This is the third in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. Jamison’s look at integration in Springfield, Massachusetts, schools asks readers to examine the effectiveness of civil rights legislation in the North. Did Massachusetts fulfill its promises of equality? Has anything changed?
By Felicia Jamison, Ph.D. Student, Department of History
“The future we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.” – Marian Wright Edelman
Springfield Technical High School, 1910s
In 1973, Edelman was one of the keynote speakers at the National Urban League Conference in Washington, D.C. Appropriately entitled “The Unfinished 2nd Reconstruction,” the conference’s various presenters discussed issues ranging from the equality of blacks in the workforce to the pressing issue of equality in education. The 1970s marked a pivotal time in American history with concerns to race relations and education. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education had effectively ended segregation in schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signaled the end of racial and gender discrimination. It looked as if the nation was finally fulfilling its promise of justice for all its citizens. However, the ensuing decades would prove that actually changing the racial opinions of Americans would not be as easy as simply implementing legislation.
The National Urban League was founded in New York City in 1910 to ensure the safety and economic success of African Americans migrating from southern enclaves to urban cities. These black migrants hoped to gain economic independence not readily available in agricultural and domestic work. They also sought to leave behind the racism and oppression of the South for equality and citizenship in the North. This seldom occurred. Thus organizations such as the Urban League and NAACP took up the banner of fighting for the rights of minorities.
Since 1926 the Springfield branch of the Urban League served black and Hispanic populations in programs that included educational tutoring, job placement, and youth mentorship. During the 1960s and 70s, the League would methodically work to show that integration was the best scenario for not only minorities, but also Springfield as a whole.
Massachusetts would in fact lead the nation in desegregating its schools. The state legislature passed the State Racial Imbalance Act in 1965 in order to fulfill the promise of Brown. The following year the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity (METCO) was established as a method of voluntarily desegregating Boston and Springfield schools. The program aimed to bus minority students to predominantly white schools in an effort to provide them with equal education and diversity. As scholar Derrick Bell rightfully notes, this process of desegregation often failed because legislators did not comprehend that forcing various races to interact would not comprehensively end racism and inequality. Unlike Boston, there would be no violent race riots in regards to government-enforced desegregation. However, there was a certain racial tension in the Springfield air.
A 1974 “Survey of Racial Attitudes in Springfield” conducted by the Springfield Urban League demonstrated that racism was not the only impetus for anti-integration antics. The study showed that whites were afraid for the “welfare of their children” due to the racial and political climate of the city forcing the issue. The study highlighted the complexity of the integration issue, as “Spanish” (largely Puerto Rican) disliked blacks, and African Americans disliked both whites and Puerto Ricans. It appears as if each racial group had reservations about sending their children into spaces in which they were essentially unwanted.
Springfield schools were effectively integrated by 1975. However, several issues arose that highlighted that the process of changing one’s perceptions on race would be a slow and arduous process for all involved. In February 1975, a class action suit was brought against the Springfield educational system that alleged a Hispanic student had been indefinitely suspended for “not obeying schools rules.” The suit stated that students of color in Springfield were disproportionately reprimanded when compared to white students. Lawsuits of angered parents suing white-controlled school districts were simultaneously occurring around the country. A 1974 New York Post article entitled “Disciplining Students on a Racial Basis,” cited several national cases of institutional racism in which minority students were often suspended for three days or more for minor grievances such as talking back to teachers and truancy.
So how much has truly changed in the past forty years? A recent study shows that white students’ attendance in Springfield public schools have decreased from 73.8% in 1989-1990 to 62% in 2010-2011. In 2010-2011, the majority of black (80.8%) and Latino (78.3%) students attended schools which were majority minority. These majority minority schools are usually by-products of housing segregation in which race, class, and economic inequality play important and often intersectional roles. The American educational system is gradually regressing to pre-Brown status, wherein the majority minority schools receive less funding and employ under-qualified teachers, resulting in the high dropout rates of students. This goes to show that separate is still not quite equal.
Urban League in Springfield Records, 1972-1975 (MS150) Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst