Author and Professor Leslie T. Fenwick. 

We live with histories that we do not know. These histories continue to shape our nation’s quest to achieve the conjoined goals of racial equality and educational equity. Related to these histories is an unfulfilled promise associated with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation in U.S. public schools and attempted monumental social progress. That unfulfilled promise still has resonance and is related to the untold story revealed in my book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip (Harvard Education Press, 2022).

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with support from NASSP—masterfully orchestrated by its Black Principals Caucus—led a little-known battle to repair a grievous wrong. That injustice was the illegal and racially discriminatory firing, dismissal, and displacement of approximately 100,000 Black principals and teachers and the transfer of their jobs to less qualified whites in the 17 dual-system states (from Delaware to Florida and as far west as Texas) between 1952 and the late-1970s. This expulsion of Black principals and teachers represents the most significant brain drain from the U.S. public education system that the nation has ever experienced. It was so pervasive and destabilizing that, even today, the nation’s public schools still have not recovered.

One of the core mandates of Brown—and subsequent numerous cases—is something we never discuss: Following Brown, public schools were to desegregate wholly, meaning that their administrative ranks (superintendents, principals, and other district leadership), faculty, and student bodies were to become integrated. Not just the student bodies. The failure to integrate school personnel was and remains the unfulfilled promise of Brown.

The African American faculty at Sumner High School in Kansas City, KS, 1919. Sumner was the only school in Kansas City that allowed African Americans to work as teachers.

Brown did not mean that all-Black segregated schools were to be closed and that all-white segregated schools were to remain open and become the near singular recipient of Black students. But, that’s what was orchestrated to happen by white segregationists who used state laws and public tax dollars to resist the new law of the land. In the rush to stop rather than fulfill Brown’s mandate, white elected and appointed officials and political bodies (school boards, superintendents, state legislatures, and governors) initiated a massive resistance strategy that resulted in $1.1 billion in income transfer from Black educators to white educators and other white citizens who were hired to replace Black educators as student enrollments grew in the previously segregated all-white schools to which Black students were being transferred.

Prior to Brown in the 17 dual-system states, 35–50% of principals and teachers were Black. Today, there is no state that approaches these percentages. In fact, less than 7% of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers, 11% of the nation’s 90,000 principals, and less than 3% of the nation’s nearly 14,000 superintendents are Black. Black people’s underrepresentation in the educator workforce is related to the history of massive resistance to Brown that began prior to the decision as early as 1952 and continued well into the late-1970s.

Congressional Hearings

 The fight to decimate the ranks of Black educators was so pervasive and severe that its fallout eventually reached the halls of Congress, prompting a series of U.S. Senate hearings about the displacement and status of Black school principals in desegregating schools. The opening testimony at the 1971 Senate hearings was delivered by then-NASSP Executive Secretary Owen Kiernan. He was rallied by Black principals and teachers whose cause ignited his concern and ire. In his testimony, he called for the Nixon Administration to use its power to halt the decimation of Black educators:

There are substantial grounds for concluding that the desegregation of public schools, accompanied by the parallel process of school consolidation [that is, closing of Black schools], has brought about and continues to result in a marked decrease in the number of Black school principals in almost every southern state. The problem of the elimination, displacement, and demotion of [Black] public school principals … as a result of ongoing desegregation of schools has reached such serious proportions that it requires the intervention of the federal government using its full force and power to bring it to an end.

In his testimony, Kiernan called the elimination of Black principals a “deepening crisis” that constituted “the waste of a significant and tried storehouse of professional talent, training, and experience.” Kiernan knew the untold part of the story—that despite all the odds, Black educators of the time were more academically credentialed than their white peers. State reports submitted to the Senate show that Black principals and teachers were more likely to hold master’s and doctoral degrees and possessed higher levels of professional certification. They also showed that larger percentages of Black teachers held certification than their white counterparts. This added insult to the injury of being aggressively purged from the profession in the wake of desegregating public schools.

Since the early 1900s, significant numbers of Black principals and teachers had, through a confluence of circumstances, earned master’s and doctoral degrees from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities—primarily New York University, Columbia University, University of Chicago, Harvard University, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, The Ohio State University, and Iowa State University. Between 1930 and 1960, Columbia University alone awarded 144 doctorates to Black graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

In the 17 dual-system states, Black people were tax-paying citizens of their home states but barred by state law from attending their state’s public and private colleges and universities, which were white-restricted. Generations of Black citizens played by the rules—convoluted, imposing, and insulting as they were—and trekked to the northeast, the Midwest, and even west to California to earn master’s and doctoral degrees, so that they could return to their home states to serve as principals and teachers. This academic migration not only made Black educators more academically credentialed than their white counterparts, but it also provided an experience with integrated education that their white peers never had.

Following the NAACP’s lead, NASSP’s fight to end the assault on Black educators continued, too. To be sure, some of NASSP’s white members in the southern and border states were responsible for the discriminatory treatment of Black principals and teachers. Until 1965, most border and southern states listed “white” and “colored” state chapters of the organization. Nonetheless, through a series of letters to President Richard Nixon, the U.S. Attorney General, the U.S. Office of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and then-Senator Walter Mondale (who chaired the Senate hearings on Black principal displacement in the absence of Senator Edward Brooke, who was hospitalized at the time), other NASSP officers (primarily David W. Meade, a Minnesota NASSP leader, and NASSP President J. Frank Malone) stated that the organization was “deeply concerned with and perturbed by” the circumstances affecting Black educators and that their dismissals were a “blatantly illegal and immoral violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil and economic rights” and were so egregious that remedy necessitated the full force of federal government intervention to bring an end to it.

By November 1970, the organization’s directors came together at the NASSP annual meeting and took a vote to “bring this increasingly serious problem to the direct attention of the U.S. Congress.” That same year in its November–December 1970 newsletter, NASSP informed its members of its resolve in a front-page story, “NASSP Hits Displacement of Principals,” that promised: “If the department [of Justice] fails to initiate strong action, NASSP will aggressively persist in its efforts to ameliorate the situation” impacting Black educators.

Despite the lawsuits; court cases that affirmed the rights of Black principals and teachers; and outcry from the Black press, education associations, and human and civil rights organizations, the damage was done, and few Black educators were reinstated to their positions. With Black educators out of the way, nominal levels of desegregation were attempted—but true integration of America’s schools has never occurred. The nation’s public schools have been left without the knowledge, skills, and democratic activism of an exceptional generation of Black principals and teachers who could have led and defined desegregation and integration more robustly than they have been anemically operationalized.

Moving Forward

What can be done now to right this historic and lingering wrong?

  • Examine how the transfer of Black principal and teacher jobs to white educators affected and still affects the Black-white wealth gap. After Brown, the illegal handover of nearly 100,000 jobs held by Black principals and teachers to lesser-qualified whites constituted a wealth transfer. The case for reparations needs to include an accounting of the financial devastation the illegal firings, dismissals, demotions, and other economic reprisals created in Black communities, versus the concomitant economic gains by whites.
  • Invest federal, state, and philanthropic funds in the preparation, recruitment, and retention of a new generation of educator preparation program faculty at colleges and universities. The majority of Black college graduates who earn doctoral degrees do so in education and the social sciences. Yet Black academics remain underrepresented on tenured faculties in the nation’s schools and colleges of education, except at HBCUs. Beginning in the 2017–18 academic year and for the first time ever, students of color constituted a majority of undergraduate students in U.S. public colleges and universities. However, the likelihood of Black and other college students of color having Black and other faculty of color teach them is slim. In fact, Black faculty constitute only about 6% of higher education faculty overall (although this percentage is considerably higher at HBCUs, where Black faculty predominate). In many ways, the case for diversifying higher education faculty mirrors that for K–12 public school faculty. There is evidence to suggest that diversifying the ranks of higher education faculty can positively affect the recruitment and retention as well as the professional aspirations of Black and other college students of color. In order to reach the nation’s educator workforce diversity goals, schools and colleges of education will increasingly need to model the recruitment, retention, and promotion of Black and other underrepresented faculty of color in their own ranks.
  • Invest federal, state, and philanthropic funds in HBCU teacher preparation programs. Though HBCUs constitute less than 4% of the nation’s colleges and universities, they prepare 50% of the nation’s Black teachers. Prioritizing these institutions with federal and state funding can assist with widening the Black teacher pipeline.
  • Invest in the preparation of Black superintendents and recruit superintendents who have expertise in and a track record of achieving academic progress with Black and other students of color. These leaders’ philosophical dedication to public education should also be evidenced by their commitment to lay leadership of school districts (that is, maint­enance of school board governance); a refusal to close schools in low-income Black communities in exchange for proliferating charter schools managed by for-profit entities; and an ability to interrupt corporate models of school reform such as vouchers, for-profit charter school networks, and disproportionate placement of alternatively certified teachers as the teachers of record in schools serving students of color from families experiencing poverty. Notably, all these approaches are apparatuses with origins in white resistance to Brown and have been shown to exacerbate educational inequities.
  • Invest in anti-racist curricula and high school ethnic studies courses. These curriculum interventions have been shown to improve student engagement, critical thinking skills, and high school graduation rates, especially for students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Diversify curriculum materials, instructional models, professional development, and textbooks. Through their imagery and content, such thoughtfully designed educational materials will centrally—not peripherally—address the academic interests and needs of Black and all other students.

We have the power. Let us intend to use it.

Leslie T. Fenwick, PhD, is dean in residence at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), dean emerita and professor of education policy and leadership at Howard University, and the author of Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership, from which parts of this article are excerpted with permission.


Fenwick, L. T. (2022). Jim Crow’s pink slip: The untold story of Black principal and teacher leadership. Harvard Education Press.

Lewis, C. W., & Toldson, I. A. (Eds.). (2013). Black male teachers: Diversifying the United States’ teacher workforce. Emerald Publishing Limited.