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Emory historian unearths Jim Crow policy that laid groundwork for Civil Rights Movement
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Emory historian Crystal Sanders untangles the ongoing repercussions of Black students’ efforts to secure graduate education in the Jim Crow era.

Emory College historian Crystal Sanders wanted to understand why so many elderly African American leaders who attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) went on to elite schools like Harvard and the University of Chicago for graduate school.

Then she unearthed a Jim Crow policy that inadvertently laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement.

Sanders will publish her research in a book, tentatively titled “America’s Forgotten Migration,” next summer. Her findings, though, are already the basis of a digital documentary on the nation’s flagship PBS station and have become part of her undergraduate courses.

“Education is political. It’s always been political,” Sanders says. “Many of the successes we see now were really fostered by Black men and women who were so committed to pursuing education and their highest potential that they left their homes to equip themselves with the skills needed to create a more inclusive world.”

An associate professor of African American studies whose research focuses on the history of Black education, Sanders had just finished her first book on the history of the Head Start program for young children when she noticed the graduate school trend.

Digging into records, she discovered what she dubs “segregation scholarships:” money that 16 southern and border states pulled from HBCU funding to send Black students out of state for advanced degrees.

Typically, the money only covered the difference between the in-state tuition and the graduate program tuition, so students had to find work in unfamiliar, expensive cities to cover additional expenses, all while tackling challenging coursework and training.

Leaders thought they’d found a loophole to preserve segregation at their flagship universities and to get rid of potential troublemakers.

Instead, the students returned home as some of the most highly trained and credentialed people in the region — physicians, lawyers, educators — who used their training to chip away at the very system of racial discrimination that compelled them to leave in the first place.

Among them was Jewel Prestage, the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in political science in the U.S. She mentored several generations of Black scholars known as “Jewel’s gems” at Southern University who then went on to become lawyers, state representatives and political scientists, and advocated for improved civic education in K-12 schools in Louisiana.

Prestage, who died in 2014, later served on the National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs. Her work included advising on the Women’s Educational Equity Act addressing sexual harassment and women's rights.

Another was Fred Gray, the attorney Martin Luther King Jr. called “chief counsel” of the protest movement who represented Rosa Parks and victims of the Tuskegee syphilis study and led several lawsuits to desegregate higher education in Alabama.

Last year, President Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Gray, who at 92 is still practicing law.

A digital documentary, “Segregation Scholarships,” tells the broader story in five episodes for WNET, the public television station serving the greater New York City area. As part of the WNET Group’s “Chasing the Dream” public media initiative, the series is expected to become a television program next year.

The story has already become part of Sanders’ fall course on African American pedagogy.

“I’m interested in advocacy and social justice, but I hadn’t heard of this before,” says Tyler Martinez, a sophomore in Sanders’ course.

“Hearing about the history of how we got here now, and seeing the progression, it makes me want to evolve the current system,” adds Martinez, an aspiring cardiologist with a double major in African American studies and human health.

Sanders hopes her forthcoming book will solicit similar understanding and more conversations about racial inequality in higher education. Some HBCUs are still struggling today, for instance, due to the loss of already-thin funding when leaders diverted money to segregation scholarships. That funding was never recovered once universities began to integrate.

“Education has always been a contested public good,” Sanders says. “I want my students to learn that so they remain committed to a first-class, well-rounded education for everyone and value the opportunity to sit in a class with people different than them and learn from them. I try to help my students see their role in creating the kind of institution and alma mater students can enjoy and be proud of 20 years from now.”

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