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Getting to Know Dr Sonya Ramsey

Getting to Know Dr Sonya Ramsey

Dr. Sonya Ramsey, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has been intrigued by the lives of Black women educators for much of her academic career.

Armed with oral history interviews, public records and reams of educational surveys and studies, Ramsey recently published Reading, Writing, and Segregation: A Century of Black Women Teachers in Nashville (University of Illinois Press). The book, based on her dissertation research, begins in 1867 at the beginning of Nashville’s segregated Black schools and ends in 1983, long after federal court-ordered public school desegregation.

β€œLooking at these teachers over such a long expanse of time reveals various changes in how Black women defined themselves as middle-class professionals and how they influenced and responded to social forces,” Ramsey explains.

Her project was inspired by her work in 1993 as a UNC graduate student in the Behind the Veil Project, an oral history initiative to record the experiences of African- Americans who lived during the era of segregation. She was among the grad students who traveled throughout the South conducting interviews.

With an undergraduate journalism degree from Howard University, Ramsey used her interviewing and reporting skills to learn the deepest truths about Black women educators; for example, thatinstead of being undertrained, as commonly portrayed, they tended to be better educated than many of their White counterparts. She also found that the teachers were not only respected, but often revered in their communities.

β€œThey shaped the middle class,” Ramsey says, noting that few other professions were open to college-educated Blacks.

β€œThe community and parents supported them, followed their dictates … it was not an antagonistic relationship.” She says teachers instructed students not only in their subject areas, but in β€œhow to sit, walk and interact with people. They had to teach from torn textbooks, memorize pages and even buy prom dresses. They were often double-taxed β€”
having to pay state taxes and supplement their schools with their own money
.”

Interestingly, Ramsey notes that when civil rights organizations pushed for desegregation, they portrayed the schools β€” and the teachers β€” as substandard. Black teachers β€œtook a hit with the Brown decision and lost jobs.” As a result, she suggests that many teachers were estranged from the activists of the movement. β€œWe have a romanticized notion of the movement,” she says. β€œNot everybody participated.”

However, Ramsey writes that despite some antipathy and fear of
job loss, β€œtheir efforts to motivate, sustain and support students
suggest deep engagement with the movement
.”

Ramsey also believes her research has relevance to today’s African-American teachers. It helps to explain the decline in Black teachers since the 1970s, when more opportunities opened up in other professions. And just as the Black teachers of the past adjusted and improvised in order to educate their students, Ramsey believes today’s teachers face similar challenges resulting not only from desegregation, but from β€œchanging concepts of pedagogy … and shifting social values.”

β€”By Pearl Stewart



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