There’s an enduring myth that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was “the first step” in the fight to desegregate schools. Rachel Devlin, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, is looking to upend that myth. A Girl Stands At The Door, her new account of the black girls and teens who laid the groundwork for the historic ruling, draws from interviews and archival research to show that before Linda Brown, a 9-year-old, became the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, a generation of black girls and young women from the Deep South to the Midwest fueled the grassroots crusade to strike down the “separate but equal” doctrine in America’s public schools and colleges.
Before Brown, some dozen lawsuits were filed on behalf of young black women attempting to enroll in all-white schools—and after Brown, black girls, almost exclusively, did the hard labor of walking through all-white mobs and sitting in previously all-white classrooms, with sometimes hostile classmates and teachers, in pursuit of school integration.
I spoke with Devlin about the black youth who led the effort to racially integrate schools and catalyzed the broader anti-segregation movement. The interview that follows has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Melinda D. Anderson: A disproportionate number of black girls were at the forefront of the school-desegregation movement from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s. Why were black girls continually chosen to break the color barrier?
Rachel Devlin: Interestingly, there are no written records about why girls were chosen over and over again in individual lawsuits. These choices were made on a level that was not always entirely conscious. Parents would explain why they should file a lawsuit, and girls agreed. Many of them said, “I was willing.” Other parents drafted their daughters, and the young women cooperated, yet most of the young women who participated were fully invested in school desegregation.
The other thing about girls is that they were good at it. To speak to principals and lawyers and the press you have to be poised, you have to be personable and diplomatic, and young black women had these attributes. They dealt with constant verbal and sexual harassment on the streets of southern cities, of northern cities, and they were acutely aware of their self-presentation in public. It was drilled into them as a way to protect their dignity. Also, very few African American girls and young women did not at some point in their lives work in a white home, and they had to learn how to navigate around white people.
But I want to be clear. This was not just about being accommodating—they knew how to stand their ground. Girls were good at combining different forms of bravery; they could be both stubborn and tough, but also project social openness. They had that sense of self-possession that was extremely useful in these situations.
Anderson: You write that the language in the Brown v. Board of Education decision contains “the same moral conviction that inspired black girls to walk up to the doors of white schools and seek to cross the threshold.” In what way are these girls’ untold stories reflected in this landmark ruling?
Devlin: A black girl walking up the steps of a white school and announcing her intentions to go to school with white children was a radical act of social optimism. Most white people—and a good many African Americans—in the late 1940s and early 1950s believed that white and black children would never be able to learn in an integrated setting. That racial hostility was intractable.
In fact, judges who ruled against these plaintiffs said just that in their decisions. By showing up at the schoolhouse door, these girls were asserting not only their right to attend historically white schools, but that they believed they were capable of sharing a classroom with white students. Their actions and moral clarity reflected their confidence that they and their white peers could coexist in the intimate setting of a school. The Supreme Court decision asserted this same presumption: that it was fitting, right, and possible for children of different races to attend school together in the United States.
Anderson: The battle for school integration sparked bitterness, anger, and even violence. Some of these black girls were elementary-school age. What was the physical and psychological cost of being first?
Devlin: Tessie Prevost-Williams and Leona Tate integrated T.J. Semmes Elementary School in New Orleans, in third grade. Along with Gail Etienne, the three of them received the worst violence that I recorded in the book. Because they were so young and so little, people would punch them, trip them, spit in their food. They said they could hardly go to the bathroom because that was a very dangerous space. It was a war inside the school. Tessie, Leona, and Gail all said it was a living hell.
I think the resilience that these young women had is hard to imagine. One would think that it would have been a crippling experience, but they sensed from a very early age the weight and enormity of what they were doing. They came to understand the notion of sacrifice for social justice. The stamina that it took to survive was fed and reinforced by the magnitude of what they were accomplishing.
I think it’s very hard from a current-day perspective to imagine a child going through that. In some ways we just have to be astonished at what they did. America was effecting social change on the backs of young children, and we have to ask ourselves what this means about political change in this country, that we leaned on young children to do this work of racial reconciliation.
Anderson: You talked to some of these women in your research. How do they view the resegregation of schools today—what some have called the broken promises of Brown v. Board of Education?
Devlin: Of the nearly 30 people that I interviewed, to a person, they still very much believe in what they did. They tend to look at the broader changes that have happened as a result of Brown v. Board, the day-to-day interactions between white and black Americans in a society that is diverse and desegregated. They see a larger tableau that has been fundamentally altered because the schools desegregated—the ripple effects of the Brown decision.
They also understand that people within the black community question desegregation. Some of them have even been the object of complaints: If you hadn’t done this, we would still have all-black schools. But they say it had to be done. Millicent Brown, who was among the first to integrate schools in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1963, put it in a way that’s quite striking: “We could not have apartheid in the schools.”