Book review on Civil Rights for School Children

This week the Wall Street Journal published my review of Vanessa Siddle Walker’s The Lost Education of Horace Tatepublished by the New Press. As we prepare to start the new school year, it’s good to be reminded of the heroic efforts of black educators fighting for civil rights in the twentieth century. 

 

It’s a historian’s dream, really: meet someone who played a crucial but mostly unsung role in a major historical development; become that person’s confidant; hear firsthand the stories of triumph, frustration and struggle; and then receive a death-bed request to rescue a trove of documents that substantiate those stories, so that future generations can better understand the historical development.

This dream became real for Emory professor Vanessa Siddle Walker, who met Horace Tate (1922-2002) at the end of his long and eventful life and then discovered the archives of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association—the vital organization of black educators that he led for more than a decade. Ms. Walker’s “The Lost Education of Horace Tate” tells the story of generations of black teachers and administrators who fought heroically over many decades for equality and justice.

For many, the struggle for civil rights in education centers on the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ms. Walker’s account makes visible a previously “unseen network of black educators” in Georgia and across the South who had been pushing for change ever since Reconstruction. They had to be persistent because the forces defending white supremacy were intransigent and often dangerous. In 1878 black educators asked for equal funding for black children; in 1920 they requested equal salaries for black teachers. By the 1960s those requests had turned into demands, and still they went unmet.

Horace Tate was born in Elberton, Ga., and became the principal of a high school in nearby Union Point at age 21. He would eventually become the first African-American to earn a doctorate from the University of Kentucky. Throughout Tate’s life, Ms. Walker argues, he found ways to channel his anger at everyday indignities into strategies for change. He refused to accept that he was a second-class teacher, or a second-class citizen, and (though it’s beyond the time frame of this study) he would go on to serve 16 years in the Georgia state senate.

Ms. Walker’s book, which draws on the archives of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association, is an important contribution to our understanding of how ordinary people found the strength to fight for equality for schoolchildren and their teachers. Asking for a bus so your kids could get from your farm to the school? For a gymnasium in which your basketball team could practice? For basic textbooks so your children could learn? Such requests to school-district authorities were generally met with disdain or worse. At times educators faced intimidation, arson, even murder. Tate received death threats and returned home one summer to find the house he rented burned to the ground.

“The Lost Education of Horace Tate” provides a granular feel for the hopes, fears and frustrations of teachers and school administrators who struggled for basic justice. Unfortunately, sometimes the detail is excessive; too much time is spent on the routine speeches and logistics of professional meetings. We learn more than enough about various officials in different teaching organizations and their subtle disagreements, but very little indeed about Horace Tate’s personal life. His first marriage deserves more than a sentence, and his family is much too far in the background for the reader to understand how his life and work were intertwined.

Later, as larger groups of educators took up the mantle of integration, black education networks sometimes had to fight to maintain influence within the movement. “Second-class integration,” Tate feared, would marginalize black professionals by making them powerless minorities within larger, mostly white, organizations.

Horace Tate was very good at his job, but this didn’t keep him from being forced out of his position as a principal when local officials suspected (rightly) that he was aligning himself with community forces aiming at equality—and, especially, with regional and national groups aiming to ensure African-American citizens could exercise their right to vote. By turning out and being counted at the polls, blacks in the South could gain at least some leverage over politicians, and so there was a concerted effort to deprive them of the franchise. As former Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge put it in 1946: “If you white people love your country, you will challenge” the black people who registered. The sentiment behind these words finds echoes wherever politicians create obstacles to voting.

Reading her book is a powerful reminder of the link between educators and the struggle for equality and justice in American history. For Horace Tate and his colleagues, teaching the lessons of democracy was never about indoctrination. It was—as it remains today—about deepening students’ awareness of the promise of American ideals and how much work is necessary to make them more than a dream.

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