Cover: A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South, from Harvard University PressCover: A Class of Their Own in HARDCOVER

A Class of Their Own

Black Teachers in the Segregated South

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Product Details


$40.00 • £32.95 • €36.00

ISBN 9780674023079

Publication Date: 02/16/2007


552 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

11 halftones

Belknap Press


You know those stories some of our folks like to tell about the days they had to walk for miles to school on dirt roads in scorching heat and biblical rain? They’re true. Read A Class of Their Own, an inspiring account of Black teachers’ relentless struggle to provide a quality education for our people. Civil rights historian Adam Fairclough charts the impressive strides teachers made in the segregated South during a 100-year period, beginning just after the end of the Civil War in 1865. In one-room schoolhouses, without running water or plumbing, and at red-brick all-Black land grant universities and other halls of higher learning, gifted Black teachers encouraged students to become achievers. Although these devoted educators seemed unflappable to their students, Fairclough reveals the enormous challenges they faced from White school boards, whose members often discouraged their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.—Patrick Henry Bass, Essence

Although few histories devote much attention to black teachers in the South between 1865 and 1965, these men and women were in many ways the backbone of the black middle class. The educational infrastructure that they painstakingly erected did a great deal to discredit Jim Crow, and the accomplishments of these unheralded educators were just as dramatic and important as those of better known heroes of the civil rights movement. Adam Fairclough, a British historian who has written widely about that movement, tells this story very well. A Class of Their Own is a judicious exploration of a largely unstudied subject; it belongs on any well-stocked shelf of scholarly works on the Jim Crow South… Fairclough makes clear that the nostalgia of many African Americans since the 1960s for the Good Old Days of all-black schools is rose-colored. Only through desegregation could black children hope to attend decently funded public schools in the South. And yet A Class of Their Own demonstrates that the arduous struggles of black teachers ‘made it difficult, nay impossible, for whites to turn racial segregation into a full-fledged caste system.’—James T. Patterson, The Washington Post Book World

Although standard accounts treat Brown as an unambiguous triumph for African American, many Southern blacks did not see it that way. ‘We felt betrayed,’ said the principal of a black high school in South Carolina. W.E.B. Du Bois, the major black figure among the founders of the NAACP, and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston denounced the decision. Hurston regarded the ruling as ‘insulting rather than honoring’ her race, because it assumed that black children could not learn without the uplifting presence of white classmates… Adam Fairclough’s book is a salutary reminder of what de jure segregation was really like, and a clear demonstration that the educational opportunities open to African American children have expanded dramatically since Brown.—Stephan Thernstrom, The Times Literary Supplement

In A Class of Their Own, Adam Fairclough—a professor at the University of Leiden and one of the most diligent and careful historians of civil rights—explores the often overlooked complexities of black Southerners, emphasizing teachers and education leaders.—David L. Chappell, The Nation

[A] magisterial work of research.—Dave Wood, River Falls Journal

Students and scholars who have an interest in southern history or African American history have much to learn from Fairclough’s study. Famous villains like James K. Vardaman and Ben Tillman appear on these pages along with the names of hardworking, dedicated teachers whose names are not well-known. Fairclough never sugarcoats black teachers. Some were snobs, and others spied on NAACP meetings for white superintendents in order to enhance their own salaries or to gain more secure positions. Fairclough also demonstrates the equality gap between black and white public schools and carefully explains the mean-spirited racial politics that characterized the South before the civil rights movement. This is one of the finest books this reviewer has read in many years.—Theodore Carter DeLaney, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Class of Their Own is scholarly history at its very best: A richly textured and nuanced book, it tells an important American story that should not be forgotten.—David J. Garrow, Wilson Quarterly

Fairclough chronicles the circumstances in which Southern black educators worked from emancipation to the 1970s. He devotes most of the book to the burdens of white patronage, the influence of religion and politics on acquiring teaching jobs, and the struggles for training and wages. The most compelling portions are the brief biographies of teachers about whom many readers have probably never heard, such as Robert Harris and Sarah Webb. The dilemmas facing teachers and students in African American communities when schools became integrated are addressed as well. Although Brown v. Board of Education raised educational standards for African Americans, it also resulted in the closing of schools in their communities and the loss of teaching jobs. Some of Fairclough’s topics have been addressed in James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 and Heather Andrea Williams’s Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, but his enlightening chapters on the training of black teachers and their struggles for equality endorse the purchase of this book for academic and public libraries with education collections.—Tonya Briggs, Library Journal

In this hugely impressive study, Adam Fairclough shows how black teachers coped with the basic conundrum facing them in the segregated South: how to advance within a system designed by white people to stop them from advancing. Fairclough’s clear-eyed account chronicles heroic achievements and countless small victories in the face of overwhelming odds.—Tony Badger, University of Cambridge

Adam Fairclough is in a class of his own when it comes to elucidating the history of the segregated South – this is a valuable addition to that historiography.—Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP Board of Directors

Adam Fairclough has written a masterful book, full of insight, complexity and nuance. Always sensitive to the ambiguities black teachers faced, he nevertheless celebrates their strength and accomplishment in making possible the ongoing struggle of black Americans for racial and educational equality.—William H. Chafe, author of Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America

Awards & Accolades

  • 2008 Outstanding Book Award, History of Education Society
Murty Classical Library of India

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