Black History Month is a time for us to reflect on the progress that has been made in terms of racial equity but also to acknowledge that progress has been hard-fought and intentionally obstructed, especially in terms of access to educational resources. Like many school districts across the country, Houston ISD has a rocky history with segregation and policies that have served to inhibit Black students, teachers, and families. While the district has come a long way, we still have more work to do, and recalling this history helps ensure we stay on track and do not perpetuate the mistakes of the past.
Following Brown v. Board of Education, HISD was the largest officially segregated school system. Like other segregated districts in the south, HISD did not integrate overnight – or even within a decade of the landmark decision. Instead, it and other local districts largely ignored the call for integration by implementing policies that marked progress in name only. Houston was subject to substantial neighborhood redlining, forcing Black families to live in designated areas of the city through policies adopted by financial institutions. Because there were clear historically Black neighborhoods, it was easy for HISD to feign integration by having a geographic neighborhood school system, which was effectively segregated by neighborhood, but technically not segregated by policy. It took court intervention to propel HISD forward.
In 1956, the NAACP worked to convince Black families to register their children to white schools, but families were understandably wary. Two young Black girls, Delores Ross and Beneva Williams, were registered to “white” schools but rejected when they tried to attend, which allowed the NAACP to coordinate a lawsuit, Ross v. Houston Independent School District, to challenge HISD’s practices. In 1960, a court ordered a step-in plan for integration beginning with first grade. The district had a strict application process and, in the first year, only 12 Black students were able to attend formerly white-only schools. The families of those children were subject to substantial backlash.
Meanwhile, Black communities fought for equitable resources for their children, whether it be through integration efforts like busing or more funding for historically Black schools. Despite these efforts, the district was able to avoid any real attempt at integration for decades. The school board became the center of policy debate. Activists attempted to push policy forward but feared the possibilities of backlash, white flight, or a rebounding effect that could lead to an even more segregationist shift on the board. Hattie Mae White, among others, attempted to convince her board colleagues to make meaningful change. After boycotts and student walkouts, HISD briefly attempted a busing policy, and the district began a voluntary magnet program in 1975 to increase integration. Unfortunately, the distribution of magnet schools across the city continues to be an issue of concern even today.
It wasn’t until a court settlement in 1984 that HISD publicly committed to a 5-year monitoring timeline to ensure its compliance with the mandate set in Brown v. Board thirty years prior. Even with that victory, many HISD schools remained homogenous. For many in the Black community, the goal of these efforts was not just integration, but more and better educational opportunities for their children.
The largest school district in Texas has come a long way over the years thanks to the efforts of Black trailblazers, activists, and allies, but the effects of this turbulent history are still being felt. Historically Black schools still express the need for equitable resources, and outcomes for Black students are often lower than their White and Hispanic counterparts because their needs are not being met by the district. This Black History Month, as we celebrate our progress, we recognize that we still have much more work to do.