Every so often, we should look back and remember those who have made history. Like Dred Scott, the black man who lived for years, up north, with the white people who “owned” him.
Because he lived in a state where slavery was illegal, Scott sued his “owners” for his freedom. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled against him; but not against the abolitionist law which Scott claimed granted him liberty. The Supreme Court justices ruled instead that Dred Scott wasn’t a man and therefore had no more rights to bring a case before their court than a cow or a dog would have.
Thirty-nine years later Homer Plessey appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessey had one black great-grandparent and — according to state of Mississippi — this made him a black man who had to sit in a separate train car from the white people. Being one-eighth black triggered the “separate but equal” Jim Crowe laws that segregated public accommodations. The famous Plessey v. Ferguson ruling of 1896 secured the railroads’ segregationist practices, as well as preserving segregation in schools and all other public spaces.
In 1951, an attorney and member of the NAACP, Charles Scott — no known relation to Dred Scott — convinced his good friend Oliver Brown to sue the Topeka, Kan., board of education. This time the Supreme Court finally got it right. In 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education overturned Plessey v. Ferguson and the South began integrating.
Still, some states took the Supreme Court ruling better than others. In fact, according to United States government statistics, 10 years after the ruling only 2 percent of the public schools in the segregated states had been integrated. This resistance on the part of the ruling whites to obey the Supreme Court helped fuel the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Helen Jackson-Gillison — one of the approximately 11 million children who attended a segregated school in 1954 — was in fifth grade when her black school, the Dunbar School, was closed and she first went to school with white children. Lawrence Jordan’s “Journal of Negro Education” explains that Jackson-Gillison’s home state of West Virginia was one of the first to comply with the new court ruling integrating education, even though West Virginia’s private businesses — such as movie houses and restaurants — resisted integration much longer.
Jackson-Gillison’s name should be in history books, too. She belongs there as woman who preserves history. Jackson-Gillison is the president of the West Virginia All Black Schools Sports and Academic Hall of Fame, or ABSSA. Soon she hopes to create the National ABSSA so that all 21 of the states that had segregated education will revere and recall the contributions made by black students and their teachers.
I was in Charleston, W.Va., last weekend and I met a number of their inductees. Approximately 75 percent of the veterans, scientist, teachers, athletes and others selected for the hall of fame have attained a master’s degree or higher — two of them are brigadier generals.
One couple attending the event will celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary in just a few weeks. They took a moment to tell me about walking around white neighborhoods — because they were not allowed to walk through them — to get to school. This beautiful and frail older woman explained that the only time a person could walk in the white neighborhoods was if they worked as a domestic in a white home.
In fact, her mom was a domestic. And though her mom worked scrubbing floors in white houses, and sending her children to all black schools, she never felt defeated and she wouldn’t let them quit. In the face of unapologetic racism all seven of her children were educated.
When asked how her mom handled the prejudice, this honoree recalled, “My mom told me not to feel anger at prejudiced people, that they weren’t born prejudiced, some one taught them to hate and it’s hard to unlearn what you’ve been taught.”
And the hundreds of ABSSA inductees prove that the students of these black schools were taught well: concepts that no one should ever unlearn.
To help Helen Jackson-Gillison preserve this crucial piece of American history write to Helen@HLJ-glaw.com
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.