade, they’re 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers, that jumps to 32 percent. For Black boys from low-income households, their on-time high school graduation rates soar by almost 40 percent.

Black teachers matter because they save and change the lives of Black children.

It should also go without saying that all students benefit from a teacher corps that reflects society. A true diversity of teachers brings more opportunities for educational experiences that counter racism, promote cross-cultural understanding, and prepare our children for an increasingly complex world.

How many Black role models, mentors and protectors did we miss out on as a result of the gutting of Black educators after the end of separate but equal? How could they have influenced and informed curricula, pedagogy, policy and practices? How could they have bolstered Black children’s sacred trust in our education system?

Our path forward is clear. We must do more to encourage Black youth to enter and remain in the teacher pipeline from high school through college and on to careers leading highly successful classrooms.

We need to rally around rebuilding — not building — the national Black teacher pipeline that was lost in the aftermath of the demise of separate but equal.

It’s the only way we can truly deliver on the promise of Brown v. Board and provide an equally excellent education for all.

Sharif El-Mekki is the founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center’s mission is to build the Black Teacher Pipeline to achieve educational equity and racial justice. El-Mekki is a nationally-recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. He’s also a blogger on Phillys7thWard, a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.