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July 6th, 2015 by Mike Suarez

Comfortable Inaction, In Action*

Desegregating Chicago’s Public Schools: Policy Implementation, Politics, and Protest, 1965-1985. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 260 pp. $100.00

* The title paraphrases words spoken by President Kennedy in 1961 at the 14th annual convention of Americans for Democratic Action.

Desegregating Chicago's Public Schools

There has been a proliferation of historical scholarship over the past twenty years addressing school desegregation and state enacted policies outside of the South. Danns’ book explicates how educational inequality in Chicago withstood a political climate that sought to confront social inequities through legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to the 1980s, a moment when national politics were dominated by the New Right’s libertarian ideals of individualism and limited federal government. Historians have previously explored how Chicago became, what Dr. Martin Luther King called, “the most segregated city in the country.” Danns’ book offers a vital and important contribution to this historiography, as it sets out to specifically answer how and why segregation continued to exist in spite of federal policies and court orders requiring school desegregation in Chicago.

Concise and well researched, Desegregating Chicago’s Public Schools illustrates how state and federal policies failed to respond to the city’s racial divide. Danns contends that “the politics and disconnection between policy formulation and policy implementation” guised “the dynamics of a democratic society in which a white majority sought to protect its privileges even when it involved the continued marginalization of minorities.” The scope of Danns’ book reaches beyond simply presenting a political history of Chicago or its public school system, as the book also provides an excellent model on how to analyze and interpret the failure to enforce state and federally enacted policies. In doing so, Danns’ book offers readers a comprehensive historical analysis of school desegregation in Chicago, as well as an exemplar on how to critique not only institutional change, but also institutional torpor.

The central claim in Desegregating Chicago’s Public Schools suggests that, “political, economic, and social forces combined to make it difficult to fully desegregate the schools despite repeated efforts throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.” Danns frames her argument around three contentious, yet understudied areas of analysis: faculty desegregation, state involvement with student desegregation, and the federal government’s role in school desegregation. The narrative begins with an early case study of the Redmond Plan. In the middle of the 1967-68 school year Superintendent Redmond proposed a scaled-down desegregation plan that would bus Black students from specific neighborhoods to nearby predominately White schools. Regardless of race, public response to the idea was palpable. Employing an analytical lens grounded in critical race theory, Danns illustrates how the Redmond Plan was not truly a mode of integration, but rather a policy that put the onus on Black families and students. For instance, speaking at a PTA meeting on behalf of the Bryn Mawr community Mrs. Chatman Wailes stated, “Stabilization should not be placed as a burden on the backs of Negros. It should be a total community, understanding the solution does not mean a containment of minority groups. South Shore bigotry wants to sacrifice this generation of Negro pupils to keep white families here. If there are whites who want to leave let them go.” Ultimately, the district rolled out a very small-scaled, piloted version of the Redmond Plan. Still, and as would be the case with future initiatives, the application of the Redmond Plan was much more a “face-saving compromise with HEW’s Office of Education” to address a previous complaint filed under Title VI of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

The Redmond Plan sets the stage for Danns’ first of three focal areas of inquiry, the desegregation of school faculty. Similar to issues raised about the Redmond Plan, faculty desegregation was a burden imposed upon the Black community and had debilitating effects on Black students and faculty. Jesse Jackson, the figurehead of Operation PUSH, one of Chicago’s larger community action organizations maintained, “the desegregation plan would only take experienced black teachers out of black schools and replace them with white teachers incapable of inspiring black students.” The Chicago School Board never sought full integration by dispersing its staff according to race and expertise. Instead, the district uprooted exemplary Black teachers and made it difficult for young Black educators to obtain initial employment. Access into the profession had already been difficult for new Black educators, as “many black teachers spent years on substitute lists until a position opened at a black school. Blacks also tended to be on substitute lists longer than whites, as they were identified and intentionally sent to black schools.” Those who did obtain teaching credentials were often limited to openings at predominantly Black schools. Meanwhile, the students in Black schools paid the ultimate price for the district’s approach to faculty desegregation. These schools lost strong, experienced Black teachers to predominantly White schools, and in turn received inexperienced or less effective White teachers.

Personal testimonies carry the narrative in this chapter framed strongly around sources including school board meetings, community organization protests, and newspaper editorials, along with a collection of personally conducted interviews. Well-substantiated, the chapter presents a new, northern perspective to Michael Fultz’ findings on school desegregation in the South: “Moreover, as African-American educators were acutely aware, desegregation was legally and politically structured in a manner which allowed deeply rooted White racial ideologies and practices virtual free reign in determining critical educational policy outcomes for most of the first two decades post-Brown.” Although this chapter succeeds at illustrating how Chicago Public Schools responded to a federal mandate, its tone stands somewhat alone from the rest of the book through its use of vignettes and individual accounts. Danns shifts the narrative in subsequent chapters toward the political backdrop of nearly twenty years of failed policy implementation. The chapters on state and federal involvement in student desegregation do offer some robust descriptions of individual and community perspectives, such as the 1963 and 1964 Freedom Day Boycotts. And, the analysis in these chapters piece together how and why the state and federal government failed to implement enacted policies.

Danns’ second field of inquiry explores the state’s languid attempt at enforcing school desegregation. In exceptionally detailed prose, this chapter exposes how a series of political maneuvers allowed school officials, alongside the city’s turgid Mayor Richard J. Daley, to side step the state’s demand for compliance with federally mandated orders for student desegregation. Danns states, “Without a clear indication that the state would hold Chicago Public Schools financially accountable, school officials continued to evade the state’s demands.” Local leader’s thwarted most attempts by the state to hold Chicago Public Schools accountable for school desegregation measures. To demonstrate this point, Danns highlights Superintendent Hannon’s proposal “Access to Excellence.” Limited in scope and failing to address the same concerns raised in response to the Redmond Plan, Access to Excellence required schools to serve no more than “90 percent white or minority students at an individual school.” Addressing the issue of inequality of educational opportunity, Access to Excellence promoted the implementation of more rigorous courses for all schools, such as Advanced Placement classes. Access to Excellence came under attack from both the state, for not meeting their minimal requirements, and from groups such as the Urban League, who noted the program’s implicit “elitism” through its support for those individuals and communities already receiving the most resources. Regardless of the growing amount of criticism from the state, community organizations, and a number of notable researchers such as Gary Orfield, the district was never seriously held accountable for implementing procedures that would comply with federal and state statutes. As the Urban League called it, things remained “business as usual.” Danns explains, “Because the state failed in its efforts, the federal government became involved in requiring student desegregation in Chicago. After years of pressure, the state lost its ability to force Chicago to meet its guidelines.” The failure of the state to impose true pressure on Chicago Public Schools to desegregate its students led to federal involvement.

Danns’ last area of analysis, the federal government’s role in school desegregation, illuminates how shifting federal policies from the mid-1960s through the early-1980s allowed for unabated inaction by the city’s public school district. Throughout the Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations school officials in Chicago skirted the implementation of a systemic policy to desegregate its schools by proposing plans that minimally addressed the issue simply to obtain ESEA funds. Not until the death of Mayor Daley and his democratic political machine, alongside President Carter’s demand for compliance under Title VI of the ESEA, did Chicago Public Schools face a fervent attempt at forcing the city into action. However, when an updated version of the Access to Excellence plan was proposed to meet Title VI statutes, the district contended with an even more formidable opponent, a collective rejection of the plan from the city’s Black and White citizens. Danns shows how two communities with drastically different ideals and goals aligned in a collective unwillingness to accept Access to Excellence II. Delicately balancing the issue at both a micro and macro level, Danns excels at pointing out how hastily proposed policies neglected to consider the perspectives of the communities they would directly impact.

In the end, the federal government did not successfully enforce compliance, nor did the district’s leadership even propose plans that would meet those requirements. So often was the case across the country, desegregation of Chicago’s public schools necessitated involvement by the justice department. Having not met the requirements of Title VI, the justice department forced a “consent decree” upon the school District in 1980. At this point, Danns’ claim that a federal policy in a state of constant fluctuation failed to resolve the issue of student desegregation in Chicago truly hits home. The court ordered consent decree came just as Ronald Reagan took office, which quickly ushered in changes to federal involvement with school desegregation. In the process, the federal government relegated the consent decree to the status of policy enactment without the necessary authority to ensure its enforcement. As many other historians have noted, Reagan’s presidency represented a shift in both American political ideals and its social agenda. More and more White citizens of Chicago and residents of its vastly growing suburbs aligned with a burgeoning political ideology that viewed state forced policies as an infringement upon individual liberties (or what Kevin Kruse called the desire for “freedom of association”). To go further, by the time of the Justice Department’s consent decree was established in 1980, “whites barely comprised of half of the city’s population.”

Desegregating Chicago’s Public Schools is an excellent political history in its own right, but given its implicit argument concerning socially just policies versus our present emphasis on individual liberties and choice, it can also be read as an excellent starting point to understand the origins of policies and practices undergirding our current dilemma of unequal opportunities in public schools. Danns’ book does what it sets out to do, show how “within the school system at least, segregation persists even as rhetoric and beliefs that suggests otherwise prevail”; and it leaves us with an important, thought-provoking question: “Is school desegregation still valued or is it an ideal whose time has come and passed?”

A Short List of Suggested Readings

About Chicago
Anderson, Alan B., and George W. Pickering. Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Danns, Dionne. Something Better for Our Children: Black Organizing in Chicago Public Schools, 1963-1971. New York: Psychology Press, 2003.

James R., Ralph Jr. Northern Protest: Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Rury, John. L. “Race and the Politics of Chicago’s Public Schools: Benjamin Willis and the Tragedy of Urban Education.” Urban Education in the United States: A Historical Reader. Ed. John L. Rury. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Of Note
Bell, Derrick A. Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Burkholder, Zoe. “From Forced Tolerance to Forced Busing: Wartime Intercultural Education and the Rise of Black Educational Activism in Boston.” Harvard Educational Review 80, no. 3 (2010): 293-327.

Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Fultz, Michael. “The Displacement of Black Educators Post-Brown: An Overview and Analysis.” History of Education Quarterly 44, no. 1 (2004): 11-45.

Green, Paul. “The Paradox of the promised Unfulfilled: Brown v. Board of Education and the Continued Pursuit of Excellence in Education.” The Journal of Negro Education 73, no. 3 (2004): 268-284.

Kruse, Kevin. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: University of Princeton Press, 2005.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Landing on the Wrong Note: The Price We Paid for Brown.” Educational Researcher 33, no. 7 (2004): 3-13.

Orfield, Gary and Susan Eaton. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown vs. Board of Education. New York: New Press, 1996.

Sugrue, Thomas J. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.

Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Mike Suarez is a former high school teacher and current doctoral candidate in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His program emphasis is in Education Foundations, Policy and Practice. He can be reached at

Education’s Histories thanks Mike Suarez for serving as a book reviewer. Education’s Histories publishes both book reviews and methodological reviews of research and tools. If you are interested in reviewing with us, please email us at


February 27th, 2015 by John Frederick Bell

Race, Power, and Education in Early America

Craig Steven Wilder. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. 423 pp. $30.00.

Ebony and Ivy The relationship between higher education, race, and slavery has become a burgeoning field of inquiry. In recent years, historians and archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of information on the complicity of American colleges and universities in chattel slavery, scientific racism, colonization schemes, and the dispossession of Native Americans. Taking their cue from path-breaking historical commissions at Yale and Brown in the early 2000s, several prominent institutions including Emory, Harvard, the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary have sponsored long overdue initiatives aimed at recovering these unsavory chapters from their pasts. Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities represents a synthesis of these early findings, along with many of the author’s own conclusions. Given its important subject matter, it is a book historians of education and their students should know well.

As the first comprehensive monograph on the linkages between race, slavery, and higher education, Ebony and Ivy offers scholars valuable lessons for conducting further research in this subfield. Readers will naturally draw different conclusions from this extensive book, whose footnotes alone total 115 pages. This review focuses on Wilder’s main theme, the historical relationship between education and power, and considers its implications for our understanding of early American colleges.

*  *  *

Ebony and Ivy makes two overarching claims (Parts I and II of the book, respectively): early American colleges were active beneficiaries of the slave economy, and they furthered these systems of inequality through their exercise of intellectual authority and their production of knowledge. For Wilder, there was nothing subtle about the association of power and education in this era. “The American college trained the personnel and cultivated the ideas that accelerated and legitimated the dispossession of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans,” he writes. “Modern slavery required the acquiescence of scholars and the cooperation of academic institutions.” Wilder portrays power and higher education’s relationship as symbiotic. Colleges needed the support of merchants, planters, and empires in order to survive, and these authorities depended on the academy to provide “intellectual cover for the social and political subjugation of non-white peoples.” Were universities the sine qua non of white supremacy? No, but Wilder ranks them as “the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage” along with the church and the state.

Wilder does not mince words in his characterizations. Early in Part I, he twice likens colleges to forts as he assesses their utility as tools of conquest for the French, Spanish, and British empires. At first, the claim feels exaggerated. How can he compare higher education to an armory or a garrison in its ability to suppress and subdue? Wilder best illustrates his point by describing occasions when, in fact, colleges operated much like these other instruments of empire. In 1711, for instance, the governor of Virginia ordered twenty Tuscarora hostages be sent to the College of William and Mary. The college was simultaneously receiving per capita donations from an English trust for Indians’ missionary training, so it may have actually profited from the arrival of these twenty prisoners. Devil’s bargains like these typified Indian education in its colonial heyday. Along with William and Mary, institutions like Harvard, Dartmouth, and the College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania) doubly cheated indigenous students, first by stripping them of their culture and then by using them as emissaries to ensure tribal obedience. Scholars might disagree with Wilder’s choice to forgo the trickier questions of hybridity and agency that often accompany discussion of colonial missions. Emphasizing colleges’ strategic value leaves less room for examining cultural exchanges between Europeans and indigenous people. As important as these considerations are, Wilder argues that at the end of the day, Indian education programs existed to reinforce white interests. Perhaps his strongest evidence comes from the simple fact that American colleges discontinued these programs when Native resistance waned.

Power abundantly reciprocated the support it received from education. Wilder follows the money to exhaustively detail how the African slave trade financed higher education in British America. In the mid-eighteenth century, merchant elites replaced religious organizations as the primary source of philanthropy for colonial colleges. Institutions cultivated West Indian slave traders as donors; immense Caribbean fortunes endowed scholarships and professorships and bankrolled building campaigns. Officials nurtured these sorts of relationships by inviting merchants to become trustees and recruiting their sons as students. Wilder further reveals the importance of alumni networks in connecting northern colleges to the wealth of the South and the Caribbean. Harvard and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) sent numerous graduates southward as tutors and clergy, developing interregional allegiances that would persist through the Civil War. By highlighting these connections, Ebony and Ivy complements other recent scholarship showing the importance of social capital to the development of early American education. If actions speak louder than words, understanding how schools maintained external support can go a long way toward illuminating their institutional character.

Wilder argues that college life contributed to students’ “moral comfort with bondage.” In the eighteenth century, faculty, trustees, and presidents frequently owned African slaves, who performed any number of chores and errands around American campuses, North and South. Unfree labor built not only the Universities of North Carolina and Virginia but also helped construct portions of Dartmouth and the College of Rhode Island (Brown). The regular presence of enslaved people acquainted uninitiated students with slavery and its methods. Yet some northern graduates maintained reservations about the peculiar institution, especially when confronted with its grosser manifestations on visits to the plantation South. “Such moments of moral reckoning were rare,” Wilder clarifies, but by interspersing a few in his narrative, he hints that whites should have known better because some, in fact, did. To make this critique explicit would be to risk anachronism. After all, colonial academics would probably be as repulsed by the values of today’s universities as we are by theirs. Moreover, magnifying white ambivalence would undercut his larger argument that “human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas.” By concentrating instead on the overwhelming and appalling evidence of colleges’ complicity in bondage, Wilder lets the details do the damning.

Part II of Ebony and Ivy examines how the academy helped validate expansionism and white supremacy in the mid to late nineteenth century republic through its promotion of scientific racism and colonization. According to Wilder, it wasn’t coincidental that the “genesis of American medical science corresponded to…the ascent of race.” In the early national period, anatomy was as much a hegemonic practice as biological one. Scholars turned to dissection to substantiate their theories of human difference, and medical schools weren’t above defiling the graves of the under classes (blacks, American Indians, and Irish) for bodies with which to conduct their experiments. This “research” made academics prominent voices in contemporary debates over human origins. Recent works in Atlantic history have drawn on these exchanges to illustrate the influence of theology and colonialism on the evolution of race. Wilder contributes to this discussion by underscoring the role of American universities in reconciling competing scriptural and scientific arguments about human origins.

Academics endorsed monogenesis while stressing the influence of geography in determining the “natural” characteristics of the races. The implications of this environmentalist argument would seem to contradict notions of inherent difference, and Wilder shows that for a time, antislavery views gained traction on college campuses across America. In the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, however, white power intervened in the South to redirect education toward its ends. Beholden to their slaveholding supporters, the southern academy began asserting its unique authority in studies of race “as bondage became peculiar to their region.” How northern and European scientists responded to these claims goes unaddressed, and Wilder misses an opportunity to discuss the vital contributions of Harvard’s infamous polygenist Louis Agassiz to southern science. Instead, he focuses on how college officials in the newly free states vigorously opposed the prospect of a multiracial society. After northern emancipation, academics became some of the region’s most vocal advocates of resettling free blacks in Africa, their “natural” environment.

Wilder painstakingly inventories the participation of college presidents, trustees, and faculty in the American Colonization Society, but his analysis of campus debates over immediate emancipation abolition is arguably more significant, albeit more subtle. The formation of student abolition societies troubled administrators in the 1830s, but not simply because these officials were colonizationists. Through the mid-nineteenth century, the civic function of higher education was to reaffirm, rather than realign, the social order. By opening the American promise to black Americans in even a limited way, abolitionism threatened the white establishment. Thus, administrators objected to students’ views on both political and educational grounds. In the end, colonization mostly carried the day, but the underlying tension between social conservatism and social reform dogged higher education for more than a century after slavery’s abolition.

Ebony and Ivy stand outs from previous scholarship in both its range and its daring. Prior studies of race and slavery in American higher education have examined particular institutions, though a few have considered regional trends. By widening the scope of inquiry to consider multiple schools, North and South, as well as multiple races (white, black, and American Indian), Wilder demonstrates the pervasiveness of white supremacy in early college culture. A comparative approach positions him to evaluate the financial, social, and intellectual networks that institutionalized racism within the academy. Wilder recognizes that as systems, education, imperialism, racism, and slavery require systemic analysis. Future historians of these subjects should heed his example. Ebony and Ivy inspires a wealth of avenues for new scholarship, from historical investigations of slavery and higher education in the Old Southwest and border states to transatlantic histories of scientific racism to studies of slavery’s influence on other emergent professional disciplines such as law. Whatever direction they choose, scholars should be sure to attend to the larger economies and ideologies of power that underlay their actors’ motives and mindsets.

Slavery and racism were omnipresent in early America. From the colonial period well into the twentieth century, white American society staked its fortunes on the exploitation of nonwhite people. If education is the process of cultural transmission, we should not be at all surprised that the first institutions of higher learning furthered the perverse value systems of their era. Yet Ebony and Ivy remains a profoundly unsettling read. Wilder alerts American academics that our professional world was built on a foundation of bigotry and violence. Historians of education have a critical role to play in recovering and elucidating this troubling past. Ebony and Ivy shows us how challenging and how necessary that work truly is.

Suggestions for Further Reading

A.J. Angulo, “William Barton Rogers and the Southern Sieve: Revisiting Science, Slavery, and Higher Learning in the Old South,” History of Education Quarterly, 45:1 (Spring 2005): 18-37.

Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, et al. Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History (2011)

Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, Slavery and Justice (2006)\_Justice/documents/SlaveryAndJustice.pdf.

Terry L. Meyers, “A First Look at the Worst: Slavery and Race Relations at the College of William and Mary,” The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 16: 4 (April 2008): 1141-1168.

Michael Sugrue, “‘We Desired our Future Rulers to be Educated Men’: South Carolina College, the Defense of Slavery, and the Development of Secessionist Politics,” Higher Education Annual 14 (1994): 39-71.

Stephen Tomlinson and Kevin Windham, “Northern Piety and Southern Honor: Alva Woods and the Problem of Discipline at the University of Alabama, 1831-1837,” Perspectives in the History of Higher Education 25 (2006): 1-42.

Kenneth Wheeler, “Higher Education in the Antebellum Ohio Valley: Slavery, Sectionalism, and the Erosion of Regional Identity,” Ohio Valley History 8: 1 (Spring 2008): 1-22.

Richard N. Wright, “Ambivalent Bastions of Slavery: The ‘Peculiar Institution’ on College Campuses in Antebellum Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 80: 3 (Fall 1996): 467-485.

Education’s Histories thanks John Frederick Bell for serving as a book reviewer. Education’s Histories publishes both book reviews and methodological reviews of research and tools. If you are interested in reviewing with us, please email us at