Education was a constant theme in conversations with my mother during the era of Jim Crow laws.
Brown v the Board of Education & the Civil Rights Movement
Jim Crow laws made getting an education difficult because of legally segregated schools, colleges, libraries and other educational facilities.
When school segregation was outlawed in 1954 by Brown v the Board of Education, school segregation did not end. It took another ten years, Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964, for some states to even start desegregating their schools and they dragged their feet in the North and South with lawsuits and counter lawsuits over Jim Crow laws in education into the 1980s. Still, today, there are schools that are predominantly one race or the other.
Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964
Closely related to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law intended to enforce the 19th century 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had done little to change the social status of former slaves. Lyndon Johnson signed the new Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, an entire decade after Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended Jim Crow laws that affected segregation of public facilities. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans and other marginalized U.S. citizens were subjected to poll taxes, literacy tests, violence and even lynching to prevent them from organizing a voting block in their communities, particularly in the South where Jim Crow laws were malignant in society.
My mother was offended by segregation but she could not remove me from segregated schools. My mother worked. My father worked. I was in the care of my mother's mother, my Bigmama, who was probably not inclined to have me around all day, every day throughout the year. So, just shy of home schooling me, my mother sent me to my Jim Crow school. In addition, she bought books, subscribed to periodicals, and developed her own very strict home schooling lesson plan, which was much harder than the lesson plan my schools followed.
With school starting in a few weeks, education should be the topic of the day in all Americans homes.
When I was growing up, my mother talked about my going to college all the time because education was the most important part of my childhood. She said, "you have a right to an education; everybody does." And she saw to it that I received that right, even before the Civil Rights Movement and Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended Jim Crow laws in education and other public and private services.
My mother decided to avoid the ills of Jim Crow laws and educate me herself, just shy of homeschooling me. When Brown v the Board of Education desegregated America's public schools on paper, in realityJim Crow laws still influenced my schools, which remained segregated and did not improve in quality. My mother used the tattered text books and lesson plans, provided by my segregated schools, to give herself a structurefor my education, which she conducted at home.
My mother's plan for my education involved much more than textbooks and teachers.
As wonderful as some of my teachers were. In addition, my mother bought reference books, subscribed to periodicals, took me to museums and galleries in other cities that allowed African Americans, played classical music and jazz on a record player she bought at a second-hand store and, among other enriching lessons, she taught me customs of other cultures, like the Japanese Way of Tea. Besides getting me ready to attend college, my mother had her own plans to go to college one day.
Primarily, though, my education began when the school year ended. The first thing my mother did at the end of the school year was to start preparing to send me away from home so I could experience life outside of Jim Crow laws. "You need to know what's outside of this place," she said. "Knowing is better than not knowing and then guessing about it. But not down South. I am not sending a child of mine down there to be humiliated, dogged and spat upon."
For some reason, we didn't think of Texas as being down south, but more out west, and not as dangerous as Alabama, Mississippi or the Carolinas, where the Greensboro Four staged the Woolworth Sit-ins in 1961 in North Carolina. The Woolworth Sit-ins dashed my childish estimation that South Carolina was worse than North Carolina, just because North Carolina was farther north and anywhere north had to be better than anywhere south. But Texas was in the West where African Americans had always enjoyed some amount of freedom, even though segregation was common. In fact, after the Civil War, black former slaves banded together in Texas to form independent black communities in those early days. For many reasons, including racism and economics, these communities did not continue to flourish.
Waco, Texas, 1939 by Russell Lee
However, segregation in Texas was as plain and simple in Texas as it was anywhere else in the United States, including northern and western states that did not have physical signs for separating the races at the movies and other places. Physical signs were not necessary in many cases.
Entire parts of most cities were segregated, with each race having its own school, facilities and services. People, including white people, knew where they were not welcome. Where this was not the case, in smaller towns of Texas and other southern states, there were hand-written and commercially printed signs to indicate where people of different races entered, sat, rode, ate and waited for services. For the most part, however, people instinctively knew where to go without being directed by "Signs," as my mother said. "Are intended to either degrade people or make other people feel like they may be special."
When I was growing up, the South was in turmoil, but I have to admit, most of the time I did not feel the turmoil, except for seeing it on television or reading about it. Inside our home, there was peace, intelligence and culture.
My mother explained the racial turmoil to me and made me read the newspapers and magazines about it.
I read about Brown v the Board of Education, Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Woolworth Sit-ins, Freedom Riders and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So, I knew about Dr. King, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott"stirring up all kinds of trouble for the white people down South," my mother said, smiling and handing me a magazine with the story and pictures.
"Read this," my mother said. "And learn what your people are doing. They are going to make it possible for you to go to that big white college out there on the outskirts of town. But you must be prepared with good grades and we have to be prepared to pay for it. But no matter what it takes, you have to get an education!"In 1963, my family and I watched the news coverage of Dr. King's I Have a DreamSpeech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in Washington DC.
My mother had relatives and friends nationwide, including the Deep South, but I was never sent down south in summer or any other time. What the Deep South had to teach me, I had already learned. Eastern, Northern or Western United States were my destinations, although those regions had their racial problems, too. I questioned her about racism and she said it is a very personal feeling and only the person can answer for himself or herself. "All I can say is," she said, "That you can waste time worrying and doing nothing about something you cannot change or you can get on with trying to do something about it like Rosa Parks and Dr. King, Go to college. Show that you are smart. Do something with your life!"
MY SEGREGATED EDUCATION and my mother's homework assistance and extra reading assignments prepared me to qualify for entrance and graduation from Texas A&M University, where I was among the first women to earn an undergraduate degree and the first African American to earn a degree in journalism and broadcasting. To honor the achievements of black students in Texas A&M history, the Cushing Library compiled In Fulfillment of a Dream, an exhibition chronicling the presence of African Americans at Texas A&M University. which includes my scholarly portrait. The Cushing Library also included me in another of its exhibition, Intended for All: 125 Years of Women at Texas A&M.
The institution began as an all-male, all-white military college of fewer than 100 students when classes first began with primary emphasis on agricultural and industrial training. When I was growing up and had no idea I would ever go to that school, the enrollment was under 5,000. During the intervening years, Texas A&M went from small, military college to a premier co-educational research university with an enrollment of more than 50,000.
My mother lived to see me fulfill some of her dreams for me--music career; graduation from Texas A&M University; syndicated columnist; national publications; international recognition as a writer and photographer; contributions to hundreds of literary collections and journals; collection by hundreds of libraries and museums around the world; writing, photography and production awards; radio and television positions; published author; and speaking at our state capitol and a Presidential Library.
Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life in the Brazos Valley with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement. Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.
Sunny Nash--author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations in--writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking, Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.