History is more than a timeline

Viewing+history+in+a+linear+way+overlooks+how+past+events+continue+to+shape+today%E2%80%99s+reality.

Ulaa Kuziez

Viewing history in a linear way overlooks how past events continue to shape today’s reality.

By Pathfinder Editorial Board, Parkway West High School

From chapter one to chapter two, year after year, we highlight vocab terms of isolated events: revolutions, laws, court cases. This is generally how we are taught history—a series of systems and policies that begin and end at certain times. This approach is often designed to shield us from historical nuance and uncomfortable truths. 

The stories of the past, however, are cyclical and interconnected, not linear or individual. This is perhaps most apparent during Black History Month. As we learn about past Black leaders and movements, we must also reflect on how oppressive forces have evolved over time. History should be analyzed in a structural way, tracing the systems of the past to their effects on the present.  

These issues of oversimplification and disconnectedness are present in the way we review even local history in the St. Louis region. St. Louis has long been an epicenter of segregation—and consequently revolution. The history of segregation permeates all aspects of the region. From housing to wealth distribution to policing, the effects of racist policies continue to exacerbate inequality today. But it is in the school system where the consequences are most visible.

Early history of the education system 

The story of the education system in St. Louis begins in 1838 when the first public school was established. In the next three decades, more than 20 schools were built for white students. Meanwhile, in 1847, Missouri prohibited the education of free and enslaved Black people by passing an anti-literacy law. The law criminalized anyone who attempted to teach Black people in the state, out of fear that their education would be a threat to the system of slavery. It was only after the Civil War in 1865 that a newly formed Board of Education for Colored Schools opened five schools for Black students in St. Louis. Not only were there fewer schools for Black students, but the quality of the facilities and the education were by no means comparable. By 1875, there were twelve additional segregated public schools, amongst them the first African American high school west of the Mississippi River, Sumner High School. This early history, characterized by structural anti-Blackness, set the stage for what came next in the education system.

20th century and segregation 

At the start of the 20th century, St. Louis City had more than 35,000 African-American residents. This was evidently a problem for the white citizens of the city in continuation strongly disapproved of the substantial increase in Black residents. Despite the policy reforms of the previous century, the citizens’ sentiments persisted and were put into action. They passed a ballot initiative in 1916, a law that required white and Black residents to live in segregated neighborhoods. This was legally challenged and overturned a year later, but residents found loopholes like redlining and real estate covenants, which effectively wrote segregation into housing contracts and divided the city into what is commonly known today as the Delmar Divide

This housing segregation, further intensified by white flight, solidified schooling segregation. The St. Louis Public Schools district (SLPS) created a dual school system separating students by race. The United States Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson required the SLPS to provide separate but equal facilities. Not only did this decision codify Jim Crow laws, but the education system that the school board designed could hardly even be considered equal.

For instance, reports documented overcrowding, poor facilities and lack of opportunities that served as clear evidence for inequality within the 24 segregated school districts in the region. In the 1946-47 school year, the St. Louis Board of Education spent $219.77 per white high schooler and $177.09 per Black high schooler. This funding pattern, which continues to this day, shows the consistent prioritization of white students. In this time period, Black families and other groups brought numerous legal challenges against segregation, but race-separated institutions persisted. Entering 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision, St. Louis had the second-largest segregated school district in the country.

As students being educated in one of the wealthiest districts in the region, we must understand the context of how this came to be.”

Desegregation following Brown v. Board of Education

After the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which concluded that separate schools are incontrovertibly unequal, desegregation was not immediately achieved. Initially, school board officials vowed to voluntarily integrate schools without outside programs or local laws, but they simply redrew district lines and perpetuated segregation. Nearly 30 years after the court’s decision, 90% of Black students in the city still attended predominantly Black schools; the school board’s voluntary integration was created and implemented in bad faith. 

After a lawsuit brought by a group of Black parents against the school board, federal judge William Hungate called for a plan in 1981 to move Black St. Louis children to white suburban schools via bussing programs. As with past integration efforts, white suburban residents responded with widespread resistance and anger. The judge responded by threatening to completely dissolve all 24 school district boundaries. White residents, who were still against full integration, promptly dropped outspoken dissent as a result. In 1983, the country’s largest interdistrict school desegregation program began. 

The Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC) reached its peak enrollment of 14,626 students in 1999. For students who participated in the program, scores and graduation rates increased while some barriers to opportunity decreased. But even with its success, another 15,000 students were left in segregated and often poorly funded schools. Additionally, the VICC program was forced into a continual phase-out, and will stop accepting new enrollment after the 2023-24 school year.

Today

Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education the educational system in St. Louis and other cities across the country remain largely segregated and unequally funded. Parkway and other wealthy, predominantly white districts are clear examples of this. 

The tri-county dissimilarity index score for St. Louis City, St.Louis County and St. Charles Country was about 0.80 in 1968, meaning that at the time, 80% of Black or white students would have to move across districts to be distributed proportionally. (A dissimilarity index of zero indicates total integration, while a score of 100 indicates conditions of total segregation.) As recently as 2019, Forward Through Ferguson reports that this number has only decreased to 0.71.

Funding wise, the pattern is the same: white-dominated school districts are able to spend more on each student than their majority Black counterparts. The highest-spending majority-white district had a margin of almost 40% ($8,412) more spent per student in comparison to the highest spending majority Black district. When compared to the lowest-spending districts, majority-white districts spent 2.4 times (about $18,000) more per student. 

As students being educated in one of the wealthiest districts in the region, we must understand the context of how this came to be. If we view this history in an exclusively linear framework, we might come to the conclusion that the unequal distribution of resources and the other injustices present in our public schools today are simply mishaps. On the other hand, if we examine the complexities of history in a thematic way, we can better understand how past events have evolved into today’s reality.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on February 25, 2021.