Today’s blogger is Craig Kridel (University of South Carolina), who authored the article “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s: An Overlooked Chapter of Progressivism in American Education,” which appears in the July 2020 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article, which is part of the John Dewey Memorial Lecture series sponsored by the Daniel Tanner Foundation, through the month of August 2020.
I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on an oral history project many years ago.
I thought 1930s and 1940s progressive education would have entered African American schools in some way, but because there was so little documentation, I was uncertain.
To my delight, I would discover a group of black progressive educators and their students, many still living, who participated in the Secondary School Study, staged from 1940 to 1946 in 17 experimental high schools in the American Southeast.
My article, “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s,” introduces KDP members to this overlooked chapter in progressive education and African American education during the time of Jim Crow. But my essay is not as much research as an invitation for readers to hear directly from those magnificent teachers and students as they describe these extraordinary experimental schools.
The 1940s narratives . . . give us the opportunity to “enter the classroom” and watch the joys and problems of the experimentation by a group of courageous teachers and students.
These teachers welcomed classroom experimentation as a way to improve the lives of their students. Like today, they were aware of problems and issues caused by change, but they felt little fear. They built strong communities among themselves and among the other participating schools in the study where, unlike today, they were encouraged to experiment with their curricular materials and instructional methods. They didn’t have professors hounding them about research designs or establishing validity and reliability. Experimentation was a natural part of their educational life, a way of life, and the Secondary School Study would ultimately maintain that an experimental school was a healthy school.
I interviewed more than 150 individuals, between the ages of 80 and 102, during a 13-year period (2007–2019). This resulted in a 150-page exhibition catalog, Progressive Education in Black High Schools (with 102 historical images and 186 contemporary photos), and a museum website, The Secondary School Study Web Exhibitions, presenting more than 500 images and historical documents and 750 statements from the interviewees—from teachers and students themselves—as they describe progressive and experimental methods from their classrooms. The interview statements do have some glow of “those were the days,” caused by the passing of the years; yet, racial injustices and the daily indignities that black teachers, students, and parents endured during that time (and beyond) never permitted our conversations to float off into idealistic utopian rhetoric.
During my work I discovered a remarkable set of materials like no other I have ever seen in my decades of archival and historical research.
All participating schools were requested to submit final reports; however, three schools prepared creative nonfiction narratives of their experiences with classroom experimentation. In these 1940s ethnographic, historical school monographs, we join educators discussing their curricular and instructional methods and ways to better convey meanings and to connect with young adults. We overhear teachers talk to students about their hopes and plans for the future and their search for ways to make school more meaningful and more able to prepare all for the indignities that they would inevitably face.
The 1940s narratives, recently republished and now titled Becoming an African American Progressive Educator: Narratives from 1940s Black Progressive High Schools, give us the opportunity to “enter the classroom” and watch the joys and problems of the experimentation by a group of courageous teachers and students.
We meet Susan Prim, a teacher with a “mule-in-the-middle-of-the-road attitude toward newfangled ideas,” but who recognized that her students’ needs were not being met; and we watch her change from a traditional teacher to a progressive educator. We are introduced to Miss Parker, a first-year teacher who comes to understand the basic tenets of progressive education and the practice of teacher–pupil planning. And we follow co-valedictorians Sarah and Herbert as they walk around their high school interviewing teachers and students to prepare their commencement speeches.
My research became a gesture of service and, ultimately, of affection for those I met.
I was graciously invited into homes so that those who had been ignored and silenced for years could finally speak.
I was able to offer teachers and students a public and academic venue for their astonishing tales of the joys of education under the harsh circumstances of segregation and social injustice.
They spoke with grace and dignity, with pride and with laughter, and with anger and righteous indignation that these special experimental schools had been ignored and dismissed by their local and regional communities.
I invite you to join me and stand in the corners of experimental classrooms of the 1940s.
The published narratives and hundreds of oral history descriptions allow us to see life in those schools and to wonder how progressive ideals and classroom experimentation could alter and improve our lives in classrooms of today. “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s: An Overlooked Chapter of Progressivism in American Education” appears in the July 2020 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record.
The Secondary School Study Web Exhibitions may be visited here.
The exhibition catalog, Progressive Education in Black High Schools: The Secondary School Study, 1940–1946, may be downloaded gratis here.
The three school reports, now presented as one volume, Becoming an African American Progressive Educator: Narratives from 1940s Black Progressive High Schools, may be downloaded gratis here.
The Daniel Tanner Foundation supported the printing and web-dissemination of these Museum of Education materials as well as the article, “Black Progressive Educators of the 1940s: An Overlooked Chapter of Progressivism in American Education,” in the KDP Record.
Get free access to the article, which is part of the John Dewey Memorial Lecture series sponsored by the Daniel Tanner Foundation, through the month of August 2020.
Craig Kridel is the E. S. Gambrell Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Educational Studies and Curator Emeritus of the Museum of Education, University of South Carolina, and is currently completing the unfinished memoir of Harold Taylor (1914–1993), former president of Sarah Lawrence College and KDP Laureate.