Analyzing the School Integration Dilemma

Historical photo of the Bordentown NJ Manual Training School Glee Club, circa 1943.
Bordentown, New Jersey, Manual Training School Glee Club, 1943

The question of whether African Americans in the northern United States would be best served by racially integrated or separate schools has been debated since the mid-19th century. Montclair State's Educational Foundations program professor Zoe Burkholder, who is also director of the University's Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Project, has received a grant from the Spencer Foundation to support her research toward a social history that encapsulates these ongoing debates.

"My project will be the first historical analysis of the enduring debates over school integration among a diverse cast of black education activists throughout the North," says Burkholder. To be published by Oxford University Press, her book, An African American Dilemma: The Problem of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North, will build on recent scholarship in civil rights and education history to analyze the problem of school integration from the perspective of northern black education activists.

The question of school integration has long posed a political and moral dilemma for African American education activists. According to Burkholder, black conceptions of school integration have ranged from hopeful visions of political equality to angry fears of cultural annihilation. "The goal of black education activists and black Northerners in general has always been to end forced segregation and provide the best possible and most equal opportunities for black youth."

Yet Burkholder has found that despite a conviction that forced segregation was wrong, school integration was a contested ideal for many black parents, ministers, educators and community leaders. These activists supported separate black schools, believing they provided safe and supportive learning environments free of explicit white racism for students and secure employment for black teachers and principals.

By integrating social science data with historical analysis, Burkholder hopes to shed new light on a complex, controversial issue that provokes discussion to this day. "We still have the same debates," she states. "What is certain is that race still plays a powerful factor in determining the educational opportunities available to American schoolchildren — and that represents a terrible failing of American democracy, indeed."