Everett R. Berryman Jr. was 11 years old when the Supreme Court handed down the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which made racial segregation in public schools illegal.
But supervisors in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where Berryman was attending public school, had no intention of complying. Five years later, in 1959, as Berryman was looking ahead to attending 7th grade, the county shuttered all public schools and opened a private school – for White children only. It would take five years, an intervention by the Department of Justice and another Supreme Court order, before integrated public schooling in Prince Edward County proceeded.
Around the same time, in North Carolina, Dr. E.B. Palmer was working as the executive secretary of state for the North Carolina Teachers Association, advocating for Black teachers after Brown was decided.
“When the school system said ‘separate but equal,’ that was fine,” Palmer recalled to CNN. “But when we moved a little further, they tried to say, ‘We don’t want Black teachers teaching White students.’”
Nearly 40,000 teaching positions held by Black teachers in 17 southern and border states would be lost in the ensuring years, according to Samuel B. Ethridge, a National Education Association official who was a leader in the movement to integrate teacher organizations during the civil rights movement.
Today, Brown v. Board of Education is remembered as a watershed moment in the history of America’s civil rights progress and the fight against systemic racism. But the ruling also had the unintended effect of leaving behind thousands of Black students and educators whose fates were not considered when America moved to reshape its education system.
Berryman and Palmer shared their stories with CNN as part of the “History Refocused” series, which explores surprising and personal stories from America’s past that may bring new understanding of today’s conflicts.
The Supreme Court officially struck down the legal basis for segregated classrooms in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but a second, follow-up ruling a year later outlined the process for implementing school desegregation. In “Brown II,” the Supreme Court ordered district courts to enforce desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” reasoning that such language would provide local authorities with time to adjust to the new law of the land.
Instead, those opposed to desegregation exploited the terms, including officials in Prince Edward County, who figured that by starving the local public school system of funding, they could do an end-run around the high court’s order by opening a private – and all-White – school.
“Even in cases where White children or White families rather could not afford to attend the school, they even charged as little as a dollar to allow White students to attend school,” Dawn Williams, dean of Howard University’s School of Education, told CNN. “Now, for the Black community – something totally different for the Black community. There were no forms of public schooling.”
To combat the lack of educational opportunities, members of the Black community in the area created a grassroots community center, which also served as a makeshift school, but it was not the real thing.
Two years into the lockout, the Berryman family looked for other ways to keep their children in school. They tried to enroll their children in the neighboring county of Appomattox, Virginia, only to find out that they had to live in the county and present a valid address to do so. The next step was to move in with a family friend.
At that point, Berryman was a 14-year-old who stood 6-foot-2 but was still in 7th grade, when he should have been in the 9th grade had he not missed out on years of public schooling.
“I was the tallest guy in the whole school,” he recalled.
Eventually, the Supreme Court had to become involved again. In 1964, it ruled that the time for desegregating schools “with all deliberate speed” had passed and that there was no justification for “denying these Prince Edward County school children their constitutional rights to an education equal to that afforded by the public schools in the other parts of Virginia.”
Berryman and his family returned to Prince Edward County when the public schools reopened, and he remembered feeling “happy to be back home.” But there were constant reminders of the toll taken on the Black community.
“We ran across students – all students were with us that hadn’t been in school for going on five years. And some of the students here began school at 10 years old. … And on the upper end, we had guys and girls graduating high school at 21 and 22 years old,” Berryman said. “So we had – it was like a kaleidoscope of pupils every which way in this grand scheme of school opening again.”
Brown was intended to protect education opportunities for students. It didn’t say anything about teachers whose jobs would be soon jeopardized by school integration, when Black students often moved to White facilities that had superior conditions.
In the wake of Brown, various tactics were used across the nation to undercut Black teachers and educators, from outright dismissals or demotions to forcing teachers to teach unfamiliar subjects or grades – making it easier to fire them based on poor performance.
In Alabama, tenure rules were rewritten in several counties and teachers believed they were dismissed because of their participation in the civil rights movement, the NEA found in a 1965 report. North Carolina and South Carolina repealed their teachers’ continuing contract laws.
“I had to spend day and night traveling all over the state following behind complaints of Black teachers being dismissed where schools were being desegregated,” recalled Palmer, the former official with the North Carolina Teachers Association.
Ethridge, writing in the Negro Educational Review in 1979, found that by the mid-1970s, 39,386 teaching positions had been lost by Black teachers as a result of desegregation in 17 states, mostly in the South. In the 1970-71 school year alone, the cumulative loss in income to the Black community in those states totaled $240,564,911, the NAACP found.
“The cumulative amount is staggering to the imagination,” Ethridge wrote in his research, noting that even as the Black student population grew in those years, the number of Black teachers decreased in those states.
The Black teaching force has never recovered from the tremendous losses. In the 2017-18 school year, even though Whites accounted for less than half of the students in public schools – the result of a steady increase in diversity over the last 30 years – White teachers made up 79% of the workforce, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, down from 87% three decades earlier. The percentage of public school Black teachers – 7% in 2017-18 – decreased one percentage point over that same time period.
“Sadly, the reasons for this disparity go far back, and a key impetus happened just as the nation attempted to fix our public education system,” Williams said.