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.
Her next assignment was in a "Rosenwald school," named for Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who had established a fund that built more than 5,300 schools for black children throughout the South. Nevertheless, the building where Harris taught lacked running water.
Returning to Atlanta one summer, she was told by Cousins that the state had allocated new funding to provide formal training for school administrators; he suggested Harris apply to become a Jeanes supervisor.
Named after a Quaker philanthropist, Jeanes supervisors effectively acted as liaisons between the black schools and the white administration within a local school system.
Harris was selected for one of six Jeanes posts and, after a few weeks' training at Atlanta University (white trainees attended the University of Georgia), she was sent to work for the DeKalb County Board of Education. The year was 1944.
"When I got the job, my daddy said, 'Out there with the Klan?'" Harris recalls, laughing.
Life in the largely rural DeKalb of the 1940s was far removed from Harris' own comfortable upbringing in Atlanta's Fourth Ward. Her father, who ran a tailor shop on busy Auburn Avenue where his customers included black preachers and businessmen, was proud to be able to provide his family with a house and car.
"He boasted that he'd never worked for a white man," says Harris, who graduated in 1936 from stately Booker T. Washington High, Atlanta's first -- and then, only -- black high school.
By contrast, most black parents in largely white DeKalb at the time were blue-collar workers who hadn't attended high school. In the mid-'40s, the county had 17 tiny neighborhood schools for black children -- mostly in churches and assembly halls. The only actual schoolhouse for blacks was the decrepit, two-room County Line school near Ellenwood in far south DeKalb.
"That school was in such bad shape you could study botany through the floorboards, astronomy through the roof and the weather through the walls," Harris recalls. Her own office was a rented room on the second floor of a black funeral parlor in downtown Decatur.
Black students were expected to walk to school, since the school system did not provide them with transportation. Most of DeKalb's black schools had only one employee then, so versatility was a must.
"They were the teacher, the principal, the maid and the janitor," Harris says. It was her job to supervise the education of the system's black students, including hiring teachers, while acting as the liaison between black teachers and the white school superintendent, then an elected official.
The system's black and white teachers were just as segregated as the students. Until the dawn of the '70s, the two staffs held separate meetings and never visited each other's schools.
She was encouraged when, in the late '40s, Jim Cherry, a former state school supervisor, became superintendent. Harris credits Cherry with reforming the struggling DeKalb school system. Under his leadership, the county established the Fernbank Science Center, DeKalb Technical Institute and DeKalb College, now Georgia Perimeter College.
But she also remembers Cherry as a segregationist who initially had little real interest in the county's black schools, despite providing black students with their first bus in 1948 -- to share between schools.
"When he heard about Brown versus Board of Education, he was furious," she says. "He said Southern voters should make sure those judges aren't re-elected -- until I reminded him that Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president."
Brown was actually a bundling of several discrimination lawsuits brought by the NAACP and argued before the High Court by Thurgood Marshall; and the Board of Education in question was that of Topeka, Kan. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, that segregated schools were "inherently unequal." A year later, the court ordered school desegregation.
The unanimous Brown decision is now hailed as one of the foremost blows that struck down racial segregation in the South and across the country. But for Harris and thousands of other black Georgians like her who had grown up in a rigidly divided society, the court's ruling at first carried as much uncertainty as promise.
"We knew at the time that it was an important event, but you didn't see blacks jumping up and down in the street," she recalls. "None of us had ever been in a white school before. We didn't know how desegregation would work."
As the '50s wore on, most Southern school districts made few, if any, moves toward integration. DeKalb was no exception.
While the system gradually began spending more money on black students and built upgraded schools, black students and teachers still had to endure countless everyday slights and indignities. Some could be seemingly inconsequential in that era, but they still hurt.
"I didn't like being called Narvie, when a white teacher was Miss Jones," Harris recalls. "That bothered me, but I had to earn a living and it was the same everywhere."
Even as the system delayed desegregation, Harris says Brown had gotten school employees thinking about racial equality. Sometime during the mid-'60s, the most significant transformation took place when Superintendent Cherry announced he had changed his mind and would work to desegregate DeKalb schools.
The first step was bringing black and white teachers together for staff meetings. The two groups sat on opposite sides of the room and had little direct interaction, but otherwise Harris remembers few conflicts. Cherry even began calling her "Mrs. Harris."
In 1966, DeKalb launched "Freedom of Choice," a program similar to ones in other Southern systems that allowed black students to transfer to white schools. Participation, however, was initially lackluster -- not surprising, considering that students had to find their own transportation to the chosen school.
Unfortunately, Cherry's newly enlightened views were not shared by the all-white Board of Education, which clung to the segregated school system, fearing white flight among DeKalb parents.
"They fought, fought, fought" every advance the superintendent suggested, "and didn't prepare white principals to accept our students," Harris says. During the late '60s, she was sent to desegregation conferences around the country even as the school board continued to flout the Supreme Court's famously ambiguous order to move "with all deliberate speed."
In hindsight, Harris says, people should realize just how different the Southern mindset was in those days.
"As good as he was, even Cherry never handed a black boy or girl a diploma," she says.
The board's stalling tactics ended in 1969, when a class-action lawsuit resulted in the school system being placed under the supervision of U.S. District Court Judge William O'Kelly.
That summer, DeKalb's remaining five black schools -- some only a few years old -- were ordered closed. When students returned in the fall, they found themselves sent to nearby white schools, a move that cost most of them their standing in athletics and extracurricular activities.
In addition to suddenly being one of only a handful of African-Americans in an unfamiliar school, DeKalb's black students weren't allowed to play football or basketball or take part in school band that first year. The reasoning, Harris says, was that the team rosters had all been selected the previous spring.
The closing of the schools is an especially bitter memory for Harris.
"With every court decision, the responsibility for desegregating fell upon blacks," she explains. They're the ones who had to leave behind their friends to travel across the county to attend white schools.
Helen Zappia, a retired teacher who arrived at DeKalb's all-black Lynwood Park Elementary in 1968, remembers that, to prepare white teachers for dealing with black children, the school board threw together a half-day seminar that amounted to a crash-course in sensitivity training -- complete with a field trip to a soul food restaurant.
Zappia, who transferred to nearby Montgomery Elementary when Linwood closed, says many of her fellow white teachers didn't seem to know how to talk to, or discipline, their new black students. The school closings had resulted in widespread overcrowding; classrooms were "filled wall-to-wall with desks," she says, and were sometimes divided with temporary partitions so two different classes could be wedged inside.
Harris, who was given the new job of curriculum director, remembers at least one boy complaining to her that his new teachers ignored him. No matter how high he raised his hand, he couldn't get called on.
Black teachers likewise experienced hardships, she says, such as when they were reassigned clear across the county -- few had their own cars, she says -- or were sent alone to teach at a school with an all-while staff.
"I thought that was cruel and inhuman," Harris says, "to be sent somewhere where there's no one else who looks or acts like you."
Such indignities were not surprising, however, given that the DeKalb School Board hadn't bothered to involve Harris or other black employees in the decision-making process. By contrast, the more progressive Decatur system had created an interracial committee to help steer its own desegregation efforts.
The DeKalb oversight was corrected in 1976 when Judge O'Kelly ordered the formation of the county's biracial committee, which served as his surrogate watchdog to make sure the system was doing all it could to integrate schools. He was concerned that the county was backsliding because, in just the few years since the 1969 desegregation order, several previously all-white schools in the south end of the county had become nearly all black.
When Bill Strain, then an elementary school principal, was named to the committee in the early '80s, he was warned by committee veterans not to be too optimistic about the eventual outcome.
"I was told many times," Strain recalls, "that integration is the period between when the first black comes in and the last white leaves."
In a perfect world, classrooms would resemble the '70s comic strip "Wee Pals," with black, white, Latino and Asian kids all learning side-by-side, Strain says. But this is not a perfect world.
Many of the efforts of the biracial committee were directed at tweaking system attendance programs to compensate for those school districts undergoing "transition," which was the polite way of saying it was rapidly changing from white to black.
Following the 1969 ruling, the DeKalb County Board of Education introduced -- usually in response to a court order -- various programs aimed at maximizing student diversity and balancing the racial composition of school staffs.
To ensure that integration even reached schools tucked away in the whitest neighborhoods, the system was compelled by Judge O'Kelly to launch a costly "majority-to-minority" plan that allowed African-American students in mostly black schools to transfer to mostly white schools. At its peak in the mid-'80s, nearly 4,500 students endured long bus rides to take advantage of the program.
When parents complained that the most experienced teachers were concentrated among schools in the north end of the county, DeKalb set up a lottery that sent many of the veteran teachers to south DeKalb.
And when it became obvious that schools were still undergoing resegregation, the system created magnet schools offering highly specialized curricula in an effort to lure top students of all races.
"Anything short of mandatory busing, we were willing to try," recalls Strain, who insists that, during the 27 years it spent under court supervision, the county earnestly tried to keep its black and white students on equal footing with regard to funding and facilities.
"Who had the best schools -- the north or the south, black or white? We argued that question for 20 years," Strain says.
But even as the system directed funding to schools in the south end of DeKalb and those with lower-performing student bodies, its victories over segregation proved to be fleeting.
Many veteran white teachers simply quit or sought jobs elsewhere rather than accept a posting at a majority-black school in south DeKalb. Harris says it angered her to hear teachers and other administrators refer disparagingly to the schools "down South."
And once a school district became integrated, it often quickly tipped toward majority black as whites moved out of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Minnie Duncan, a 35-year veteran of DeKalb schools, recalls that when she started teaching at Woodward Elementary near Brookhaven in 1977, she was one of a handful of black teachers in classrooms filled mostly with white kids.
By the time she was transferred to a south DeKalb school as part of a court-ordered teacher lottery in 1989, white students were the minority at Woodward, Duncan says. The school's current enrollment is 80 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 4 percent white.
When the school system finally was released from court supervision in 1996, it was with the acknowledgment that school administrators had done all they could. In the process, they had learned a sociological lesson that has become common, if unspoken, knowledge among cities and counties across the country. Namely, students, teachers and tax dollars can be shuffled from one school to another in the interests of diversity and equality, but desegregation will always be a moving target as long as people are able to vote with their feet.
"The schools were not as effective a tool for integration as we had hoped because of white flight," Strain says. "In retrospect, this shouldn't be a big surprise, when you consider that the most segregated institutions in this society are our churches."
These days, as any teacher can tell you, race is not the only criteria by which children can be segregated. The creation of magnet schools, "theme schools" -- where students are given nightly homework and parents are expected to be active -- and other specialized programs has left many ordinary neighborhood schools to deal with the slow learners and kids who have disciplinary problems.
"A lot of teachers who work at regular schools feel shortchanged because we don't ever get the top students," Duncan says.
Elizabeth Andrews, a 20-year veteran of the DeKalb School Board, says the system has tried to correct such inequities as they've arisen in recent years. For instance, the board hopes to stabilize teaching staffs by limiting transfers and has put more advanced placement courses in south-end schools over the past year.
Many educational experts contend that students are shortchanged when they don't have the opportunity to interact with kids from varied backgrounds -- middle-class, blue-collar and wealthy students all learning together. Standardized test scores are typically lower in districts with poorer, working-class families, regardless of race.
"Children respond easily to other children," says Gloria Slaughter, who came to DeKalb as a teacher in 1980. "Sometimes they can learn more from each other than from the teacher. Classroom diversity helps you appreciate other cultures."
Andrews agrees. "The real world is not just one race or another," she says. "Students who have experience in only one community are going to be limited."
But racial and socioeconomic balance is difficult to achieve in a system with an overwhelmingly black student populace, where schools draw mainly from their own districts, she explains.
"We have no control over housing patterns," she says.
Duncan and Harris, however, believe the job of a school is education, not socialization. Teaching children to respect other types of people is more properly the responsibility of parents -- and it shouldn't be mandated by the government.
"The worst thing you can do is to tolerate someone simply because you have to," says Harris, who doubtless speaks from experience.
And although Helen Zappia is proud of her years teaching low-income black children, she says desegregation tactics such as the teacher lottery didn't always have the intended beneficial effect.
"The children didn't really need teachers who didn't want to be there," she says.
The best a large system like DeKalb can hope to do, Andrews says, is to keep its teaching staff as integrated as possible and promote a multicultural curriculum. But even that effort can take a backseat when schools are focused on fulfilling the myriad of state and federal educational requirements.
As for Harris, when she visits "Narvie J." -- as her namesake theme school is commonly called -- it doesn't bother her to see only black faces. That Brown didn't fulfill its promise of integrating America's schools is outweighed, in her eyes, by the impact it has had in giving blacks better access to quality education. In an imperfect world, a close approximation of "separate but equal" is better than what she saw when she was young.
Says Harris, "It doesn't make a black child any smarter just sitting next to a white child."
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