Biscuits and Crumbs: Art Education After Brown v. Board of Education

Biscuits and Crumbs: Art Education After Brown v. Board of Education

Quinn, Therese

The question at the heart of this reflection on the Brown v. Board of Education decision is one proposed by my former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, William Watkins. He asked graduate students to keep our attention on “Who’s got the biscuits?” And, by extension, to remember to ask, “Who’s getting the crumbs?”

This is a personal as well as political topic of interest for me: I was a student who benefited from and sometimes suffered through public schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school. Now, I am an educator of student art teachers who are working in public schools across the city of Chicago, and each year I visit between 20 and 30 public elementary and high schools.

It may have seemed clearer at the time of the decision how to answer questions about biscuits and crumbs in relation to education-all black and brown children attended schools that were only shadows of the schools that many, but not all, white children attended, when children of color were allowed to participate in public education at all. Many white students were getting the biscuits, and most children of color were getting the crumbs, in education as in other areas of social life. School desegregation seemed like one potent solution to the larger problem of systemic and pervasive racial inequality.

In a recent issue of Rethinking Schools, focused on the Brown decision, I was reminded of the role young people have played in the fight for educational justice, through an account of the work of a student from that era. Barbara Johns was a high school student attending Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, a community in Prince Edward County. In 1951, she was a junior, and her school consisted of three tar-paper shacks. In the winter the shacks were so cold that students had to study wearing coats. The school had few resources-for example, its science classes had no microscopes. Parents asked the county for a new school, which it said it would provide, but didn’t. Barbara and her brother John began meeting with other students, secretly, to develop a plan for addressing the problem of their school. They thought that they probably would not get a new school themselves, but hoped that their work would benefit their younger sisters and brothers.

This is what they did: They made a fake “emergency” phone call to their principal, which asked him to attend an off-site meeting. After he left the building, they delivered notes that asked all the teachers to bring their students to the auditorium for an assembly. When everyone arrived, Barbara addressed the room, announcing that the students had called the meeting. Teachers tried to stop the assembly, but students made them leave the room. After a discussion about the school, and the possible consequences of taking action, all 450 students followed Barbara Johns out of the building on strike. They then contacted lawyers at the NAACP. The story, as concluded in the article, ends with the NAACP explaining that they couldn’t help Barbara and her colleague students get a new, equally resourced, but still segregated school, but would sue for integrated schools for all the children of Farmville. The Moton High School case was eventually joined by other cases, and made it to the Supreme Court with the new name of Brown v. Board of Education. But Barbara was right about not seeing the benefits of her work-the Ku Klux Klan threatened her life, and she was sent to live in Alabama. Even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Prince Edward County refused to integrate. Instead, it closed all its public schools for 5 years. White children with the means attended private schools. Black children attended no schools.

I re-tell this story here for a few reasons. First, it shows young people, those directly affected by bad schools, who identified problems and solutions. Their actions included some creative subterfuge, and their allies were not the school’s adults. Next, it shows the limits of solidarity based solely on race-when whites closed Prince Edward County’s public schools they made evident their willingness to sacrifice poor whites along with blacks to avoid sharing any resources. And last, those earlier students’ poor educational circumstances still parallel our national public schooling situation, and in particular, a recent struggle in Chicago.

Like many of Chicago’s neighborhood schools, Byrd Community Academy is located in a decrepit building. Its students are low income and of color, as are the majority of all students attending public schools in Chicago. One class, the 5th grade students of Room 405, decided that they wanted to tackle the problem of their decaying school as a class project. In short, they know they are getting the crumbs. But, as in Prince Edward County, the youth are challenging educational injustice; they are working to get a new school building and they have invited all kinds of folks to come tour their school, including me.

This is an excerpt from their e-mailed invitation:

We think and hope you would be interested in hearing about all the problems that our school is faced with everyday. There are too many problems to mention in this letter, but we want to tell you about some of the most important ones. These main problems are what we think are important issues: the restrooms, temperature in our building, the windows and the lack of a lunchroom, a gym and a stage. We need a new school because of these problems. It is really important for our learning so we can be great when we grow up. The restrooms are filthy and dirty. There are spitballs all over the place. They do not get cleaned up properly. It is really smelly in the bathrooms. Also, we do not have soap or paper towels or garbage cans. We do not have doors on the stalls and have no privacy. The sinks have bugs in them and water is everywhere. Kids don’t like using the bathrooms since they are so gross and falling apart.

The letter includes more vivid details: They lack a cafeteria-they eat in a hallway; they have no gym; their windows are cracked and missing and in some cases punctured by bullet-holes-they need to wear coats in class all through the winter. Sound familiar?

Their e-mail closes with these lines:

We would like to invite you to see our school for yourself. We do not think that you would let your kids come to a school that is falling apart.

After receiving this invitation, I did visit Byrd. The students were rightI would not have wanted my own children to attend the school.

The students gave me a tour and told me about their plans. They mentioned that their neighborhood is changing and that the community had been promised a new school years ago, which never materialized, though its architectural drawings still hang in the windows of the school office. Now they wonder if someone-the Mayor? The CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan? Their Alderman?-is waiting to build the beautiful school after their families have been forced out of the area by rising rents and the destruction of the area’s public housing. But rather than waiting, they are strategizing-they requested meetings with politicians, started a letter-writing campaign, gathered signatures, talked with reporters from the local newspapers, and were interviewed for National Public Radio. The students are doing the work, but between the lines of Room 405’s letter is a teacher named Brian Schultz-a white, middle-class, and educated man, an adult!-who facilitated this student activism as a class activity (and has taken heat for it), and created opportunities for these young people to learn important lessons about fighting for what is fair.

Getting decent public education for kids of color has always been a struggle, and it has never been adequately accomplished, before or after Brown. We all know the story of desegregation-it lasted a minute, and when primarily white and middle-class families abandoned the public schools, they took a lot of resources with them. What is left is Byrd, and schools like it across the city of Chicago and every other urban center in the nation. And when and where middle-class and wealthy families stayed in the public schools, they demanded (or, as in Chicago, were offered as incentives to stay in the public system) special educational opportunities just for themselves-gifted, IB, and selective admission programs, magnet schools, AP and Honors tracks, and on and on. They had the biscuits and got more of them. And once again, the rest of the children were, and arc, left with crumbs. That seems to be where we are today, and we’ve been here for decades.

And this brings me to art education, which is, after all, only one part of the larger system of public education. This is what I see in Chicago: neighborhood schools populated by black and brown, often immigrant, and nearly always low-income children, who frequently have art once a week for 40 minutes, have few art teachers, with few art supplies and sometimes no-ZERO-budgets, whose art is cancelled to make way for the drilling mandated by high stakes testing and the Bush administration’s wrongly named No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; and schools for the somehow privileged, often the children of higher-income, whiter, and more well-connected parents (remember, it’s Chicago, city of clout) than those in the rest of the public school system, who have Honors, AP, and IB art, and large art departments with kilns and drafting tables and hallway galleries and the other trappings that connote institutional and social respect, like school-funded participation in local and national arts competitions. In other words, the biscuit schools offer biscuits, even cake, in all subject areas, including art. The crumb schools…well, support for art looks fairly crumby there, too.

Art education is linked to the issue of educational segregation through the problem of the biscuits-of who does and does not have them. The solution always has something to do with racism, but it also has something to do with the lower wages women earn, fights over “gay marriage” and school clubs for queer kids, the prevalence of Christmas trees and Easter bunnies in public school art classrooms, and with all the other ways we decide and emphasize that somehow other people aren’t quite like ourselves and don’t deserve lives quite as rich and supported as the lives we and our children deserve, starting with school, starting with art. What happens to art education is just one indicator of the larger problem of full access in public education. What are we going to do, together, to make sure that all students are able to, as Room 405 put it, “Be great when we grow up”? What are we going to do to finally develop an equal and wonderful public education for all students, a public education that includes the arts and everything else that is humanly wonderful?

Awareness is the start-I urge you to tour your city’s schools this week. Choose a neighborhood school that educates low-income kids and kids of color, and go for a visit. Then tour an elite public school-to locate one, find out where the children of your city’s politicians study; in Chicago that neatly maps privilege. Sit in on classes in each school. If you visit a large and diverse school, look at all programs and all “tracks,” from special education to gifted, from Honors to remedial-see who is where. And look for the art-art displays, art teachers, art rooms, art “carts,” art classes, art supplies, crucially-art budgets. Think about yourself as a child, or your own children, studying in each school. Think of yourself teaching art.

But don’t stop there. Follow the lead of Byrd’s young students-take action. Develop some goal-oriented art and art education-engaged art for educational justice. Here’s how I am taking up my own challenge: First, on behalf of Byrd’s students I’ve written letters to various politicians and I’ve offered to help Room 405 make puppets of their Alderman, Arne Duncan, and Mayor Daley. I’ve been inspired by a project of middle and high school students in Detroit, where they took photographs comparing their own schools to the schools of the surrounding wealthy suburbs, and made a downloadable Powerpoint show of what they found. The images are powerful, and online at the website of the group, By Any Means Necessary, at I passed the URL along to Byrd’s students, who were already documenting their school. I’d like to see a similar citywide project in Chicago. Imagine that one student or student group at each school is given a camera and a list of things to photograph-cafeteria, bathrooms, water-fountains, library, computers, art room, science room, front door, schoolyard, hallways, lockers, a safe place, a fun place, an interesting place, a place where risks are okay, and a place where they are not. All these photographs, along with maps of the city and statements by students, overlaid with income and wealth maps, and so on, could be exhibited and posted online. That’s just one ideaI welcome others, and invite you to join me in developing strategies to address educational inequity in art and all of education. E-mail me at

Because most things are best as collaborations and also because activists need to support each other, I work with other teachers involved in educational activism, and recommend that to you. Chicago benefits from the efforts of a group called Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ; Each year TSJ members sponsor a curriculum fair (my art education students participate with social justice arts projects), facilitate reading and study groups, and imagine ways to respond to the current administration’s push to privatize public schools after first destroying them through standardized testing and inadequate funding. As one example of their work, teachers involved in TSJ led a boycott of a citywide high-stakes test in one high school, and the Board of Education responded by ditching the test for all students.

Finally, we must become allies to youth. Like Brian Schultz at Byrd Academy, we can create opportunities for our students to learn about and address the critical issues that affect their lives. What better tools and what better place, than the arts and art education?

Copyright National Art Education Association Winter 2005

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