‘My Grandparents Tried to Escape Poverty: I Want A Different Outcome for Black Students’

Editor’s Note: Dorothea Williams-Arnold is a senior fellow at The PuLSE Institute’s Academy of Fellows, where she focuses on the academic needs of students in poor communities. She teaches English and Language Arts at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, and is a 14-year veteran of public education. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute and the dean of the Institute’s Academy of Fellows at info@thepulseinstitute.org.

By Dorothea Williams-Arnold

Between 1920 and 1970, six million migrants fled the south for more promising opportunities. My grandparents were among them.  They, too, were fleeing the brutal racism of Gadsden and Aniston, Alabama in the 1940s, the menial work, plunder of sharecropping, and crippling poverty. They, like most of our Black ancestors in Detroit, were a part of what would become the largest mass migration in the history of this country.

Detroit was the Black mecca of jobs and opportunity. But like many Black families who fled the oppressive south, this bright beacon in the north had its own set of challenges that would take its toll on my family: isolated ghettos, redlining and restrictive covenants, grossly inadequate schools, and pressure to keep up which often resulted in insurmountable barriers to maintaining a stable environment their children needed to thrive. They traded the blatant racism of the south with its more insidious form practiced in the north.

In 1954, my grandparents secured their first home on a land contract. For a man with a third-grade education and a family to feed, my grandfather’s job making and laying bricks seemed a blessing. 1954 was also the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of EducationThe southwest Detroit neighborhood at the foot of the Boulevard, along the edge of the Detroit river, was lined with brick, wood framed, single and multiple family dwellings and industrial buildings. It was home to an increasing mix of Black migrants from the south and poor Polish, Mexican, and Caribbean immigrants looking for the same promise as my grandparents.

The timing could not have been worse, as the Brown ruling caused a mass exodus of whites and industry from the city. The staggering disinvestment left their southwest Detroit neighborhood, and many others in the city, a shell of what it once was. The whites who could, began leaving to the outer ring suburbs, in response to Black children and their families flooding the neighborhoods and their schools. With the help of federally backed home loans, these migrating white families were able to build modest dwellings in the newly created periphery suburbs. Moreover, the federal housing administration developed redlining policies and enforced restrictive covenants prohibiting the homes in primarily white areas of the city and the newly created suburbs from being sold to Black families.  

Richard Rothstein highlights this practice in his 2017 book, The Color of Law: “FHA favored mortgages in areas where boulevards or highways served to separate African American families from whites.”  According to their underwriting manual, “the FHA was particularly concerned with preventing school desegregation, stating that if children are compelled to attend school where the majority or considerable number of the pupils represent a far lower level of society or incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable than if this condition did not exist.”

Language in later editions of the manual implicating racially motivated intentions was carefully avoided. My grandparents certainly had not foreseen how difficult it would be to maintain their home, keep up the mortgage, attend to their kids’ education, and hold their family together. The struggles of the working poor cast a grave shadow on their prospects.  

Much like Clyde Ross in Ta–Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” the groundbreaking study of post-slavery Black disenfranchisement, my grandparents found themselves tasked with the burden of trying to keep up with a predatory land contract. Like Mr. Ross, my grandfather worked two jobs to keep up the house and the payments.  My grandmother ran numbers to help make ends meet. Neither of them were home much, so the job of caring for the youngest children fell on the two ill-equipped oldest. Attending to their children’s education was not at the top of their list of survival mechanisms.  Unlike Clyde Ross and his family, my grandparents could not maintain their marriage and separated before their two youngest children were able to graduate from high school. The second youngest, my mother, lacked the support and adult supervision to guide her through her last two years of school, and dropped out.  This would become one of her biggest regrets. She would be pregnant by 17 and a mother of two by 19.  Expecting her parents to step in and help would have proven futile, and her options defaulted to homelessness or marriage. 

Mitigating poverty-related barriers to education was not a priority at my mother’s high school during that time. In more recent history, there seems to be much the same lack of concern for struggling students in our urban schools; that is until the pandemic forced many of our poor families’ primary source of support to close. We have come to realize the important role our schools play in the overall wellbeing of our children, especially poor ones living in dysfunctional homes. Though the pandemic has devastated our community, it has shined a light on the grossly inadequate resources public schools are afforded today and provides an opportunity for reimagining our schools and reclaiming our ability to affect change in how they are managed.  

Before Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and our brave young forefathers of the civil rights movement lead the disenfranchised of Selma and their supporters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the world knew America was a racist country.  The world knew of our history of slavery and poor treatment of people of color.  But it was not until the world witnessed police beating our children and high-powered water from fire hoses pummeling their flesh that America was finally shamed into reluctant action.

Dorothea Williams-Arnold with one of her students inside the classroom.

Think about this: movements that have affected any meaningful, long-standing social change have usually been initiated by those in the trenches, not by those governing our systems. They were borne out of a countervailing resistance to the structural mechanisms that are responsible for unfavorable conditions in the first place. The civil rights movement is a perfect example of this. I argue that in order to save our children from the downward spiral that current policy is taking them, there needs to be a re-awakening and re-engagement of this movement.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a truth that we all know but rarely have the energy or will to deal with: urban public education is not much better off than it was when raced-based segregation was legal.  Poverty and inequitable funding have taken their toll on our schools’ ability to offer more than basic services. Yet there is no loud outcry from teachers and the community to remedy this. If funding continues to be based on property taxes and wealth of residents in a school community, if we are unwilling to fight for more equitable policy, we will never be able to adequately serve our most needy children.

In her transformative call for urban education reform, Radical Possibilities, Jean Anyon argued that unless we address poverty and social inequality, urban schools will continue to be the “center of the maelstrom of constant crises.” Her argument was made abundantly clear over the last year. The educational and psychosocial well-being of our young people here in Detroit have been thrown into another unfortunate predicament exacerbated by partisan politics, provisional funding, and a burning-instead-of-building-bridges mentality among many teachers, families, politicians and the public.

Born from this wreckage, however, there are signs of progress. Since the pandemic, we have narrowed the digital gap; teachers have been more encouraged to be flexible and creative in engaging students because we have come to realize how much they need us. Community partners have stepped in to assist with devices; they have helped reach out to check on the wellbeing of families. In all, there is no denying the role school plays on the nurturing of the children we serve, but we must find the will to build on this effort. The only way we will adequately address the needs of our children is to fight for equitable funding and promote a holistic approach to providing education in our most needy school communities.  We must fight for a more firmly entrenched and sustainable community school model here in Detroit.

Such a community school model, if implemented fully, removes barriers that prevent students from attaining their education. A Brookings Institute study notes that the benefits of this model are shared leadership with the community, accelerated post-secondary success, better connection and trust of families, and improved academic achievement.  According to The Institute for Educational Leadership, it is, “a place and set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.” Teachers and principals do not shoulder the whole burden; it is shared with partners. And while many districts, including Detroit, are utilizing some of the approaches, there needs to be a more concentrated effort to implement this model in more of our schools. 

Imagine the possibilities that could be afforded to students who have access to not only food, but health care, housing referrals, counseling services, more enriched academic services, and after school child-care. If this community school model were more fully adopted, overall student achievement and quality of life would improve in our hardest hit neighborhood schools.  With an investment in more school-based community coordinators, this model could help our district build on what we have already accomplished. But the responsibility does not solely rest with the district. State and local officials should firmly and consistently commit to partnering with our schools. More importantly, teachers must help lead the charge for advocating for and being a part of these supports.

Lastly, teachers and residents of Detroit must join the fight for equitable school funding. When was the last time we heard a local politician address the need for equitable school funding? When was the last time we asked them to focus on helping change this policy in our state? Why are the richest districts receiving more per pupil funding? Why is funding not among teachers’ primary complaints and causes we are willing to be more vocal about?

The question to be asked of our leaders and the public, loudly and over again, is: “Why should a child, through no fault or reason of her own, be condemned to a substandard education and its limiting intellectual and career consequences, simply because she was born into financial poverty?” Intuitively, this is unfair and indeed cruel, and the only humane, productive, and right answer to the question, is: “She shouldn’t.”  Funding for education needs to finally be severed from property values and be applied to children based on need without regard to that child’s material wealth.  To do otherwise is to perpetuate the existing inequity and to continue to steal our children’s dreams.

Our schools in Michigan are as segregated and disenfranchised as they were when my grandparents arrived with all their hopes of a better life, and Detroit has become one of the poorest cities in the country. It is not enough to complain about parents not doing enough without taking into consideration the formidable challenges they may be facing.  More importantly, complaining about parents will not help kids who are starving for more support.

Building bridges and being more firmly committed to partnering with parents and the district will effectively and humanely mitigate our students’ struggles. If my mother had someone outside her home that she could have trusted and could have leaned on, I may not be here.  But the barriers she faced would have been weakened, and perhaps she would have finished high school and better realized her potential. Instead, she carried on with the cycle of poverty related struggles and was unable to reach those dreams that seemed so close as a child.  I’d like to see a different outcome for our students especially as the virus is ravaging our community.

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