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School Segregation of the Past Yields Lessons for Today, U.Va. Education Professor Says

Aug. 22, 2007 -- Despite working in segregated, unequal schools in the first half of the 20th century, African-American teachers in Georgia taught democracy and civics in their classes and created a curriculum that included African-American culture and history. Patrice Preston Grimes, an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education, is working to bring their efforts to light and sees relevance for “continuing to address injustice in schools in whatever form it takes.”

By analyzing primary sources, including archived school division documents, and interviewing the few surviving early educators, Grimes has found that African-American teachers contributed to the revision of the state’s social studies curriculum and found ways to convey and model civic principles “in spite of the inherent contradiction of teaching citizenship beliefs and practices in a society that denied African-Americans their constitutional rights.”

In the education context, adults and youth were taking early steps that would lead to the Civil Rights Movement, Grimes says.

“This is fundamental to African-American history. It’s a period of time not frequently looked at, but things were happening in the 1930s and ’40s that laid the groundwork for the ’50s and ’60s.”
Her article, “Teaching Democracy before Brown: Civic Education in Georgia’s African American Schools, 1930-1954,” published in the Winter 2007 issue of Theory and Research in Social Education, received the 2007 National Council for the Social Studies Exemplary Research Award.

Grimes’ work adds a new layer to the history and significance of civic education shortly before the Civil Rights Movement ramped up in the '60s. During this period of time, the future leaders of the movement — Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Julian Bond, Vernon Jordan and many others — were young students. Grimes sees their education as one of the important influences, along with home and church, that led them to fighting for equal rights, she said.

Georgia's African-American teachers, excluded from the white teachers’ association, created their own statewide group and disseminated education news and ideas in their own magazine, The Herald. Although in segregated groups, black teachers gave their input for the revision of the social studies curriculum and later documented the activities in which their students participated. Teachers planned civic-related activities in and outside of school, including mock voting registration and participation.

“Teaching civic education was a tool that supported self-sufficiency, social responsibility and community agency in segregated schools,” she writes in her article.

Grimes said youth today would benefit from similar influences and engagement in African-American history. The recent death of civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill, for example, is an occasion to reflect on the not-so-distant past, to learn about the legacy, the actions and ideas, of people like him.

“We’re not finished. To forget, or not to continue to strive for the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, would be a disservice to people’s struggle for equality,” she said.

Even though she says school desegregation was necessary to work toward equality, “there was learning going on in those school environments despite the inequalities.”

Some of the former all-black schools hold reunions to bring those communities back together, Grimes said. In her research, she plans to document their curricula and educational practices before they are lost.

She joins other educators in arguing that schools have not achieved the equity fought for in the Civil Rights Movement, despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that rejected the use of race as a factor in assigning children to public schools. If equity had been achieved, there would be no reason for the No Child Left Behind Act, she said, noting there is current debate as it comes up for reauthorization.

The social studies council’s award recognizes an individual or team for outstanding single-study research in social studies and social education. Grimes, who earned her Ph.D. in educational studies at Emory University, teaches classes in elementary social studies education, including the use of technology in teaching and learning. She will receive the award and give her paper at the 87th NCSS annual conference in San Diego in December.

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