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April 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 7

Confronting Inequity / Lessons from Pre-Brown Teachers

Instructional Strategies
Confronting Inequity / Lessons from Pre-Brown Teachers thumbnail
What happens in educational environments where the local community is viewed as an asset and acts in partnership with schools? Where students' identities and interests are reflected in the curriculum and instructional practices? Where educators live in the community in which they teach? Where families and educators embrace student disciplinary and behavioral challenges as opportunities to help them develop rather than to exclude them? And where black students see themselves reflected in the fabric of a school—in its policies, personnel, and cultural values?
Such were the types of schools that many black students experienced prior to the Brown v. the Board of Education decision of 1954. To be logical and fair, as with all institutions, these schools faced challenges, which were compounded in their case by systemic discrimination, including a lack of material resources (Milner, 2018). However, the benefits of these educational environments often exceeded the challenges faced because students had educators who believed in them and co-constructed spaces that allowed them to succeed (socially, emotionally, spiritually, and academically) (Siddle Walker, 1996; Tillman, 2004).
The 65th anniversary of the Brown decision provides an opportunity for us to think about the types of practices that propel learning opportunities for black students and the school spaces that give them a sense of belonging and connectedness. Many of these students continue to be grossly underserved by school systems across the United States. From my own research, and established literature on the work of black teachers and black students during the pre-Brown era, I have identified key practices that I believe can be transferred to today's schools and classrooms in order to better support our students.
In particular, I draw from the experiences of two people I've interviewed who were students during the pre-Brown era and later became educators—Mr. Williams from Alabama and Ms. Shaw from Tennessee.

Caring and Loving Practices

Black teachers in the pre-desegregation era attempted to understand their students and their families. They learned about the interests and goings on of their students from others in the community (people in their church, in the beauty parlor and barbershop, or in the grocery store). They saw their students as human beings worth caring about and dared to love them as they would love and care about their own children. Ms. Shaw explained that when she was a student, it was not unusual for her teachers to purchase clothes, food, and supplies for their students and their families. She also stressed that teachers would collectively rally together to find work for the parents of their students when needed. Their care demonstrated a deep level of familial kinship.

Asset-Centering Practices

In addition to caring about and loving their students, black teachers actively rejected deficit views of their students and were determined to build on their many strengths. For instance, Ms. Shaw noted that, when she became a teacher, rather than calling students "loud," she complimented them on how expressive they were and how their ability to speak for themselves with authority could benefit them. Ms. Shaw said that she would ask these students to come to the front of her social studies class and help her explain an idea. In general, these teachers believed that, despite stereotypes and labels, their students were in fact knowledgeable and capable and brought valuable expertise and ways of communicating into the classroom.

Never-Let-Them-Fail Practices

These teachers held their students to high expectations, but were also determined to help them excel. They gave their students multiple chances to succeed and supported them through challenges and difficult times. Ms. Shaw shared that one of her students had decided that he needed to drop out of school to support his family in the last months of his senior year. Although she wanted to talk him out of dropping out, she realized his family needed the financial support immediately. So instead, she advocated for him, talking with other teachers and the school's leadership to make arrangements so that the student could do school work before and after his work hours. He was able to graduate and earn his high school diploma.

Keeping-Students-in-the-Classroom Practices

Mr. Williams also shared that, as a teacher, he did not have to (nor did he want to) send his students to the office to "correct" misbehavior. He—and many of his colleagues—would just stop by the home of the involved student when challenges emerged. Parents or other family members would work with the student to address the issues. Mr. Williams didn't expect parents or families to "solve" or "fix" the behavioral challenges, but to work in conjunction with him to address the issues. In this way, black teachers tended to avoid placing students' destinies in the hands of a school administrator—someone who likely did not know the student as well and who could potentially suspend the student. Of course, when students aren't in the classroom, they miss important content and instruction that can influence their learning and development—something that is all too common today.

Parent-, Family-, and Community-Engagement Practices

Ms. Shaw and Mr. Williams both stressed that black teachers saw value in the parents, families, and communities of their students because they themselves lived with and among their students. While these teachers were revered and seen as experts and pillars in the community, they were also approachable and immersed in the community's life. They wanted their local community to succeed and their students to flourish because they were neighbors. These teachers not only saw their connections with students' families and communities as essential for building relationships with students, but they also anchored and scaffolded what they learned from these relationships to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom.

Learning from Elders

As we know, black teachers of the pre-Brown era were professionals who were assets to the school system. Even today, much can be learned from the success they had with their students, despite the discrimination and inequitable conditions their schools faced. While an increase in the black teaching force could potentially be advantageous for all students today, teachers of any ethnic or culture background can benefit from the examples of these teachers' practices. Ask yourself: In what ways might you improve your practices with black students? How might you become a trusted advocate for and with black students at a time when schools are still beset by inequities and exclusionary practices?

Milner, H. R. (2018). Brown Lecture: Disrupting punitive practices and policies: Rac(e)ing back to teaching, teacher preparation, and Brown. [Video.] American Education Research Association. Retrieved from

Siddle Walker, V. (1996). Their highest potential: An African American school community in the segregated south. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Tillman, L. C. (2004). (Un)Intended consequences? The impact of the Brown v. Board of Education decision on the employment status of black educators. Education and Urban Society, 36(3), 280–303.

H. Richard Milner IV is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Racing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and coauthor of "These Kids Are Out of Control": Why We Must Reimagine "Classroom Management" for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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