“Slavery in Wilton, A Hidden Legacy” is a beautifully written paper prepared by five Wilton students: Meaghan Downey, Eve Mandel, Nina Mellin, Kyle Nash and Ian Sanders. It’s filled with troubling detail offering a poignant but long-forgotten local reminder that to understand where we are, we really need to know how we got here. And its title is evocative of an even larger truth:
Our general public knowledge of the progress from slavery to segregation to attempts at desegregation in our very own North is a sanitized reality by which we put the most stark events behind us, remembered in a Panglossian “see how far we’ve come!” Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis’ book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,” calls us to task for “forgetting the decades-long struggles in Northern cities that had been repeatedly dismissed, disparaged and denied” by those in power. “The actual civil rights movement was far more disruptive, demanding, contentious and profound than it’s depicted.” In so misremembering American history, we doom ourselves to relive the same deeply disturbing patterns without resolving the underlying issues.
Theoharis is particularly critical of the response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in terms of desegregation of Northern schools. She documents in great detail Northern municipalities’ failure even to acknowledge their segregation of African-American students and to provide for their education in any way comparable to that of whites. She calls out the hypocrisy of major newspapers in N.Y.C., Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago that spoke out vigorously (and certainly rightly) about Southern segregation and yet couldn’t see the mote in their own Northern eyes.
Those newspapers’ attitudes were reflective of politicians and school board members in the North who bemoaned Southern segregation yet did nothing about their own. Northern politicians, school boards and journalists ignored years of peaceful African-American calls for action in petitions, meetings and marches over gross inadequacies in education, housing, jobs and criminal justice. Yet they expressed profound surprise when unsuccessful African-American efforts through governmental channels left dreams “shrunk and disfigured” and then morphed into Northern city riots. “The concept of Northern segregation as ‘de facto’ — in contrast to ‘de jure’ segregation [by governmental action] found in the South — was perhaps the slipperiest and most long-lasting way of masking the intentional nature of school segregation in Northern cities…. Many Northern metropolises were more segregated than Southern ones…. According to a 2013 report, nine of the ten most segregated U.S. cities are in the North.”
On the education front, Northern whites attacked school busing even as they ignored the years of white student busing to carry those students away from predominantly African-American schools. They ignored also the continually gerrymandered school rezoning to keep predominantly white schools white and predominantly African-American schools black as neighborhoods’ racial composition changed. This school rezoning mirrored the pervasive nationwide federal-government-imposed red-lining through the F.H.A. and V.A. of whole neighborhoods in which home mortgage loans would not be issued to African Americans, as described in detail in my Oct. 26, 2017 column. They also ignored the often decrepit quality of school buildings and issues of overwhelming class size, antiquated textbooks, and limited course offerings in predominantly African-American schools. As Theoharis sums it all up, “segregation was about material denials, resource hoarding and restrictions in terms of first-class citizenship…. Indeed, Northerners repeatedly used political power and pressure to evade desegregation and federal mandates.”
It’s against this background that almost three-quarters of a century after the Brown decision, we must at last understand and confront our past to fix what should have been remedied generations ago. As Theoharis recounts so well, we want to tame history and glorify progress as though it had fully accomplished its originally conceived ends. While much progress has undeniably been made, much has been intentionally left undone even as key figures in the civil rights movement have been relegated to academic treatise footnotes or remembered solely as, for example, “the woman who sat on the bus” — forgetting all of Rosa Parks’ courageous organizing work long before that moment and continuing long after: “an ‘accidental’ heroine, meek and dreamy, rather than a longstanding activist whose belief in the need for continuing struggle lasted until her death.”
What remains to be done is enormous, yet with real knowledge of history and with focused action now, we can heal and rectify to make wished-for versions of the past a present reality with, in Theoharis’ words, a “fundamental reordering” required.