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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Glennon Threatt, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0023. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Desegregation hurts educational opportunities for blacks

This excerpt offers some insights on the negative effects of desegregation. Local papers in Birmingham did not report on the civil rights struggle, so Threatt and his parents read out-of-state newspapers to stay up-to-date. Threatt did not need a newspaper to tell him that his own experiences with desegregation were deeply unpleasant—white students spit on him and he got in frequent fights. Desegregation damaged the black community as a whole, too, Threatt argues: the brightest black teachers and students were sent to desegregate white schools, leaving a mass of poorer, less academically talented students and teachers behind. As a result, the racial education gap was wider in 2005 than in 1967, Threatt thinks.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Glennon Threatt, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0023. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KIMBERLY HILL:
So you started out as a gifted student very young.
GLENNON THREATT:
I did, but I was just fortunate. Both my parents were teachers, and both of them read a lot. My father was a voracious reader; he used to read two or three newspapers. It was actually interesting, because at the time with what was going on with the civil rights movement, you had to read newspapers from outside of the state because Birmingham news wasn't reporting a lot of the stuff that was going on. So my father used to read- there was a black newspaper out of Cleveland, I think it was The Chicago Defender perhaps, but it was a black newspaper that was giving a lot of very, very good coverage on the civil rights movement. My father used to have to read that newspaper to find out what was going on here. There were two black newspapers in Birmingham at the time, The Birmingham World and The Birmingham Times. The Birmingham World is no longer in existence; The Birmingham Times is still here now. They were really more as I remember them kind of events and gossip related newspapers and not really that focused on hard news. So it was a very different environment for journalists even to have access to things that were going on, because a lot of the stuff that was happening here people didn't really want it to be recorded.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Or they were under pressure not to record it.
GLENNON THREATT:
Sure, sure. [Phone rings.]
GLENNON THREATT:
My fourth grade teacher in the all black school had a Ph D., in elementary education. One of the things that was strange about the desegregation in the public schools in Birmingham was because what they did in many instances was they took the best, most qualified, most well trained teachers from the all black schools and put them in white schools and then they replaced them with white teachers that were right out of college. And so, it diluted the talent and experience pool in the black schools. Also, the first children that began to integrate the formerly all white schools were the children of lawyers, the children of doctors and teachers. They tended to be as a group, better students, certainly more economically advantaged than some of the students that were left in the black schools. So what really has happened in Birmingham as a result of integration is that the black schools have gotten a whole lot worse and the white schools, which were integrated to some degree but not really integrated, have gotten a whole lot better. The disparities in education in my view may be worse now than they were in 1967.
KIMBERLY HILL:
That's a good point to make.
GLENNON THREATT:
Well, because what you have is a city school system where, although only seventy percent of the population of Birmingham is black, about ninety five percent of the school population is black.
KIMBERLY HILL:
You are talking about currently?
GLENNON THREATT:
Talking about currently, in the Birmingham schools. Because the white students have fled to suburban schools, and because of the constitutional structure of the state of Alabama we don't have home rule in Birmingham so it is very restricted on the city's ability to put additional funds into education. So, you have run down schools, low paid teachers and then you have extraordinary schools in the suburbs. Therefore, many of the blacks that can afford to move to suburban communities are moving there so they can send their kids to better schools. Just like Dr. Julius Wilson talks about, you have a situation now where many of the role models that used to be in the black community no longer live there. I grew up in a church where there was one black lawyer, a guy named Arthur Shores, who was licensed to practice law in the state of Alabama for I think sixteen or seventeen years. He was the only black lawyer licensed in the state and he went to my church. There were three other black lawyers that went to my church, and that was probably half of the black members of the Birmingham bar. I had several Ph.D.s that went to my church. I went to The First Congregational Church here in Birmingham. It was really through my church that I ended up going to Indian Springs because what happened was that during the desegregation struggles here, my church was affiliated with a white congregation called the Plymouth Congregational Church in Mountain Brook, which is probably the most affluent community in the state. They started a discussion group called Black and White Together, where white teenagers would come and have church services with us and then we would go and have church services with them and then we would have meetings a couple of evenings a month to talk about things that were going on in our lives. I believe that the solution to bigotry is just for people to get to know each other, because a lot of bigotry is based on ignorance. Many of these kids, the only black people they had known were people that worked in their homes or folks that performed services for them. I had known some white people, but not very many. Until I got an opportunity to meet people there and many of them were talking about the secondary education that they were looking forward to and the colleges they were looking forward to. I started thinking about these kids and I thought these kids aren't any smarter than I am, if they can go to these private schools and if they can go to Princeton and schools like that then I can apply and maybe I can get in too. That was really how I ended up at Princeton, to be honest with you. There was a kid from my school who applied there and didn't get in, and he said that he thought they just weren't taking students from Alabama. I said I don't believe that's true, so I applied and they let me in and gave me a scholarship. It was an interesting time. My first exposure to integration in schools was very, very bad. It was bitter. I was spit on, I got in lots of fights and I got suspended from school twice in the first two weeks for fighting because of racial slurs. The first month I was in that class none of the white students in the class would speak to me. The first time we had lunch I came and sat down my lunch tray at the table with the other students in my class and every one of them got up and left.
KIMBERLY HILL:
And this was a small class wasn't it?
GLENNON THREATT:
Yeah, there were twenty-four or twenty-five students in the class. I had never been treated that way before, and so it was very, very difficult for me to adjust to. Even though I was aware of things that were going on, but it was very different dealing with it on a personal basis.