Education as My Agenda: Gertrude Williams, Race, and the Baltimore Public Schools.
Gertrude Williams began teaching in 1949 at a segregated Baltimore public elementary school; and in 1965, she became a counselor at Mordecai Gist, a formerly all-white school with a recent influx of black students. She retired in the spring of 1998 from her position as principal of Barclay Elementary School, after a series of high profile battles over a foundation-funded collaboration that brought the private Calvert School's curriculum to her students at Barclay. The book begins with Williams' early life in Philadelphia, then follows her through her education at Cheyney State Teachers College--a historically black institution--and her teaching experiences at the Charles Carroll and Gist schools. Five chapters trace her time at Barclay, and a final chapter describes her retirement.
Jo Ann Robinson, the oral historian, sent her son and daughter to Barclay and served in the Barclay PTA during many of the battles Williams waged with the school system. In February 1999 Robinson and Williams began the series of interviews that form the core of this book. Robinson tells readers that she supplied words or phrases to bridge gaps and combined passages from one transcript with passages from another, but explains that Williams' extensive involvement in the editing of the manuscript ensures that she has presented Williams' voice.
Robinson, in her introduction, provides a textbook example of how to conduct an oral history project. She and Williams taped twelve initial sessions of 90-150 minutes and transcribed and reviewed them over nineteen months, then taped five additional "review" sessions, followed three years later by ten sessions reviewing the draft and more work responding to editorial suggestions and a review of final galleys. Robinson's footnotes reveal enormous archival research as well as interviews with former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, city council members, foundation and school officials. She contacted through email many other key players. The fruits of these efforts are immensely informative introductions to each chapter that provide context and analysis for Williams' story. Extensive footnotes provide details and clarify gaps between the archival record and the oral narrative.
Reading this book is a pleasure. Williams tells dramatic stories. She was so overwhelmed when given all the problem children in third grade that "... I packed up my things and was ready to walk out the school door, with a dollar and a half in my pocketbook" (57). She was the fourth black faculty member to join Gist, but most thought she was only the third because the physical education teacher looked white and "never bothered" to tell her colleagues she was black. She conveys her naive shock at discovering that Gist, a white school, had such a better plant and supplies than Carroll, a black school, but teachers at Carroll were more qualified. Some white teachers at Gist did not have college degrees.
Robinson's introductions, each about a third to a half the size of the main narrative, provide indispensable guidance to the specifics of the Baltimore school system and various people with whom Williams collaborated or clashed. They also supply the historical context, from exploring how little Baltimore desegregated in the decade and a half after the federal court's decision against segregation, to the national testing agenda of the late eighties and nineties. Robinson reviewed land records, manuscript census data, and county histories to provide as much background as possible on Williams' family. Her notes direct readers to articles chronicling minute details such as misleading lending practices in Philadelphia that forced Williams to come up with money to buy her parents' home (232) as well as major counter-narratives, such as Superintendent Richard Hunters' account of his time in Baltimore, a version that differs dramatically from how Williams, an opponent, saw him (272).
This narrative breaks new ground in education. An earlier study, City Teachers (1997), draws on oral history accounts of several teachers to provide an account of an early period of schooling in New York City, but without putting the oral narrative at the center. Herb Kohl's memoir, The Discipline of Hope (1998), covers roughly the same years, but focuses on the classroom and shields the reader from the bureaucratic complexities of public schooling. He does share information about his private life, which Williams largely omits. Williams is a figure most similar in my mind to Leonard Covello, legendary as the first Italian American high school principal in New York City and fierce defender of his community, whose book The Heart Is the Teacher (1970), is a community history, as Williams' is.
Robinson analyzes the complexities of Williams' community, including a white segment of the school's area that provided a number of skilled leaders. Her involvement with the school facilitates her account, but only perhaps on this topic does her close relationship with Williams limit her analysis because her writing is contradictory on how democratic or dictatorial a leadership style Williams utilized.
For Williams and Robinson, the narrative peaks with the successful introduction of the Calvert program at the Barclay school, demonstrating that African American children from poorer families could meet the high standards of the private curriculum. Readers familiar with general histories of American public schooling and curriculum will heave a familiar sigh when they hear that this curriculum did not last much beyond the period of the grant. Strangely, Williams does not describe the earlier curricula except to remark that when she started teaching, the Baltimore curriculum was coherent but later succumbed to fads. A discussion of important developments in education on a local level is missing here.
Details about the curriculum, or other aspects of Williams story, and the story of post-war segregated schooling in urban United States may reside in the raw interview tapes and transcripts, as well as the extensive mass of archival materials and other interviews Robinson generated in this project. Robinson intends to deposit it all in the Special Collections of the University of Maryland at Baltimore's Langsdale Library. Until then we have this powerful narrative and her analysis.
Queens College, CUNY
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|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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