America was recovering from the Great Depression when Narvie Harris began her career in education, but you wouldn't have known it from her tiny backwoods schoolhouse in southwest Georgia.
Her students sat on makeshift chairs made from tree stumps covered with oilcloths. Classroom bookshelves consisted of old grapefruit boxes. In a building without running water, Harris taught home economics on a wood stove that, she suspects, dated back to the Spanish-American War. When she showed children how to cook grits, it served a dual purpose -- she was also responsible for fixing them lunch.
Harris isn't one to reveal her age, but she's old enough to remember when "separate but equal" -- the term used to justify segregation of black and white children in Southern schools a half-century ago -- was a loathsome fiction.
"When they said separate, brother, they meant separate," she says. "There was an iron curtain in those days. We didn't know what they did and they didn't know what we did."
Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to end all that. And for a while, it looked as if it might. When Georgia schools finally began desegregating in the 1960s, classrooms that were once all white saw their first black students. Over the years, school systems were forced to create busing programs, integrate teaching staffs and demonstrate that per-student spending was equitable.
And yet, perhaps inevitably, segregation has returned. Even before Harris finally retired as an administrator in 1983 from DeKalb schools, white flight had led to an inversion of the black/white student ratio among urban Atlanta school systems. Many schools that had been majority white just after desegregation quickly became majority black as white families fled to Cobb, Gwinnett and other outlying counties, or transferred their children to private schools.
When Harris arrived in DeKalb in 1944, the county was less than 10 percent black. In 1980, African-Americans constituted 27 percent of the population; today, DeKalb is about 55 percent black.
By 1998, when Harris became the first living African-American to have a DeKalb school named in her honor, segregation in public schools had come full circle. Public school enrollment in DeKalb is now more than 87 percent black; even more significantly, only about 7 percent of the county's black students attend school with whites, according to a 2002 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
And Narvie Harris Elementary? Located in the south end of DeKalb County, it's a well-equipped, modern facility with an enrollment of about 1,000 -- a number that includes not a single white student.
For a pioneering black educator such as Harris, it would be understandable if she were bitter about the failed promise of integration that Brown v. Board of Education had offered.
In fact, she is anything but.
Having grappled with the dirt-poor conditions of rural, African-American education in the Jim Crow South and having overseen DeKalb's second-class black schools in the '50s and '60s, Harris says her goal has always been to see all children have access to the best education available. But she says that doesn't necessarily mean they must be educated together.
At mid-century, the "separate but equal" doctrine advocated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision had long been a canard, an insult to black Southerners. As Harris sees it, the Brown decision may not have resulted in rainbow classrooms and diverse teaching staffs, but that objective was probably unrealistic to begin with.
Brown, ironically, has brought Georgia closer than Harris would have imagined to fulfilling the original promise of Plessy.
These days, when she visits her namesake school, Harris smiles as she walks through its wide halls and clean, efficient classrooms, and sees the pictures of black role models in the school office and lobby. When she sees the children running to their buses, dressed in yellow and green uniforms, she is reassured that they are receiving all the advantages the county has to offer.
"We wanted better facilities, better teachers and better materials -- and we couldn't get them" before the courts stepped in, she explains. "That's why we had to desegregate."
Time was when any black teacher who wanted to work in Georgia had to first go see Robert Cousins. Cousins served as state director of Negro education in the summer of 1940, when Harris, fresh out of Clark College, went looking for a job. Even though he was white, Cousins' small office was in a separate building from the rest of the Department of Education bureaucrats.
He assigned her to a schoolhouse near Bainbridge, in southwest Georgia, where she would work for two years teaching children during the day and adult farm hands and mill workers in the evening.
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