A note about the Bridges Collaborative and this moment in America:
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 sparked national outrage and resulted in mass demonstrations across the country demanding fundamental changes to remediate the systemic injustices perpetrated against Black Americans. Much has been made about the fact that “this time feels different.” It is not just Americans in positions of privilege and power who have pledged to do something to force change; ordinary Americans are asking themselves what role they play in the status quo, and what role they might play in potential solutions. The time for change is now.
The issue that should be most in the spotlight during this reckoning on racial justice, because it has the greatest potential for positive change, is the unacceptable state of our country’s schools, great swaths of which are highly segregated by race and class. Contrary to popular belief, this is an issue that ordinary Americans can confront and change, by demanding diversity in their schools, confronting the discrimination that led to most of the school and residential boundaries that determine where our children go to school today, and seeking creative solutions to the problem of segregation. We started the Bridges Collaborative to help communities do just that. We are now looking for fifty school and housing partners from across the country to join us in the fight against segregation and for our children’s future. The essay that follows is the story of my own personal connection to the cause of school integration and the Bridges Collaborative.
My ties to the cause of school integration run deep. And although there are a lot of places I could start my story, I
always start with my grandfather.
My grandfather was born in 1901, at a time when the United States was leaving the stain of its “original sin” of enslaving Africans behind in the previous century and moving into a new one, full of possibility for the growing and increasingly diverse nation and its people. As time would show, the legacy of that stain proved too indelible to wash away, and, as W. E. B. DuBois classically predicted it would be, the problem of the century ahead—the one Louis Redding, my grandfather, was born into—was the “problem of the color line.”
Grandpa’s life was deeply connected to both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and their defining institutions. His grandmother, Margaret Ann Redding (“Grandma Redding”), had herself been a slave, having escaped once and been so brutally beaten upon her capture that she harbored a lifelong hatred of White people. His other grandmother, Cora Holmes (“Grandma Conway”), was connected to White people in a different way; her extremely fair skin was a reminder that there were White forebears in Grandpa’s lineage and was emblematic of the country’s complicated history with race.
Louis Redding, top right, with his graduating class at Howard High School in Delaware. His sister, C. Gwendolyn, is third from the left in the top row. Source: Redding House Foundation.
Grandpa made the most of the opportunities his hard-working parents provided for him, attending high school at the all-Black Howard High in Delaware and then graduating from Brown University at the top of his class. He went on to teach at and administer an all-Black school in Florida, Fessenden Academy, which was originally created by freedmen after the Civil War. He ended his stint as an educator to attend Harvard Law School. He was one of the first African-American graduates of that institution.
After law school, Grandpa moved back to his home state of Delaware to begin his legal career. The members of the Delaware Bar Association initially refused to let him sit for the bar, because of the color of his skin. They eventually acquiesced, but only after arranging for a different, more difficult examination. He passed it. Grandpa was
admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1929. For “Lawyer Redding,” this kicked off a decades-long career—half of it as the only Black lawyer in Delaware—leveraging his private practice to integrate public education and public accommodations and to level the playing field for Black Delawareans.
In 1952, he brought lawsuits against two Delaware municipalities, Claymont and Hockessin, for denying African-American families access to their local White schools. The judge in these cases, Collins Seitz, decided in favor of plaintiffs Ethel Belton, Shirley Bulah, and nine other Claymont residents. Seitz wrote in his decision that the state of Delaware’s demonstrated inability to provide equal facilities for Black students left him with no choice but to immediately require the state to admit those students to the White schools to which they had appealed to enter. He argued that had he decided any differently it would be tantamount to saying, “Yes, your Constitutional rights are being invaded, but be patient, we will see whether in time they are still being violated.”
Lawyer Redding’s two legal victories in these lawsuits,
Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart, were subsequently appealed by the state and then combined with three other cases from around the country to comprise Brown v. Board of Education. Grandpa, who had long been involved with the local and national NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), joined the esteemed legal team that took the issue of school integration to the nation’s highest court. And in 1954, they won the most famous and universally recognized Supreme Court case in history.
Louis Redding (left) confers with Thurgood Marshall (right) Source: Library of Congress
In the last two decades of his career, grandpa worked as a public defender in Delaware. It was there that he crossed paths with, and mentored, a young up-and-coming lawyer named Joe Biden. “One of the first people to take me under his wing was Louis Redding,”
said Joe Biden of my grandfather. And although Biden has been criticized for his opposition to busing in the 1970s, he was an early advocate for ordinary Black Delawareans as a young lawyer and a proponent of integration. Decades later, when I interned for then-Senator Biden on Capitol Hill, I introduced myself to him on my first day while he was walking back from a vote on the Senate floor. He spent the next thirty minutes regaling me with stories of my grandfather.
Democratic politician Joseph R. Biden Jr, the United States Senator from Delaware, circa 1980. Source: Nancy Shia/Archive Photos/Getty Images
As a young child, I was immersed in the rich history of my grandfather’s fight for justice for African Americans. Perhaps because, as a student at the time, the school integration cases were so immediately relatable to me, I found them particularly fascinating. As an elementary student, I did research, wrote reports, and gave presentations about my hero.
Principal Lallinger speaking at a Langston Hughes Academy graduation ceremony. Source: Provided by Author.
Alongside my scholarly fascination with Grandpa Redding’s legacy and the topic of integration, I was experiencing life in the United States as a biracial child born into privilege in the American South. I attended public schools in North Carolina through high school, and with each passing phase, I gained my own understanding of race, schooling, and society. Although my elementary school was somewhat integrated, my initial understanding of the accomplishments of Brown v. Board—of integration as a done deal, a fait accompli of history—was first shaken by my middle school experience. Not only were our classes tracked, but I placed into an honors track where I was one of a small handful of students of color. The school’s tracking policy coincided with (or perhaps caused) a clear pattern of social segregation that I noticed most of all between my Black friends and my White friends, but extended to students of all races and backgrounds. The results of this separation only got worse in high school, as the only people I knew who dropped out early were Black, and the only other National Merit Finalists I knew were White and Asian.
My disappointment in the realities of the extant segregation in American schools fueled a desire to more deeply understand educational inequities and how they play out in practice. After running a mentoring program in inner-city Providence, Rhode Island, I moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to teach. I worked at the same school for nearly a decade, and spent the last four as its proud principal. Throughout my tenure, I attempted to explore ways to integrate our 98 percent Black school—honors programs, individualized outreach, personalized tours—to no avail. I was disheartened that even in
a racially diverse city (60 percent Black, 34 percent White, 6 percent Latinx, and 3 percent Asian) with a school district that remade itself after Hurricane Katrina as a choice system, where ostensibly the neighborhoods in which children grew up did not constrain their choice of schools, segregation persisted. Desiring a deeper and more systemic lens for the root causes of segregation and in search of clues to how I might undo it, I applied to Harvard’s doctoral program in education leadership. My admissions essay centered on integration. In it, I wrote, “I plan to use the experiences and skills gained in the EdLD program to . . . pick up where my grandfather’s legal career left off, and lead a major integration effort in a large public school district.”
While at Harvard, I made the most of my time, seeking to learn as much as possible about the history of integration, contemporary integration efforts, and how large-scale change happens in bureaucracies. I got involved with Harvard’s
Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools (RIDES) project, which gave me new language and experiences to think about what happens in schools that have a diverse mix of students but still fall short of being equitable and inclusive places for all to learn. Through Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Project, I was exposed to the thorny issues that school superintendents face when trying to bring about transformative change. In 2018, feeling greatly fulfilled by my first two years, it became time for me to seek a placement for my residency.
In the spring of 2018, Bill de Blasio announced Richard Carranza as the next chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Carranza wasted no time, declaring that one of his top priorities would be to address the rampant segregation in the city’s schools. His
bold language about segregation combined with his doggedness to do something about it represented a marked departure from previous administrations and was virtually unheard of in a major urban district, let alone the largest in the country: “I’ve looked at issues of segregation. I’ve looked at issues of integration. I’m just not changing my language because I’m in New York City.” I watched from Cambridge with intrigue, and when residency applications were due, I submitted one to the New York City Department of Education. In it, I made a pitch for a role on the chancellor’s team that would focus on integration, coordinating implementation of integration policies and advocating for bold policy changes to the enrollment system. I was offered the role and spent the year working tirelessly on implementation and advocacy. The experience took me to all five boroughs, meeting countless students, families, teachers, and principals along the way, and significantly influenced the way I think about school integration.
The combination of my lived experience in public school, my academic experience at Harvard, and my professional experiences in New Orleans and New York City have all shaped my views on school integration and brought clarity to why this is one of the most important things we need to do for our children, our schools, and our country.
To begin with, school integration offers a ray of hope for an American future in which cooperation across lines of difference wins the day over division and hatred, especially in light of the seemingly intractable problems facing the next generation. Look no further than the sorry state of today’s politics defined by bitter partisanship and acrimony, as a reason why people with different views and backgrounds should spend more time listening to and learning from one another. Thurgood
Marshall famously said, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”
Second, integration is the only remedy for centuries of state-sanctioned segregation, which has done unquantifiable harm to communities of color, and Americans of African descent in particular. The systematic denial of equal opportunities to African Americans on local, state, and federal levels is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that the phenomenon of segregation does not disturb us. The sight of all-Black marching bands or all-white soccer teams representing monolithic school communities looks normal to our well-trained eyes. These remain common images today:
approximately one-fifth of American public schools have almost no white students, and one-fifth of American public schools have almost no students of color. Yet it is only because of discriminatory housing policies, gerrymandered school districts, and other government sanctioned actions that the status quo exists. Since the government is responsible for segregation, the government must be responsible for undoing it.
Third, diverse schools are good for learning outcomes.
Research shows that students in diverse schools have higher test scores and are likelier to enroll in college. Students who attend segregated schools are likelier to have larger achievement gaps. And decades of experience shows us that concentrating students that live in poverty into separate schools is one of the worst things we can do to them, because of the disproportionate burden it places on schools that must contend with the myriad challenges that are poverty’s byproducts.
I’ve heard the criticism leveled that “integration did not work,” from White and Black folks alike. The truth is, we’ve never truly had integration. The era of desegregation in our country was marred by discriminatory and unfair treatment of African-American teachers and principals, the jettisoning of Black curriculum and pedagogy, White flight, and systemic underinvestment of public education. That is not my idea of integration. In 1962, Dr. Martin Luther
King said, “ Desegregation is eliminative and negative, for it simply removes [these] legal and social prohibitions. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. . . . Integration is genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. . . . Integration is the ultimate goal of our national community.”
The goal of the Bridges Collaborative is just that:
integration. We will bring together school districts, charter schools, and fair housing advocates to highlight what works in school integration, and give practitioners the platform to meaningfully collaborate with one another. This way, district leaders in Texas can share what has worked for them in designing school zones that are deliberately diverse with charter leaders in Rhode Island, who can share how they have created and sustained inclusive school communities of diverse populations with housing advocates in Washington, D.C., who in return can share best practices for school–city partnerships. Not only are there examples of integration in 2020 from across the country that work, but also, in those places where it has gone well, students and families are clamoring for it. The Bridges Collaborative believes that people need the venue to learn about these places and how to make them come to life.
grandfather once said, “I am not an expert in constitutional law nor am I an expert in that narrower division of constitutional law that might be called civil right and civil liberties,” despite the fact that many people saw him as America’s preeminent constitutional lawyer during his career. “I am just a pedestrian journeyman lawyer who happens to have been practicing in a state where the necessities of the situation made me participate in civil rights activities.”
The truth is that Louis Redding was an extraordinary man who saw himself as an ordinary person who simply was answering the call of the times. Yet the necessities of his time—the necessities of integration—didn’t die when my grandfather passed. They live on, as important and urgent as they ever were.
The time is now for the rest of us ordinary people to finish the work. It is on us to improve our democracy and create better schools for our children. Just as it was my grandfather’s life’s work, it, too, is mine. And it’s the work of the Bridges Collaborative. We hope you’ll join us.
Note: Portions of this narrative are taken from the preface of Stefan Lallinger’s doctoral capstone “21st-Century School Integration in New York City: New Paradigms, Promising Practices, and Familiar Obstacles in the Nation’s Largest District” (published by Harvard University) and adapted for use here. Header photo: Louis L. Redding relaxes for this 1985 portrait in his Wilmington home. A historic marker in his honor was unveiled at the Redding House in Wilmington’s Eastside on Tuesday. Source: Delawareonline.org