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Stern's new book examines historical intersection of race, education in New Orleans

May 03, 2018

UW-Madison’s Walter Stern has spent most of his academic career focusing on the historical intersection of race and education in the urban United States.

As historians sometimes explain: We must know the past in order to understand the present. And presently, says Stern, there is a general agreement that great disparities remain along racial lines in American society and its educational systems.

“But there isn’t much agreement on how to best address these disparities,” says Stern, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies.

Race and Education in New Orleans book coverStern is the first to admit he doesn’t have the answers, either. He does, however, hope that his newly released book, “Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764-1960,” can be useful to those wanting to better understand the past in order to make a more equitable future for all.

“I hope my historical work shines a light on how deeply rooted these disparities are and how they’ve been reinforced over long periods of time,” says Stern, whose research interests developed out of his experiences teaching public high school in Mississippi, covering education for a daily newspaper in Georgia and working as a consultant for multiple education initiatives in Louisiana. “This look back helps us better understand just how bold new strategies will need to be in order to undo such an entrenched and unequal system.”

Stern’s book, which introduces a series of main characters and is written in a narrative form to carry his deep research and historical work forward, starts by tracing the course of New Orleans’ education system from the mid-18th century kidnapping and enslavement of Marie Justine Sirnir. As her story and legacy illustrate, Sirnir eventually secured her freedom and played a major role in the development of free black education in the city. Indeed, schools such as the one Sirnir envisioned were central to the black antebellum understanding of race, citizenship and urban development, explains Stern.

The Union victory in the Civil War in 1865 gave an estimated 4 million slaves their freedom but conflicts over land and resources intensified across much of the South, including New Orleans, during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877). Stern, in fact, demonstrates how the post-Reconstruction reorganization of New Orleans into distinct black and white enclaves marked a new phase in the evolution of racial disparity: segregated schools gave rise to segregated communities, which in turn created structural inequality in housing that impeded desegregation’s capacity to promote racial justice.

Stern shows how black communities nonetheless fought tirelessly to gain better access to education – efforts that sometimes led to expanded educational opportunities. At the same time, these efforts by the black community consistently also led to white civilians and officials finding new and different ways to maintain and strengthen their position of racial power.

As New Orleans grew and expanded in the early 1900s, Stern reports how city officials and school boards would concentrate black schools in undesirable areas and white schools in nascent subdivisions. Similarly, in neighborhoods with mixed populations, school boundary lines were re-drawn in an effort to further segregate the populations and reshuffle black children into schools located in heavily black neighborhoods.

Walter Stern
“During different periods, African Americans in New Orleans were able to force the white people in power to respond to their concerns about quality public education,” says Stern. “Black populations viewed quality schools as a way to sustain their community and would do what they could to provide quality education for their children. But whites held power and were able to respond on their own terms”

Adds Stern: “These policies also played a significant role in preventing African American populations from building wealth through purchasing property as homes were devalued based on race and schools. While white supremacy took different forms across the time period I cover, it was also a constant throughout.”

Furthermore, by taking this extended view of the interplay between education, race and urban change, Stern is able to reveal how public schools were not merely victims of 20th century urban and metropolitan stratification – but longtime drivers of that transformation as well. In fact, Stern argues, segregated schools led to a segregated society. This interpretation inverts the emphasis most scholars place on housing policies as the cause of persistent school segregation. In doing so, Stern highlights the powerful role schools can play in promoting – and resolving – inequality.

Stern explains that his historical work doesn’t point to clear solutions to the disparities found in today’s American education system. But that doesn’t mean this work can’t be helpful to education policy scholars today.

“My hope is that this book will provide crucial historical context for understanding how some of the current inequalities and challenges in urban schools developed over long periods of time and were built into the structure of American society,” says Stern. “You can’t understand the history of the United States and American cities and schools without understanding the essential role race played in structuring every aspect of life. I hope this work contributes to discussion about what it means for us to reckon with these issues.”

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