Nikole Hannah-Jones “Separate and Unequal: School Segregation in Modern Day America”


Nikole Hannah-Jones represents the potential we have in our own backyard. A New York Times investigative reporter raised in North Carolina. A reporter who focuses on racial injustice. A reporter who fights for equality in education for all children.

Her passion for covering race, class, equity and school resegregation issues is profoundly more personal than professional. In high school, Hannah-Jones was a part of a voluntary school desegregation program where she was bused across town to attend school. This is where she began her journalism career. After high school, she went to the University of Notre Dame where she got her bachelor’s in history and African-American studies. Next was her master’s of journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Her first journalistic job out of college was with The News and Observer in Raleigh, NC. Her first assignment? Covering Durham Public Schools, one of the most segregated and unequal school districts in the nation. Which happens to be very similar to Forsyth County Schools.  

Hannah-Jones had the opportunity to speak in Forsyth County on Oct. 10 at Winston Salem State University. As she was starting her presentation, Hannah-Jones briefed the audience on what was to come.

“I don’t think that when we talk about what we are doing to children, we should leave feeling inspired,” Hannah-Jones said. “I believe we should leave feeling ashamed.”

When speaking at Winston Salem State University, Hannah-Jones praised the work of historically black colleges and other institutions that work with the type of students Hannah-Jones writes about.

“Winston Salem and other historically black colleges learn to support the students that the rest of society wants to throw away,” Hannah-Jones said.

The Timeline

Before delving into the investigative research she has done on the current status of resegregation of school districts, she went back 400 years. One of Hannah-Jones’s latest investigative series has been the 1619 Project, where the New York Times observes the anniversary of the first African slaves to be imported to the future United States of America. This project examines the ways in which the legacy of slavery still impacts life today.

The presentation began with a brief timeline of the past 400 years.

“This is not ancient history. We should not be confused as to why we are still struggling against something in a country that thought that not more than 50 years ago it was okay to deny black people access to basic things because of our race.”

1607- the first English settlers land in Jamestown.

1619- the first Africans were imported to the Americas as slaves, this makes 2019 the 400th anniversary.

1776- the Declaration of Independence

1849- Roberts v. City of Boston

1865- the Civil War ends slavery. Despite the image America portrays of being advanced and being leaders for change, it is important to remember that America was the third to the last of all countries in the Americas to end slavery and one of two that required a war to end it.

1954- Brown v. Board of Education

1968- the Fair Housing Civil Rights Act was passed, guaranteeing black Americans full citizenship rights, 100 years after the Civil War.

1976- Nikole Hannah-Jones was born along with the first generation of black Americans where it was not legal to discriminate against black people in housing, education, public accommodations, and employment. This was the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States that were born with full citizenship rights. Hannah-Jones is 43 years old.

Historical Precedents

After framing a brief timeline, Hannah-Jones proceeded to jump headfirst into the resegregation issues that American schools currently face.

“Intentionally we have been taught to believe that black people are the only people in the history of the world who don’t value an education, that somehow education is not important to them,” Hannah-Jones said. “But that defies the historical record.”

The historical record does state that African-Americans are some of the only people in the history of the United States for whom it was illegal to learn to read or write. These laws were put in place for a reason.

“There is an understanding that education breeds resistance, that education leads to liberation,” Hannah-Jones said.

This understanding dates back to the time of slavery. To emphasize her point, Hannah-Jones quoted an anonymous former slave who spoke of a sentiment that was common among slaves, “There is one sin that slavery committed against me which I will never forgive. It robbed me of my education.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress in 1865 to provide aid to former slaves in the South. What the Bureau found when attempting to establish schools in the South went directly against the claim that African-Americans find education to be unimportant.

In the months before the end of the Civil War, African-Americans began spending money on two things, church and school.

“They were surprised to find that black people had already begun opening their own schools, that they had put together their own pennies,” Hannah-Jones said. “But you don’t learn that history in school do you?”

That education was not only for their own children, but for poor white children as well. Following this instatement of schools came a period of quasi-slavery, where the same people who were fighting to bring public schools to the South were forced into segregated schools. That is if they were educated at all.

Hannah-Jones then discussed the 1954 Supreme Court ruling which struck down racial apartheid by law in public schools. The first black child who attended a white public school in the South was Ruby Bridges. During Bridges’ first experience with public schools, every white parent of a child in her class pulled their child out of the class. Bridges spent the first semester with her white teacher who refused to give in to the racism.

Hannah-Jones called on the audience to imagine what Bridges first experience with education in a public school must have been like and what strength her parents must have had to watch their child endure such trauma. Pictures of Bridges and other African-American children attempting to end segregated schools were shown.

“These photos are black and white, but they aren’t that long ago,” Hannah-Jones said.

Bridges was six-years-old when she first faced mobs of angry white parents who threatened her life just for getting an education. U.S. Marshalls surrounded Bridges, guarding her from these mobs. These guards protected children, allowing them to enter schools that the court said they had the right to enter.

“Just remember, black parents were paying for these schools that their children were barred from, and had been paying for these schools that their children had been barred from for a century.” Hannah-Jones said.

Most of these mobs consisted of white mothers, women who were not at work during the day and were the ones who made the educational decisions for their children. The majority of these mobs were mothers, threatening harm and death to children.

Pictures of the mobs were shown, full of angry white mothers, arguing about children deserving an education.

“School integration was the most personal of all integrations,” Hannah-Jones said. “because these were our kids.”

Segregation and Congressional Constituents

Contrary to popular belief, New York state is the most segregated state for African-American children in the country, and has been for 50 years. The South has been the most integrated region of the country for 50 years. This follows the forced integration of schools by the government. In eight years, from 1968 to 1972, the South goes from complete apartheid to most African-American children attending majority white schools. Then, in 1988, resegregation begins to reoccur, not even 20 years after the attempt to integrate schools, destroying the work put in place by countless African-Americans.

“School integration in America peaks in 1988,” Hannah-Jones said. “We decide as a country that we’ve worked on this hard enough, we’re going to move on. And that’s what we do.”

Many Northern Congressmen supported the idea of desegregation and busing until it had to happen in their own backyard.

“As school desegregation starts to work, any national will we had to keep desegregation, dies,” Hannah-Jones said.

White constituents were angry, and in order to stay in office, Congressmen had to act. One of these Congressmen was current Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. White constituents threatened violence and Biden feared he might not leave the office alive. He then became adamantly anti-busing. Biden and other Congressmen proposed other reforms that essentially experimented on children.

“I would say that black children are the most experimented on children in America,” Hannah-Jones said. “The problem is, we know the reform that may work.”

Following the decision to end school desegregation comes an avalanche of various reforms.

“All of these other reforms are because we want to avoid the one that actually works,” Hannah-Jones said. “Because the one that actually works would require white people to give something up.”

The Impact

Hannah-Jones then turned her attention to the current state of school segregation and the impact it has on all children.

“We had a reform that worked,” Hannah-Jones said. “School integration. Period.”

By dismissing this reform, America has regressed back to the state in which it was founded.

“[America was] founded on the notion that black people were inferior and that black children did not deserve an education,” Hannah-Jones said.

Americans have used this notion to justify the fact that segregation is okay. Not only have African-American children been segregated, they have been separated from opportunity.

“We are setting kids up so that they cannot compete,” Hannah-Jones said. “And these kids know it.”

Throughout the country, it is overwhelmingly common to see advanced classes being prioritized for white children and white children being more highly valued in educational settings. This prioritization is not something that is missed by children of color.

“Trust me, when they see the advanced classes are full of white kids, they get that message,” Hannah-Jones said.

The title of Hannah-Jones presentation, Separate and Unequal, speaks to her knowledge on the topic of segregation in schools. The longer a child spends in a segregated school, the further behind they will fall. Segregated schooling will result in a segregated life. Hannah-Jones claims that the reason African-American children are more likely to fall behind, is based on the simple fact that they are not valued the same and that they are not to blame.

“These kids are not choosing segregation any more than those kids in 1963.” Hannah-Jones said.

Forsyth County

Prior to this presentation, Hannah-Jones did her research on the Winston-Salem community.

Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools is one of the most segregated school districts in North Carolina. Recently, eight elementary schools were designated for state control due to segregation and the growing race achievement gap.

When speaking of this designation, Hannah-Jones said, “It should be this county’s shame.”

The ever-growing focus on student achievement being measured by test scores has resulted in our ability to get away from the real issues.

“You don’t send your kids to school for test scores,” Hannah-Jones said. “You send your kids to school to change their lives.”

For decades, parents have prioritized their own children, labeling other kids as “someone else’s”. Segregation has amplified this issue, as it makes it easier for parents to choose their own children, sacrificing others.

“[It’s] not my child, but somebody else’s,” Hannah-Jones said. “And that somebody else’s is the same it’s been for generations.”

Hannah-Jones closed her presentation with a question essential to the issue of school segregation. “What side are you on? Are you going to choose the children- all of the children, or are you going to choose yourselves?”