Celebrating 125 Years

Photo of Gerrelyn Patterson

Gerrelyn Patterson

During the School of Education’s 125th Anniversary celebration events on Sept. 24-25, the School hosted a series of panel discussions. One session was entitled “Discussing Desegregation in North Carolina.” Gerrelyn Chunn Patterson (Ph.D. ’05), an assistant professor at N.C. Central University, read the following personal essay:

School Desegregation:  It Depends On Us

As the School of Education celebrates its 125th anniversary, I too, am celebrating my own personal milestone. I turned 40 years old this year. Although Brown v. Board of Education occurred in 1954, authentic efforts to implement school desegregation in North Carolina transpired during 1968-1971.

I was born in 1970, and as an innocent (and particularly beautiful) baby, I had no idea of the upheaval happening in schools all around me. Forty years have passed since 1970, and what I have realized after becoming a wife, mother, and educator is that I use a certain catch phrase over and over again – It Depends. Issues are just not as clear-cut as they seem. Sometimes, it depends.

As the mother of three young girls, a 7-year old and twin 4-year olds, I say, “It depends several times a day. For example, when one of my daughters asks if she can use the scissors, my response is always “It depends.” I ask, “What do you want to use them for?”  If the response is, “I want to make crafts,” the answer is yes. If the response is, “We’re playing beauty parlor upstairs, and I need them to cut my sister’s hair,” you can imagine the answer.

As a teacher of teachers, when my students ask how to manage student behavior, my response is “It depends.” I ask, “What behavior are you trying to manage? What is the expectation?”  It depends, of course, on the circumstances.

Even when asked to participate in the School of Education’s 125th anniversary activities, my initial response was “It depends.” I needed to know my role, if there would be parking, and most importantly, would there be lunch!

So, my response to the question of what school desegregation accomplished and did not accomplish is, as you can imagine, it depends. It depends on who you are and what you think the goal was supposed to be.

As a researcher investigating the desegregation process of Hillside High School, an all-black high school in Durham, I asked this very question to alumni: “What was accomplished and not accomplished during the school desegregation process?” The alumni spoke of what was gained – resources, access, and choice. However, they celebrated less about the gains and lamented more over the losses.

For example, Hillside alumni expressed frustration over the loss of black teachers, or more specifically, loss over the intrinsic power of black teachers.

Black teachers held a special role in the community. They were revered and respected. They were a part of the community because they lived in the neighborhoods, attended local churches, and taught several generations within families. There was a powerful and unbreakable community, cultural, and spiritual connection that they held with the students and their families.

According to the alumni, just as important was how black teachers did not have to learn or “get to know” black students and their inherent abilities. Black teachers already knew them and what they could accomplish, so no time was wasted building relationships before learning could begin.

Finally, the alumni discussed their displeasure over the systematic dismantling of black culture within schools. Before school desegregation, black culture was synonymous with school culture. There was no disconnect or need for black students to assimilate into the majority culture. School, home, and community were familiar and comfortable places where racial identity was not a challenge to be overcome.

Moreover, school stakeholders gave explicit lessons on how to be a minority and succeed within the dominant culture. Alumni expressed frustration over the loss of overtly modeling and teaching these lessons to black students.

Future teachers
As an assistant professor in the School of Education at NCCU, the nation’s first state- supported liberal arts college for African Americans, I wondered what the students I am preparing to enter the teaching profession thought about school desegregation.

They too discussed the benefits of choice and resources, but they also discussed at length the personal costs of these advantages. All of the students expressed frustration over the constant bombardment of negative messages about the low ability of black students.

One student explained, “All we hear is that we are falling behind, that we aren’t smart. You hear it so much, you think, why bother even trying?”  They spoke also of isolation, of being the only black in class. One student shared, “It starts to make you think that you are less than; that you don’t belong.”

This idea of not belonging was exemplified when the students began to complain about the lack of black teachers in schools. Many of them had never had a black teacher. A particularly distressed student asked, “Where are we? I had no black teachers. It sends us the message that blacks don’t think education is important. Where are our black teachers?”

According to the students, school desegregation has had a positive impact, but schools are now structured in a way that leave out many crucial components essential for black students to achieve.

SOE faculty
As a teacher educator, I reflected upon the role of schools of education in school desegregation and promoting educational equity. What exactly is our role? My response again is – It depends.

So many Schools of Education espouse social justice, civic engagement, and educational equity. I firmly believe that I, like so many others, have been thoroughly prepared by the School of Education at UNC-CH to work towards these ideals: through papers and publications, curriculum development, and clinical internships and projects designed for future teachers.

However, too many of us are talking just to ourselves in our own journals, our own meetings, and our own conferences. Our voices are often too quiet. Our actions are often too subtle and often too late.

So, what do we do now? Where do we stand with school desegregation and educational equity?

My answer is, It depends. But it depends on us.

Consequently, as we celebrate this 125th anniversary, I challenge each of you to find your part and to play it boldly. We must all work to equalize the playing field for all students because educational equity – It depends on us.