They didn’t necessarily draw attention to themselves by participating in sit-ins, refusing to surrender seats on public transportation or engaging in overt acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights era.
But Derrick Alridge, Professor of Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education & Human Development, says it is nonetheless time to honor the legacy of activism by teachers of color across the American South.
In delivering TC’s annual Tisch Lecture in Milbank Chapel in late February, Alridge called black educators the “essential disseminators of the idea of freedom during the most consequential social movement of the 20th Century.”
Derrick P. Alridge: Teachers in the Movement: Pedagogy, Activism, and Freedom
In his 90-minute talk, Alridge expanded on the oral histories gathered for “Teachers in the Movement: Pedagogy, Activism, and Freedom,” a project he is leading as founding director of the Curry School’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South.
Alridge’s team has interviewed 200 teachers, administrators and professors on the “intellectual activism” that guided them as educators from 1950-1980. Ultimately the project will chronicle the experiences of some 500 Civil Rights Era educators.
Aldridge said the “Teachers in the Movement” project sits at “the intersection of oral history and traditionally taught history” and “explores how teachers and college professors engaged in a form of activism through pedagogical approaches that vigorously promoted ideas of freedom, democracy and liberation.”
Teacher activism evolved from informal classroom discussions of current events during the onset of the civil rights movement to formal teaching of books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and television programming such as the 1977 miniseries “Roots.”
“Teachers in the Movement” has also provided first-hand insight into post-war American Southern education from the perspective of black educators. For example, Alridge’s interview with Johnnie Fullerwinder, a math and science teacher, follows her journey from an all-black school in South Carolina to the integrated Danville, Virginia, high school that in 1966 hired her as its first African American teacher.
I thought of myself as being somewhat of a pioneer — someone who could make it easier for others to follow. I felt if I had not been successful it would harm the full merging of the schools. It showed black people are able to teach, that we are knowledgeable and can demonstrate good classroom management.
— Johnnie Fullerwinder, a civil rights-era teacher interviewed by Derrick Alridge
On the one hand, Fullerwinder left a bare-bones classroom where she made do with tattered books for a world of new texts, ample supplies and access to mimeographs and microfilm. On the other, the “welcome” she received at Danville’s George Washington High School was anything but. Her colleagues went out of their way to make her feel “invisible and ignored.” Her students held their noses in her presence.
The misconduct fueled Fullerwinder’s resolve to “win over” students and staff alike through the “experiential engagement” that made learning both “fun and exciting.” She succeeded so spectacularly that, eventually, white and black parents alike were vying to enroll their children in her classes.
“I thought of myself as being somewhat of a pioneer — someone who could make it easier for others to follow,” Fullerwinder told Alridge. “I felt if I had not been successful it would harm the full merging of the schools. It showed black people are able to teach, that we are knowledgeable and can demonstrate good classroom management.”
For me, this is not just scholarly work – it’s spiritual.
— Derrick Alridge
Alridge— himself a former middle and high school social studies and history teacher — cites an African proverb to explain the impetus for his oral history project: “When an elder dies, his library burns down.”
The oral histories, he said, have “allowed me to glimpse into their lives and into the lives of their students. For me, this is not just scholarly work — it’s spiritual.”
— Steve Giegerich
Presented through the Laurie M. Tisch Visiting Professorship, the Distinguished Tisch Lecture, funded by TC Trustee Emerita Laurie M. Tisch, has since 2000 provided outside faculty the opportunity to share research and observations on equity, social justice and other educational issues with the TC community.