“When we would go to white schools, we’d see these lovely classrooms, with a small number of children in each class,” Ruth Batson recalled. As a Boston civil-rights activist and the mother of three, Batson gained personal knowledge of how the city’s public schools shortchanged black youth in the 1950s and 1960s. “The teachers were permanent. We’d see wonderful materials. When we’d go to our schools, we would see overcrowded classrooms, children sitting out in the corridors, and so forth. And so, then we decided that where there were a large number of white students, that’s where the care went. That’s where the books went. That’s where the money went.”
Batson was one of the millions of black parents and citizens in cities like Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York who saw firsthand how school segregation and inferior educational opportunities harmed black students in the decades after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Like black parents across the country Batson cared deeply about education and fought on behalf of her children and her community. Batson’s three-decade-long struggle for education equality in Boston illuminates both the long history of black civil-rights activism in the North and the resistance from white politicians and parents that thwarted school desegregation. The battles Batson fought are still ongoing and are being discussed today with renewed urgency. Thanks to work by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Richard Kahlenberg, and many others, school integration is being debated publicly in a way not seen in nearly 40 years. The popular understanding of school desegregation, however, is sketchy, and terms like “busing,” “de facto segregation,” and “neighborhood schools” are commonly used but poorly understood. There is a gap between what scholars like Jeanne Theoharis and Ansley Erickson have established about the history of school segregation and how the popular conversation proceeds. In order to think about how school integration can work in 2016 and beyond, it is crucial to reckon with the history of school-desegregation efforts in cities like Boston and to appreciate how people like Batson dedicated their lives to improving educational opportunities for black children.