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Wash U prof sees lessons for today in experiences of black students who desegregated private schools

Michelle Purdy is an assistant professor of education at Washington University and the author of "Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools."
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Wanda Ward. Jannard Wade. Malcolm Ryder. Those names probably don’t sound as familiar as Ruby Bridges or the “Little Rock Nine,” who are celebrated figures in the history of American civil rights. But during the same era in which Bridges and so many other black students were bravely challenging public school segregation in the South, some of their peers were also taking bold steps to integrate private institutions.

That topic first piqued Michelle Purdy’s interest about 20 years ago, when she was an undergrad at Washington University exploring the history of education and particularly black education. Now a faculty member at her alma mater, she’s published a new book on the subject, and she joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss it with host Don Marsh.

Titled "Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools,” the volume digs into a complicated and lesser-known aspect of educational history – how some historically white elite schools decided to desegregate without being legally required to like the public schools impacted by Brown V. Board of Education in 1954.

“Oftentimes in public school desegregation history, we only refer to private schools as the ones that were started in resistance to the Brown decision,” explained Purdy, who attended one such school herself – St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, Mississippi – and later taught there. “So I became intrigued to know: Who were the first black students to attend such schools as the one I went to growing up and other elite white private schools across the South, and how and why did those schools even decide to desegregate?”

She explored archives and also conducted oral histories with the first black graduates of Atlanta’s elite Westminster Schools in her research toward “Transforming the Elite,” which identifies three main reasons for what occurred.

“One was the moral imperative of the civil rights movement,” said Purdy, who is an assistant professor of education and director of undergraduate educational studies at Wash U. “As you know, television brought the civil rights movement into everybody’s homes, and so people could see exactly the oppressive nature of the Jim Crow South every evening on their televisions.

“Secondly, they did not want to be like these segregationist academies that were popping up all across the South in resistance to school desegregation. And third, there was a financial incentive. It was becoming evident that there were going to be challenges to tax-exemption status that these schools had if they maintained discriminatory admissions policies.”

For Westminster’s first black students, the move involved much of what their public counterparts were facing, too.

“The students were harassed verbally, they were [harassed] physically, they were harassed through taunts, and so some of them really experienced very overt racism and harassment,” Purdy said. “And others would say that they also felt the subtleties of racism, this sense of never quite feeling like you belong in the school community.”

Those whose experiences she follows in the book graduated from Westminster and went on to earn academic accolades and attend institutions including Princeton and Stanford. But not all of the 35 black students who enrolled there within the first five or six years of desegregation made it in such an environment.

“You [had] a mixture of folks at Westminster – you have some of the moderate white leaders, children of moderate white leaders in Atlanta attending Westminster,” Purdy said. “You have some children probably from … what we would call ‘old money,’ right – and then also the [white] enrollment numbers did increase at Westminster following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.”

Citing author Kevin Kruse in her conversation with Marsh, Purdy noted the complexities and ironies at play, with some white people advocating for desegregation and other civil rights issues but in a totally removed way.

“You had white middle- and upper-class folks in Atlanta actually choosing to send their kids to places like Westminster but still fight[ing] for civil rights, in many ways because civil rights would not affect them,” Purdy said. “Desegregation would not affect them, because they could send their children to Westminster. They had their own swimming pools – they didn’t have to use the public swimming pools. They had their own cars, so they weren’t using public transportation.”

The discussion also touched on how schools in the United States – and particularly those in the St. Louis region – compare today.

“St. Louis Public Schools are very much still segregated, and in the [surrounding] county there’s also probably a bit more racial diversity in some pockets of the county,” Purdy said. “But with the end of the voluntary desegregation program, those numbers I suspect will also go down.”

And there are remaining disparities among private institutions, she added.

“Some of these elite private schools tout diversity and inclusion,” Purdy said, “but yet we still find black students and other kids marginalized in different ways [and] having some tough experiences in these schools.”

She offered several suggestions going forward.

“We have a lot of things to think about,” she said. “First of all, we need institutions to really consider their racial past and to think about the ways in which that has permeated through the present and how will it affect their future.

“We [also] need to think about school culture … it’s one thing for students for whom schools were not built [to] go to the school, but what is the culture that they’re experiencing in those schools? We also need to think about the ways in which schools in general are either segregated or not in the U.S. Currently in public schools, most white kids go to school with other white kids, and most black and brown kids go to school with other black and brown kids.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.