Educational Politics and the Making of School Desegregation Policy in Houston, Texas
Breeden, Edwin C.
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
The desegregation of American public school systems in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a vast, protracted, and, in many cases, frustrated historical project that impacted individual communities in a multitude of ways. Drawing upon official school board records, court documents, oral histories, newspaper accounts, government reports, and private correspondence, this dissertation blends legal, political, and social history to highlight the contingent process by which local and federal power intersected and interacted to guide the course of desegregation policymaking in individual cities and communities. By examining the actual policies that guided local people’s access to particular educational spaces—including those policies’ underlying intentions, the debates surrounding them, and their results—this project seeks to interpret this complex historical project with greater specificity and clarity than obtains from merely considering whether actors supported or opposed desegregation. Ultimately, numerous forms of “desegregation” emerged in the decades after Brown, each of which inspired unique mixtures of support and opposition from location to location. This study’s policy-centered framework is applied in the specific context of Houston, Texas, and the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest segregated school system in the American South at the time of Brown. Desegregation began in HISD in 1960, but the district’s desegregation policies were not firmly established until the early 1970s when it adopted a mixture of neighborhood-based student zoning, voluntary pupil transfers, and racially balanced faculty assignment. These policies satisfied federal mandates yet left desegregation subject to the constraints of Houston’s segregated residential geography and thus failed to achieve meaningful tri-ethnic integration of the district’s African American, Mexican American, and Anglo students. This project unpacks the complicated history that led to those policies by situating the development of HISD’s nearly thirty-year-long desegregation lawsuit, Delores Ross v. Houston Independent School District (1956 – 1984), within the constant and contentious struggles for control of the Houston school board and district policymaking in the 1950s through 1970s. In so doing, it highlights how integration supporters worked to dismantle segregation and secure greater power over local education through multiple venues, as well as how resistant school officials worked to stifle those ambitions in strategic ways. By integrating the experiences of school officials, activists, lawyers, district employees, and ordinary families, this study reveals multiple visions of desegregation and education reform that circulated at the local level and informed actors’ goals and the power they had or did not have to achieve them.
education; race; civil rights; desegregation; politics