More About the Author
By Emily Matras '12
Assistant Professor of Education Hilton Kelly has recently authored a book, Race, Remembering, and Jim Crow's Teachers. The book, Kelly's first, explores the competing narratives surrounding the quality of all-black schools in the Jim Crow South.
The book began in 2004 as Kelly's dissertation topic in sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which made it an auspicious time for his endeavor. "That year marked the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education case," said Kelly. "It seemed that all of a sudden, many graduates of all-black schools began to wax nostalgic over their educational experiences."
Kelly found that many African-American victims of segregation had positive memories of their all-black schools. However, Kelly had the impression that his professors and students at the University of Massachusetts could not imagine that legally segregated schools for blacks could have been high quality.
"What I found was a conflict in memory," he explained. "On one hand, there's the perception that all-black schools didn't have books, paper, and desks, and that the teachers were under qualified. On the other hand, there are these overwhelmingly positive memories of all-black schools that almost seem too good to be true."
The focus in the negative collective memory, Kelly explained, is on resource deprivation such as inferior buildings, while the positive collective memory focuses on what happened inside classrooms and schools, away from the guise of white educational authorities.
Kelly questioned how both of these contradictory, collective memories could co-exist, and why they unexpectedly emerged 50 years after the trial that marked the beginning of the end of school segregationist practices.
He sought evidence in exploration of hidden and public transcripts. The public transcript of all-black schools is made up of certain texts that are marked as official, and are thus shared and taught. Kelly explained, "There's a particular language in public transcripts describing all-black schools as 'inherently inferior' and 'intellectually deprived' -- lacking qualified teachers and talented students who wanted to be there."
He continued, "The hidden transcript, however, says something quite different. For example, principals in these all-black schools were able to hire highly qualified teachers because there were so few employment opportunities for black women and men during this time. In rural North Carolina, teaching was a respected profession that gave working poor and working-class farm girls and boys middle-class employment and status when few other opportunities existed for them."
Kelly uncovered texts in his archival research that supported positive collective memories. He supplemented this research by conducting more than 40 interviews with alumni of all-black schools in three counties in North Carolina-Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.
Hilton Kelly's book
The interviews didn't always go smoothly, however. Kelly ran into problems of trust. "My interviewees were often a little suspicious, no doubt wondering, 'Who is this guy, this academic, asking all these questions?'" he said. "So I learned to emphasize my insider status - that I grew up in Sharpsburg, N.C., and that my mother also attended an all-black school."
At Davidson, Kelly teaches courses that relate to education in the Jim Crow South, and often draws on his research for the book to spark discussion in the classroom. "I'm looking forward to teaching a course titled 'Education in African-American Society' next semester," he said. "My book really shaped the way I will organize the course. I'm always doing a revision of master narratives in my classes."
Researching for Race, Remembering, and Jim Crow's Teachers has inspired Kelly to pursue a related project. He now wants to investigate the biography of Marion Thompson Wright, a successful black female educator and the first professionally trained black woman historian from the Jim Crow period. Despite her credentials, she committed suicide in 1962.
"Exploring this biography would be fascinating," he said. "It would raise the questions, 'What were the possibilities and limitations for black women during the age of Jim Crow?' and 'What can black women's lives tell us about the intersection of race, gender, and class?' That type of story complicates the narrative that white supremacist patriarchy was absolute, as well as the narrative of the 'always happy and successful' black scholar who 'overcame incredible odds.'"
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.