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Teachers in the Movement: Pedagogy, Activism, and Freedom

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 March 2020


In this year's Presidential Address, historian Derrick P. Alridge discusses his current research project, Teachers in the Movement: Pedagogy, Activism, and Freedom. The project builds on recent literature about teachers as activists between 1950 and 1980 and explores how and what secondary and postsecondary teachers taught. Focusing on teachers in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, the project investigates teachers’ roles as agents of social change through teaching the ideals of freedom during the most significant social movement in the United States in the twentieth century. Drawing on oral history and archival research, the project plans to produce five hundred videotaped interviews that will generate extensive firsthand knowledge and fresh perspectives about teachers in the civil rights movement. By examining teachers’ pedagogical activism during this period of rapid social change, Alridge hopes to inspire and inform educators teaching in the midst of today's freedom and social justice movements.

HES Presidential Address
Copyright © 2020 History of Education Society

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This article is adapted from his Presidential Address at the History of Education Society meeting in 2019 and is preliminary research toward a manuscript on teachers’ involvement in the civil rights movement. The research is being funded by the Spencer Foundation.


1 A proverb of the Akan people (from parts of Ghana and the Ivory Coast). According to historian Jan Vansina, this proverb translates as “ancient things remain in the ear,” as cited in Daaku, Kwame Y., “History in the Oral Traditions of the Akan,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 8, no. 2/3 (Aug.-Dec. 1971), 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Explaining the proverb's meaning, Jan Vansina states, “The mind through memory carries culture from generation to generation.” This idea serves as a guiding concept for my work. Many of those who taught during the civil rights movement have vivid memories of their pedagogy. These memories are “documents” that tell us something about the past that is often unavailable in written form. Vansina, Jan, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), xiGoogle Scholar.

2 Fred Sheheen, “Lunch Counters: Police Arrest 10 at Rock Hill Sit-In,” Charlotte (NC) Observer, Feb. 1, 1961, C1; “100 Protest S.C. Sit-In Jailings,” Chicago Defender, Feb. 18, 1961, 9; and John H. McCray, “Students Don't Fear Chaingang in Rights Fight,” Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 18, 1961, Sec. 2, 2.

3 William “Dub” Massey, interview by author, Rock Hill, SC, Sept. 17, 2017. Teachers in the Movement Collection, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia (hereafter cited as TIM Collection).

This presidential address includes examples of the rich oral history materials being collected as part of the Teachers in the Movement project. Supported, in part, by a Lyle Spencer Research Grant, the project aims to create the largest repository of teacher activism during the civil rights movement. As part of an ongoing project, all collected materials have not yet been made available to the public. If you are interested in specific interviews, please see as interviews are being added all the time. Interviews not yet made public are privately held in the collection of Derrick Alridge at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. You can contact him at .

4 For the purposes of this article, I feature the voices of teachers themselves in providing their pedagogies and narratives of activism. Research conducted in archives throughout the South will provide a more full-scale history of the teachers.

5 To make the scope of the study manageable, I limited its geographical focus to the southern states closest to Virginia, where I reside. However, there is also a historiographical rationale for this choice. Many popular images of the civil rights movement are associated with Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi: the fiery Bull Connor and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; the desegregation of Little Rock High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. As a result, the Deep South—and particularly these three states—is often viewed as the location of the civil rights movement. By focusing on other southern states, we seek to broaden the historiography of the civil rights movement and expand public knowledge of other places where the movement occurred. My geographical focus thereby furthers my goal of offering a wider view of teachers’ involvement in the movement as well as of the movement itself.

6 Thorpe, Earl E., The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans (Baton Rouge, LA: Ortlieb Press, 1961), xiGoogle Scholar.

7 For an invaluable discussion of the idea of “freedom” in the civil rights movement, see King, Richard H., Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

8 For a description of how some activists and the NAACP's viewed teachers, but also for examples of teacher activism, see Baker, Scott, “Pedagogies of Protest: African American Teachers and the History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1940–1963,” Teachers College Record 113, no. 12 (Dec. 2011), 27772803Google Scholar; and Fairclough, Adam, A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Fairclough, Adam, “‘Being in the Field of Education and Also Being a Negro…Seems Tragic…’: Black Teachers in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History 87, no.1 (June 2000), 7576CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Fairclough, Adam, “The Costs of Brown: Black Teachers and School Integration,” Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (June 2004), 4355CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Fairclough, Adam, Teaching Equality: Black Schools in the Age of Jim Crow (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

11 Walker, Vanessa Siddle, “School ‘Outer-gration’ and ‘Tokenism’: Segregated Black Educators Critique the Promise of Education Reform in the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Journal of Negro Education 84, no. 2 (Spring 2015), 111–24Google Scholar.

12 Loder-Jackson, Tondra, Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (New York: State University of New York Press, 2015), 8Google Scholar.

13 Thomas P. Lee “Anti-Integration Moves Rapped by VTA Speaker,” Richmond Times Dispatch,” Nov. 3, 1956, 1, 5.

14 “Winthrop College Admits First Negro,” (Greenwood, SC) Index Journal, July 20, 1964, 1. “Oratorian Brother David Boone, Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 84,” Catholic Miscellany, Nov. 16, 2017, For an excellent discussion of Sam Foster's educational contributions in Rock Hill, see Terrance J. Alridge, “A Case Study of Emmett Scott High School from 1965 to 1970” (PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 2009). See also Samuel Foster, interview by author, Rock Hill, S.C., June 21, 2017, TIM Collection.

15 Anderson, James D., The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Butchart, Ronald E., Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861–1876 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Perkins, Linda M., Fanny Jackson Coppin and the Institute for Colored Youth, 1865–1902 (New York: Garland, 1987)Google Scholar; Franklin, V. P., “‘They Rose and Fell Together’: African American Educators and Community Leadership, 1795–1954,” Journal of Education 172, no. 3 (Oct. 1990), 3964CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fultz, Michael, “Teacher Training and African American Education in the South, 1900–1940,” Journal of Negro Education 64, no. 2 (Spring 1995), 196210CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Heather A., Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)Google Scholar; and Span, Christopher, From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862–1875 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

16 Walker, Vanessa Siddle, The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools (New York: New Press, 2018)Google Scholar; Foster, Michele, Black Teachers on Teaching (New York: New Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Morris, Jerome E., “Forgotten Voices of Black Educators: Critical Race Perspectives on the Implementation of a Desegregation Plan,” Educational Policy 15, no. 4 (Sept. 2001), 575600CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kelly, Hilton, Race, Remembering, and Jim Crow's Teachers (New York: Routledge, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tondra Loder-Jackson, Schoolhouse Activists; Baker, “Pedagogies of Protest”; Johnson, Karen A., Pitre, Abdul, and Johnson, Kenneth L., eds., African American Women Educators: Critical Examination of Their Pedagogies, Educational Ideas, and Activism from the Nineteenth Century to the Mid-Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2014)Google Scholar; Randolph, Adah L. Ward, “‘It Is Better to Light a Candle than to Curse the Darkness’: Ethel Thompson Overby and Democratic Schooling in Richmond, Virginia, 1910–1958,” Educational Studies 48, no. 3 (May 2012), 220–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ramsey, Sonya, Reading, Writing, and Segregation: A Century of Black Women Teachers in Nashville (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Hale, Jon, “‘The Fight Was Instilled in Us’: High School Activism and the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 114, no. 1 (Jan. 2013), 428Google Scholar; Burkholder, Zoë, Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900–1954 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)Google Scholar; Ishmail A. Conway, “Central Virginia Dreamkeepers: Narratives of African American Teachers that Taught Before, During and After the Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education Decision” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2000); Candace Cunningham, “‘I Hope They Fire Me’: Black Teachers in the Fight for Equal Education, 1910–1970” (PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 2018); and Alexander Hyres, “Persistence and Resistance: African American High School Teachers and Students During the Long Civil Rights Movement in Charlottesville, Virginia, 1926–1974” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2018).

17 Cuban, Larry, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890–1990 (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993)Google Scholar. Also helpful in my thinking about teachers’ and educators’ work has been Kridel, Craig, Progressive Education in Black Schools: The Secondary School Study, 1940–1946 (Columbia: Museum of Education, University of South Carolina, 2015)Google Scholar; Rousmaniere, Kate, City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Ladson-Billings, Gloria, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994)Google Scholar; Tillman, Linda C., “African American Principals and the Legacy of Brown,” Review of Research in Education 28 (2004), 101146CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Horsford, Sonya Douglass, “From Negro Student to Black Superintendent: Counternarratives on Segregation and Desegregation,” Journal of Negro Education 78, no. 2 (Spring 2009), 172187Google Scholar. I am also encouraged by the work of historian Jarvis Givens, who is doing important work on Carter G. Woodson's influence on teachers’ pedagogy. See Jarvis R. Givens, “Culture, Curriculum, and Consciousness: Resurrecting the Educational Praxis of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, 1875–1950” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2016).

18 For a discussion regarding the debates about historical methodology, see Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Burke, Peter, History and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005)Google Scholar. For a discussion of historical methodology, see Alridge, Derrick P., “The Dilemmas, Challenges, and Duality of an African-American Educational Historian,” Educational Researcher 32, no. 9 (Dec. 2003), 2534CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 The griot in West Africa is the storyteller, poet, musician, and preserver and disseminator of knowledge. The term griot is derived from the French word guirot, which means “storyteller.” See Hale, Thomas A., Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

20 Roots, “Part VIII,” written by M. Charles Cohen and Alex Haley, ABC, Jan. 30, 1977. For a detailed account of Haley's search for Kunta Kinte, see Jervis Anderson, “Sources: Alex Haley's ‘Roots,’” The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 1977, Although the scene of the griot in the film influenced my love for oral traditions as history, it should be noted that parts of Haley's work was fiction and plagiarized from Harold Courlander's The African published in 1967. See Eleanor Bley Griffiths, “Is Roots a true story? Why this tale of slavery and family history is so controversial,”

21 In addition to oral history, this paper also draws on methods in intellectual history. For an excellent description of intellectual history, see Beringer, Richard E., Historical Analysis: Contemporary Approaches to Clio's Craft (New York: John Wiley, 1978), 7-55Google Scholar.

22 Bois, W. E. B. Du, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903), 60Google Scholar. Scholar Larry Lee Rowley reminded me that Du Bois detailed his travel and works with teachers in Tennessee in The Souls of Black Folk. Thereafter, I have reflected on this passage in the Souls of Black Folk.

23 Johnnie M. Fullerwinder, interview by author and Shontell White, Danville, VA, March 11, 2015, TIM Collection, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is an African American sorority founded in 1908 at Howard University. Omega Psi Phi was founded at Howard University in 1911.

24 Fullerwinder, Johnnie Mullins, Failure Was Not an Option!: A Test Case in School Integration (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009)Google Scholar.

25 Fullerwinder, interview.

26 “New School Year Starts for Over 7,000,” Danville (VA) Register, Sept. 2, 1966, 5B.

27 Fullerwinder, interview.

28 Fullerwinder, interview.

29 Fullerwinder, interview.

30 Fullerwinder, interview.

31 Fullerwinder, interview.

32 Fullerwinder, interview.

33 Fullerwinder, interview.

34 Fullerwinder, interview.

35 Nancy Samuels, interview by Victor Luftig and Derrick P. Alridge, Richmond, VA, Sept. 21, 2015, TIM Collection,; and “Student Group Pickets Papers in Lynchburg,” Washington Post-and Times Herald, Nov. 16, 1968, B4. To be clear, I am not arguing that Samuels activism is typical of white teachers during the civil rights era. However, she is one of several white teachers in my study who taught in predominately black schools and engaged in forms of teacher activism.

36 Samuels, interview.

37 Samuels, interview.

38 Samuels, interview.

39 Samuels, interview.

40 Samuels, interview.

41 Walter N. Ridley, interview by William A. Elwood, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, April 10, 1989,; and “Biographical Note,” Walter Nathaniel Ridley Papers, 1958–1968, University Archives G.R Little Library, Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, NC.

42 Margaret Dabney, interview by Gary Flowers and Derrick P. Alridge, March 14, 2017, Richmond, VA, TIM Collection.

43 Walter N. Ridley to W. E. B. Du Bois, Sept. 26, 1946, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, MS 312, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, The Pan-African Congresses were a series of meetings in the first half of the twentieth century bringing together black leaders, intellectuals, and activists around the world. The purpose of the meetings was to illuminate the common challenges of African peoples around the world and to identify strategies for unification, liberation, and freedom for African people throughout the diaspora.

44 Walter N. Ridley, interview by William A. Elwood, William A. Elwood Civil Rights Lawyers Project Collection, 1984–1989, n.d., Accession # 12801, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA. For a discussion of the Dovell Act and its history at UVA, see Malcolm Dunlop, “Defying Dovell: A Study of the Origins and Impact of Virginia's 1936 Dovell Act” (unpublished manuscript, Department of History, University of Virginia, 2017), copy in possession of author.

45 Ridley, interview.

46 Robert Mcg. Thomas, Jr. “Walter Ridley, 86, Who Broke the Color Barrier to Get Ph.D., Dies,” New York Times, Nov. 3, 1963, 51.

47 This story was told by Ridley's daughter in the documentary Ridley. Ridley, documentary film, (Charlottesville, VA: Silverthorn Films, 2008). Trailer for the film is available at I've heard it numerous times in my travels across the state of Virginia. It is part of the Ridley lore and very important to Ridley's story.

48 “First Negro To Graduate From U.Va, W.N. Ridley to Get Degree Monday,” Richmond Times- Dispatch, June 11, 1953, 7.

49 Robert Vaughan interview by author, Elizabeth City, NC, March 7, 2017, TIM Collection.

50 Charles Cherry, interview by author, Elizabeth City, NC, March 6, 2017. TIM Collection.

51 Cherry, interview.

52 James E. Wright, interview by author, Columbia, SC, Jan. 24, 2018. TIM Collection.

53 Wright, interview.

54 Wright, interview.

55 Wright, interview.

56 James E. Wright, interview by author, Columbia, SC, Aug. 9, 2017. TIM Collection.

57 Wright, interview, Jan 24, 2018.

58 Wright, interview, Jan 24, 2018.

59 Wright, interview, Jan 24, 2018.

60 Alexis Johnson, a UVA graduate student studying the history of African American education and researcher with the Teachers in the Movement project, introduced me to this proverb. It's from a statement Malian writer and historian Amadou Hampâté Bâ made during a UNESCO conference on oral cultures in November 1960. “En Afrique, quand un vieillard meurt, c'est une bibliothèque qui brûle” (In Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns down). See Touré, Amadou and Mariko, Ntji Idriss, eds., Amadou Hampâté Bâ, homme de science et de sagesse: mélanges pour le centième anniversaire de sa naissance d'Hampâté Bâ (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Maliennes, 2005), 5557Google Scholar.