I was captivated by this book from the first sentence of the Introduction. "On the morning of April 13, 1947, fourteen-year-old Marguerite Daisy Carr went with her father to Eliot Junior High School, the white middle school closest to her home in Washington DC, and attempted to enroll."
This date is one week before my birth. The school is a ten minute walk from where I have lived for most of my adult life and is one with which I am quite familiar. Yet the story that author Rachel Devlin tells in her new book, subtitled "The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America's Schools," is one I only began to understand when I took up the study of Rosenwald schools and the conditions that led to their creation. The courage and struggle of the people who created the challenges that led to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and of those who then turned that legal decision into reality by walking into previously all-white schools is something I was only dimly aware of as a child and in my young adulthood. It was in the background.
But what an extraordinary story it is and how fascinating to learn that so many of those willing to take those sometimes painful, often lonely and dangerous steps were girls and young women, often encouraged by their mothers.
Desegregation of schools was, according to Devlin, not a top-down effort initiated on a national level by lawyers or politicians. It was not primarily focused on universities or colleges. It was a necessity that bubbled up from below with great urgency in many different places. And women, perhaps more attuned than some men to operating in a white world because of their long history of domestic servitude, were willing and able step up to the challenge.
"Indeed," writes Devlin, "Brown v. Board was the end result of an onslaught of unsolicited cases, initiated by parents and students in many different places, which came as a surprise to the national office and ultimately convinced NAACP lawyers to challenge segregation on the grade school level. The road to Brown was a grassroots movement spearheaded by girls and young women, whose words, actions, and public commitment brought school desegregation to the fore in the postwar era. These girls and young women legitimized school desegregation in the eyes of an often dubious public and then volunteered to be 'firsts' at formerly all-white schools in the early 1960s."
I raced through the book and will be thinking about it for a long time -- not just about the courage of those who challenged segregation but about the savage hostility that many of them faced and the decency and kindness extended to others. I'll be thinking about how Eliot Junior High School in DC -- which has become Eliot-Hine Middle School -- is now majority African American, though there are plenty of white families that live near it.
One hundred years ago it was African American communities that began the lobbying for schoolhouses that led to the creation of the Rosenwald Fund school building program. I can't say that effort was led by women but I do know that a lot of the food for those fundraising fish-fry dinners was surely made by women; a lot of the soup for "soup day" at Scrabble school in Virginia was made by women, The land for the Ridgeley Rosenwald School in Maryland was donated by a woman. The vast majority of teachers at Rosenwald schools were women. How interesting to have the crucial contributions of women to our ongoing struggle to live out our commitment to freedom and equality highlighted as they are in this book.
The courage of a John McCain -- surviving terrifying accidents, torture, and abuse -- is breathtaking, dramatic. The courage of women, day in and day out, is often quieter, played out on a smaller screen. But oh my -- where would we be without it?