Rachel Devlin’s “A Girl Stands at the Door: the Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools” is an exciting history of women’s roles in the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement. Devlin starts with describing Lucile Bluford’s crusade in 1939 to gain admission to the University of Missouri graduate program in journalism. Citing a 1938 Supreme Court decision which prohibited racial discrimination in higher education, Bluford applied 11 times to gain admission to MU, but the university closed its prestigious school of journalism, rather than admit an African American.
Devlin moves on to the elementary schools in the early 1940s, as young girls and their parents sought to end apartheid in America’s public schools. While a few young men challenged the apartheid system in the public schools, the majority of the activists were young women with strong support from parents who were not content to see their children’s learning opportunities limited by the Plessy v Ferguson decision (1896) which had promised but rarely provided “separate but equal” education to America’s African-American youth. The struggle was bitter. James Carr, a physical plant manager at the Pentagon, and his entire crew, along with teachers and members of the PTA were fired when they challenged the segregated schools in Washington, DC. Carr claims that President Harry S. Truman “retired” not “fired” him, but for all the others the experience was the loss of a job. In numerous other cases young women and their parents were harassed by community members, school boards, and even friends who preferred to avoid the racism that threatened them, their homes and jobs. But the battles went on as women organized “receptions” which men remembered as “chitlin parties.”
Devlin’s account of the women’s role in desegregation is powerful, but her book also provides the scaffolding upon which that important Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Kansas decision of 1954 was based. In addition to her discussion of Bluford, she recounts at least 10 other Supreme Court cases in the 1940s. For each of these cases Devlin provides enlivening accounts of the stru ggles to challenge segregation in the public schools. Some came before World War II others followed but were not reactions to the war experience. Then in the 1950s, preceding Brown, nine cases went to the higher court. And Devlin tells of other protests which never made it to the Supreme Court.
Devlin also highlights the changes in goals to deal with apartheid in America’s public schools. Initially some sought “equal” education for African-American youth, as Plessy was supposed to have required. Later others rejected the “make the schools equal” argument. Although their children attended well-equipped and highly maintained schools with excellent teachers, these parents wanted their children to be prepared for the same opportunities as white children had. This meant toppling the “separate but equal” farce.
These cases also reveal the conflicts and tensions between the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund over what efforts they would support. Was the NAACP going to support “equal education” as advocated in Plessy or take a more daring stand for integrated education? What kind of funding, legal teams and professional support would it provide? Initially Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s most prestigious attorney, did not want to shift to from higher education to elementary schools. He feared the cases brought to him would not stand the test in court.
After Brown came efforts to desegregate schools. Baton Rouge the school board sought to desegregate the last year of school rather than the first, and young women challenged this in an experience remindful of the horrific accounts of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. While a few said they were treated decently by white girls, overall their accounts scream of racism. But desegregation was not just a Southern story. Deborah Gray White, a prominent historian today, a public school student on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as a girl, was transferred from an almost all black class to a Special Progress class, which was white, to make the school look integrated. For young women in the 1960s, faced with the limits set by mainstream culture, integrating the schools promised to broaden their options for adult life. The book ends with efforts to desegregate schools after Miliken v Bradley, 1974, when the court enlivened segregation by ruling that integration could not take place across district lines.
This book provides a frightening reminder of the racism we still see today.
Marguerite (Peggy) Renner is professor of history emerita at Glendale Community College.