Experiences of Teachers During the Desegregation of Austin’s Schools, 1964-1971

Oh, Do I Remember!: Experiences of Teachers During the Desegregation of Austin’s Schools, 1964-1971

Harrison-Jones, Lois

Oh, Do I Remember!: Experiences of Teachers During the Desegregation of Austin’s Schools, 1964-1971, by Anna Victoria Wilson and William E. Segall. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001. 186 pp. $19.95, paper.

Wilson and Segall trace the deliberate actions of the Austin, Texas Independent School District to avoid school desegregation from 1964-1971 through the experiences of teachers who were forced into the forefront of this volatile situation. They show how views and reactions differed between Black and White teachers as to their roles and responsibilities for enforcing the law of the land. Evidence is provided of support for resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas decision from the unlikely sources of those expected to uphold the law-Texas state and national elected officials. Ultimately, the authors cite the loss of community and the closing of the town’s Black high school among the many unintentional consequences of desegregation.

Oh, Do I Remember! purports that segregation in Austin and throughout the United States was more than mere separation; rather the conveyance of the twin messages that anything touched by a Black was “unclean” (i.e. separate water fountains and courtroom Bibles), and the superiority of the White race. The logical result of such thinking led to legal exclusions, unequal economic and living standards, minimal political power, many forms of legal and illegal coercion, reduced social respect, restricted social mobility, and discrimination against Blacks as normal social behavior. Denial of a quality education was the most effective vehicle to perpetuate a caste system based on the social construct of race.

The authors provide a chronology of resistance by the Austin Independent School District following each landmark decision regarding the schooling of Black children. The district’s response to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was similar to that of school districts throughout the South. Schools for Black children, where they existed, were substandard, students were issued discarded books from White schools, and child labor demands caused shortened school years for Black students. Nevertheless, the myth of “separate but equal” was legalized. Teacher shortages and the struggle over Black education curricula caused additional problems for Black schools. The Booker T. Washington vocational/ industrial model was opposed by the majority of Black educators who favored the liberal arts curriculum provided White students. The Northern philanthropists who concurred with the Booker T. Washington model preferred not to become a part of the dispute and withdrew their financial support. Blacks then became “double taxed” by having to pay for schools in general and then a self-imposed tax to purchase comparable educational conditions and opportunities for their children.

The Austin school district responded to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision with even painfully slower progress. Little history of Austin’s school desegregation exists. However, as discussed in Oh, Do I Remember!, a school desegregation plan was devised called “cross-over teaching.” Cross-over teaching was the involuntary assignment of Black teachers to White schools and the voluntary assignment of White teachers to Black schools. Of the 33 Black teachers and 52 White teachers who participated in Austin’s cross-over teaching plan at the high school level, 18 were located and interviewed for this book. The Black cross-over teachers, three of whom gave extensive interviews, expressed greater degrees of anxiety and were less well-received in White schools than the White crossover teachers to Black schools. It was clear that the burden of making desegregation work had been placed squarely on the shoulders of teachers and with little assistance. The crossover teachers discovered that Black and White students differed in their interpretation of the intent of integration. Black students perceived integration as a sharing of power. White students perceived integration as Blacks having power over them. Although Mexican American students were classified as White and were assigned to White schools, little was mentioned about their perceptions of and reactions to desegregation.

Another significant benchmark in Austin’s desegregation process was the 1968-1969 school year when 11 charges of noncompliance of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act were levied against the Austin School District. The district was reprieved, however by the Nixon administration’s 1970 scrapping of the Lyndon Johnson administration’s mandatory deadlines for full desegregation. During the ensuing years, there were two more major occurrences. In record numbers, White families fled from the city’s core to the suburbs and in 1971 came the decision to close Anderson High School, the city’s oldest and most revered Black high school.

Schools have been the most prominent area in which the struggle for desegregation has transpired, but what was the real purpose of such resistance? Much of the resistance according to Wilson and Segall could be attributed to what was “The Southern state of mind,” which espoused antipathy toward change, fierce commitment to states rights and local control, paranoid hatred of Communism, Jews and Catholics, and fears of racial amalgamation. Fueled by the fears of White Southerners was the emergence of the White Citizens Councils across the South within two years of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Led by Senators Strom Thurmond and Sam Ervin, Jr., 82 members of the House of Representatives and 19 U.S. Senators signed “The Declaration of Constitutional Principles,” popularly known as “The Southern Manifesto,” which commended the motives of those states which declared their intentions to “resist forced integration by any lawful means.” Though most Southern senators signed the Manifesto, Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas did not. Thereafter, despite school desegregation efforts in Little Rock, Birmingham, and elsewhere, little progress was made beyond “token” school desegregation in Austin. The concept of “all deliberate slowness” is how the authors of Oh, Do I Remember! described the school district’s mode of operation. Moreover, the authors imply that Austin’s Black community may have also unwittingly aided and abetted the non-full compliance of school desegregation by its conciliatory attitudes.

Outside intervention and force had been required for any semblance of school desegregation in Austin to materialize between 1964 and 1971. With the closing of Anderson High School and other dramatic changes in the Black community’s institutional structures, the reader is challenged to give thought to whether or not the gains attributable to the desegregation effort outweighed the losses to the Black community.

Reviewed by Lois Harrison-Jones, Howard University.

Copyright Howard University Fall 2001

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