Dr. Theresa J. Canada saw that there is a lot of misinformation about the reality of segregation in northern schools. She found that many people believe that northern schools were less segregated than southern schools, but this was not the reality she faced.
Drawing from her own experiences at PS6 — an elite New York public school — and in-depth interviews with her elementary school classmates, her new book, “Desegregation of the New York City Schools: A Story of the Silk Stocking Sisters,” explores how young children of color were used to eliminate segregation in an urban public school to meet the challenges of equal educational opportunity in the north during the mid-1900s.
This book is her attempt to document the truth — and all of its challenges — of being Black in northern schools during the height of desegregation. Apart from her own experience, she also comprehensively looks into the lives of seven young girls, known as the Silk Stocking Sisters, who were sent to PS6 as part of desegregation efforts in the north.
Dr. Canada is a professor in the Education and Educational Psychology Department at Western Connecticut State University. Her decades-long career includes research in cultural diversity, teacher education, counselor education, early childhood and adolescent development, equity and urban education.
“[Segregation] hasn’t gone away,” she declared.
She said that people often ask her what the point of writing another book on segregation is.
“I wanted to document history,” she said. “This was crucial for me to document this process because really it was an experiment in the New York City Public Schools.”
Dr. Canada finds it ironic that many of her students were unaware of the historical segregation in the schools in the north. This frightened her.
“I felt this needed to be documented to illuminate the issues that were not much different than it was in the south,” she said.
During the mid-twentieth century, northern schools were attempting to desegregate their classrooms by categorizing some schools as “sender” and “feeder” schools. Sender schools were usually schools with a majority of people of color students who were sent into predominantly white schools, named feeder schools.
Although Dr. Canada’s original elementary school in Harlem was a sender school, PS6 was not a traditional feeder school. In fact, it did not want to desegregate its classrooms. Her research found that the New York school only began accepting students of color to help alleviate their own decreased enrollment.
Around this time, many white families were moving to the suburbs and sending their children to schools there. PS6 was hit hard by the trend, and it struggled to meet enrollment numbers that would keep the school afloat.
Still, the school was picky on the non-white students they allowed to attend in the early 1960s. It only accepted students they believed would fit into the middle- and upper-middle-class environment of their school.
Before they were allowed to enroll in the public school, students of color sent to PS6 had to take entrance exams and choose between being an art or a music student to signal that they are not lowering the academic standing of the school. The school also took a strong preference for students coming from a two-parent household, and she recalls only one of her classmates came from a single-parent household.
Even after being accepted into PS6, Dr. Canada and Silk Stocking Sisters had to face their teachers’ and classmates’ racism.
“They really did not want us there, but they knew they had to fill the coffers. There was a lot of resentment. The resentment, the hostility, the bias was evident to all of us,” she said.
Dr. Canada recounted one of the most blatant signs of bias from her fourth-grade teacher.
“There was a situation that my friend and I noticed. We were in the fourth grade together, and we realized that the teacher would only call on us when we didn’t have our hands raised. We would have our hands raised to answer a question when we had the answer, and she never called on us. When we didn’t have the answer, we didn’t raise our hands, and then she would intentionally call on us.
“We figured out, ‘Ok let’s raise our hands when we don’t have the answers and leave our hands down when we do have the answers.’ We did it, and she called on us because we didn’t have our hands raised, but we knew the answer, and when we said the answer she was in shock. She was stunned. She did not want us to have the correct answer because she wanted the other students to think that we weren’t very smart,” Dr. Canada said.
In her book, she dedicated a chapter to analyzing the psychological impact that desegregation has on children of color. Although Dr. Canada was able to receive benefits at PS6 — access to better supplies, educational materials and stellar music and arts programs — she could not help but wonder why those same resources could not be provided at the schools in the neighborhood where she lived.
“Why did we have to leave our neighborhoods to get a better education? Why couldn’t we have the same things at our school where we lived?” she asked.
She explained that even with integration, the point was always for children of color to remain the minority.
“In a class of twenty, and you bring in two Latinos, three Asians, and three Black students, the rest of the students are not people of color, but that’s still considered integration. Basically, as long as the majority is not ‘minority’ everybody is happy,” she said.
She lamented that the reality was there were still so few of each individual group being represented in the classrooms.
“What does that say to the psyche that we always have to be less-than? The term minority has never resonated with me because I know that people of color are the majority of people in this country and in this world,” she said.
Nevertheless, Dr. Canada says she’s still grateful for her time at the school because it taught her how to advocate for herself and do well in even tough environments.
“The support was there in the community,” she said.
She credits her success at PS6 to her family and community who affirmed her and uplifted her when her teachers and classmates would not.
“You need to have people who are going to encourage and support you,” she said.
In fact, she was proud to say that all of the seven young girls represented in her book are successfully pursuing careers in medicine, pharmaceuticals, psychology and computer science.
Dr. Canada’s book takes a look at the integration practices of the past to understand why integration continues to fail children of color now. As long as children of color are forced to leave their communities to receive a better education, their sense of self-worth will always be challenged.
She wants her readers to consider how we can truly represent diversity in our classrooms by not always situating children of color as the minority in educational spaces, and by providing resources and funding for schools with a large population of students from minority groups.