A black and white image of 3 rows of African-American teachers. The back two rows are standing and the front is seated.

In New Book, Teachers of the Past Speak to Teachers of the Present

Professor Alridge hopes the stories and insights from civil rights-era teachers can help current teachers navigate the present moment.

Audrey Breen

Photo: Teachers from Danville and Pittsylvania County, Virginia are joined by historian Luther P. Jackson, seated front and center. (contributed by Teachers in the Movement)

The stories collected through the Teachers in the Movement oral history project—aimed at recording the ways educators contributed to the American civil rights movement—are now sampled in a new book. To date, the project led by Derrick Alridge, the Philip J. Gibson Professor of Education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development and director of Center for Race and Public Education in the South, has captured 430 interviews. And though it will ultimately preserve hundreds of testimonies in an open-source database for civil rights education, Alridge had long recognized a need to document these stories in other ways, too.   

Book cover with two black and white photos of teachers and the words Schooling the Movement

This spring, Alridge and his to co-editors—Jon Hale, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and Tondra L. Loder-Jackson, professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham—published Schooling the Movement: The Activism of Southern Black Educators from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Era, a collection of stories about the activism of Black educators, featuring educators who have taken part in the Teachers in the Movement project. And for Alridge, the range of stories is intended for a diverse audience.

“One objective of the book is to challenge the notion that teachers were not active in the civil rights movement,” Alridge said. “They were. We also want current teachers and educators to read the book. So, they can see how what teachers were doing during the civil rights era might be relevant to the challenges teachers are facing today.”

In some cases, the teachers featured in the book tell us more than what they did in the civil rights era, eager to connect their experience to the present day.

“I learned very quickly that many former educators are still intellectually active and engaging about education and schooling,” Alridge said. “They often provide commentary about the present state of education and how it is different than when they were teaching.”

Since it grew out of the Teachers in the Movement project, Alridge invited those closest to the project to write for the book. Danielle Wingfield, a 2018 social foundations Ph.D graduate and Alexis M. Johnson, a 2023 social foundations Ph.D.  graduate, both serve as associate project directors for Teachers in the Movement. Kristan McCullum and Hunter Holt, both 2023 Ph.D. graduates of the social foundations program, have each been core members of the Teachers in the Movement project for five years and were among those who wrote for the book. Alexander Hyres, who graduated in 2018 with his Ph.D. in social foundations also wrote a chapter.

Together, they captured stories of educators across the south, from Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Alabama, to Louisiana and Missouri.

Delores Revis, Genevieve Farmer and Dorothy Thompson

Alridge’s book features individual educators, as well as explores the contexts in which these educators were living and working. In their chapter, McCullum and Holt leverage oral histories to tell the story of Delores Revis, Genevieve Farmer and Dorothy Thompson, Black educators who worked primarily in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. 

McCullum and Holt focus their chapter of the ways these women’s early experiences informed their careers as teachers and their activism in the civil rights era. Specifically, the authors call attention to the excellence these women—and others—experienced in their segregated schools, regardless of how significantly under resourced.

“The intersections of home, family, school, and church…provided a safe and nurturing environment, where parents and teachers held high expectations that enabled the women’s self-determination in pursuing higher education and careers as educators,” the authors wrote.

Florence Coleman Bryant

Alexander Hyres wrote about the life and work of Ms. Florence Coleman Bryant. Hyres first met Florence Coleman Bryant during his first semester as a Ph.D. student when he and Alridge interviewed her for the Teachers in the Movement project. 

Ms. Bryant lived in Charlottesville, VA, where she taught in Charlottesville City Schools from the 1940s to the 1980s. During those years, she would experience the civil rights movement as a teacher, as a post-secondary student and as a mother.

“Ms. Bryant became one of the first Black women to desegregate the University of Virginia when she enrolled to earn her master’s degree,” Hyres said. “She then went on to become one of the first Black teachers to desegregate Charlottesville City Schools, taking a teaching position at a predominantly white school, at the same time her children were desegregating the schools where they attended.”

Much like many of her colleagues, Ms. Bryant stayed engaged in her work during retirement, spending a significant amount of time writing about her experience, ultimately authoring three books. 

“Her whole retirement seems like a way of archiving her experience or writing about Black education in Charlottesville,” Hyres said. 

Cynthia Plair Roddey

To tell the story of Cynthia Plair Roddey in chapter two of the book, Alridge worked with Alexis Johnson and Danielle Wingfield. Like Ms. Bryant, Ms. Roddey navigated the civil rights movement as both a teacher and a student. Perhaps most well known for being the first Black enrollee and first Black graduate student at Winthrop College (now Winthrop University) in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Dr. Roddey also taught in desegregated schools. 

While each story in the book is unique, they all highlight the efforts of Black teachers working to promote the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy through their teaching. As Alridge, Johnson and Wingield write, “Roddey’s career as an educator activist mirrors the work of thousands of Black teachers throughout the South and across the country.”

Johnson, for whom working on the Teachers in the Movement project was the most significant and meaningful experience she had as a doctoral student, believes documenting these stories is only the first step.

“The histories are powerful,” Johnson said. “That power is activated by their use, and not just living in an archive.”

Like Alridge, Johnson agrees that these stories can provide insight and inspiration for today’s educators.

“For Dr. Roddey and so many of her contemporaries to teach in the most transformative social movement in this country—and to teach Black history and culture—definitely offers lessons for us today,” Johnson said. “Will we have the courage today that they had?” 

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Audrey Breen