Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Narrative images: Charles Thompson goes to school

Richard Stacks, award winning Baltimore Sun photographer, took one of his finest photographs in September 1954, less than four months after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to rule that segregation based on skin tone was unconstitutional. Public schools in Baltimore opened with black and white students in the same classrooms. The iconic photograph shows Charles Thompson, the only black child in school, greeting his new classmates at Public School No. 27 (via).

"Race controls much of Americans' lives, and yet we understand race poorly. Most of us, at best, can talk superficially about race. We can use the words white and black or African American, we may count numbers of whites and blacks living or working or attending school together, but we have great trouble knowing just what we think about race that has led us to conduct lives largely governed by skin color. We may be aware of anxiety, guilt, shame, or anger encountering others defined as racially different, but we have hidden from ourselves the assumptions about morality, sexuality, and aggression that shaped and maintain racial identities. So long as these emotional premises remain unconscious and unavailable for discussion, some of us will continue to benefit at others' expense, and all will suffer." (Baum, 2010:4)
"Desegregation would reorder race relations. By diminishing physical, social, and emotional distance between the races, it would alter white identity. Blacks would assert their individual rights to attend desegregated schools. Using the same language of rights, whites would assert their choice to attend segregated schools. These claims conflicted and, expressed in terms of rights, could not be reconciled. Confronted with this procedural impasse, school boards could acknowledge the conflicts between rights and seek Solomonic wisdom to divide them. Alternatively, they could try to articulate a collective school districtwide identity of which black and white both were part and on the basis of which they would have to find a place together. The emotional obstacle to both approaches, as boards knew, was whites' anxiety about blacks. The intellectual obstacle to the second approach, as boards might discover, was that liberalism gave them little to work with. It was hard to formulate a collective identity that did not seem to infringe on individual rights." (Baum, 2010:16)
Today, decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation based on skin tone unconstitutional, diversity is not guaranteed. According to a Baltimore Sun analysis, in Maryland's schools, 10% of the schools have a high percentage (over 75%) of black students, almost all of them are in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Maryland has the fifth-largest percentage of black enrollment in the U.S. Baltimore County has 23 nearly all-white schools and two schools that are considered "apartheid" schools as they have a white population of less than 1%. The fact that students do better in diverse settings is confirmed by research findings (via).
"Although most of Baltimore’s schools were not integrated until after the 1954 Brown decision, the efforts to start desegregation in Baltimore began in 1952 at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. The all-white high school offered an advanced college preparatory curriculum that was not available at the all-black high schools in Baltimore at the time. With assistance from Thurgood Marshall, 16 black male students petitioned the school board to attend the all-white school. By a vote of five to three, the school board approved the black students’ petition, and they were allowed to enroll at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute the following school year.
Within less than a month after the Brown decision, Baltimore City Public Schools was one of the first school districts in the country to end de jure segregation, and the district adopted a freedom of choice plan that ignored race and allowed any student to attend any school." (Ayscue, 2013:5f)

Stacks had no formal training as a photographer, started taking pictures of sporting events and dances when he was at City College, was hired at The Sun in 1951 and began shooting for the Sun Magazine in 1955 - the year he won Honorable Mention Photographer of the Year in a contest sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association. Stacks used to describe himself as part pictorialist and photojournalist (via).

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- Ayscue, J., Flaxman, G., Kucsera, J. & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2013) Settle for Segregation or Strive for Diversity? A Defining Moment for Maryland's Public Schools. The Civil Rights Project
- Baum, H. S. (2010) Brown in Baltimore. School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press
- photographs via and via, Dick Stacks Photographer/Baltimore City Library