From “Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World–and How to Repair It All” by Lisa Sharon Harper
There were two elementary schools within two blocks in Sharon’s Point Breeze neighborhood in South Philly. G. W. Child’s Elementary was located across the street from her home on Dickinson Street. All of the Black children in the neighborhood went to Child’s. All-White Drexel School was located two blocks away. Sharon’s White next-door neighbors attended Drexel. In this 1955 northern city, segregated schooling was covertly practiced through administrative gatekeepers’ claims that Black students were “out of district” and therefore could not attend the White schools.
High achievers at Child’s were given the “privilege: of being drafted to supply free labor to White teachers by washing black boards and beating erasers after school or offering free messaging service during school hours. My mother was a great student, so her little Black body was conditioned by the logic of White supremacy to do what it was created to do – offer free labor to increase White comfort. Like a mule, my mother was pulled from class – pulled from opportunities to learn more – to carry a message from one part of the school to another.
One day, Sharon sat on the scuffed wooden bench outside the principal’s office. Secretaries sat behind the counter, click-clacking away on their typewriters. To her right was a box of books. Curious, Sharon’s feet swung back and forth in opposite directions as she reached in and picked up one of the books. They had been originally stamped to Drexel School. Old and worn, pages were missing and there was writing in the margins. She picked up another book. The cover was missing. Another and another and another – all defective; all used, reused, and used again until they were ready for distribution to Black children. These books had been used by the all-White Drexel School for a generation. Now they were being handed down to the Black school – with the Drexel stamp still there.
According to my mother, this pattern repeated itself up through junior high. She watched and waited for new books, new desks, new supplies. Instead, each year her Black schools received the hand-me-down books, desks, and supplies from the White school blocks away. And each year she watched her White teachers spend more time in the teachers’ lounge than inside the classroom. She watched them let Black children run rampant in the classroom while never really teaching them. This, too, is the logic of White supremacy: to go through the motions of teaching to appease the law, all the while never truly preparing Black students to flourish – to be competitive in academics, business, law, or governance. The country was in an uproar, shocked by the violence of TIll’s evisceration. Meanwhile, de facto segregated education was eviscerating the futures of Blacks in the North.
Sharon’s grandmother, Lizzie, had forged north from South Carolina, in large part because by law she was not permitted to flourish there. By law, she was relegated to field or domestic work. Under Jim Crow law, Whites snagged exclusive rule and shoved all else to beg for scraps on their knees. Now Lizzie’s granddaughter was the one shoved down, this time in the North. Not by explicit laws, but rather by embedded policies, procedures, and budget allocations.