By Andrea Spencer (@andreaspencer__)
Devlin, Rachel. A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools. New York: Basic Books, 2018.
Gender historian Rachel Devlin’s new book, A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools highlights the first African American girls and young women who desegregated American schools, particularly in the Deep South. Drawing on an extensive cache of oral interviews, Devlin crafts a wide-ranging narrative that brings to life the experiences of those who stood at the forefront of school desegregation. Devlin’s goal is largely historiographical; she aims to shift “the lens from the legal arguments against segregation and the lawyers who made them” to a focus on “the largely young, feminine work that brought school desegregation into the courts, that helped make school desegregation central to the American political imagination of the postwar period, and, with less success but equal meaning, that made integrated schools possible” (Devlin, xi).
Though Devlin is trying to make a historiographical argument by shifting the focus from legal analysis and top-down examinations of the movement’s leaders to the on-the-ground experiences of desegregation’s “firsts,” she never refers to the historians she is responding to by name. The only specific scholar she mentions is critical race theorist, lawyer, and civil rights activist Derrick Bell, and his work Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform to argue against his claim that “Brown was too optimistic about disassembling intransigent racism and that it has obscured racial hatred since it was passed” (268). Despite this lack of historiographical specificity, her overarching argument is quite clear. She disagrees with the “tidy conceptualization” of Brown, and school desegregation in general, as being driven by the NAACP. Devlin argues that
Brown v. Board was the end result of an onslaught of unsolicited cases, initiated by parents and students, which came as a surprise to the national office and ultimately convinced NAACP lawyers to litigate on the grade school level. The road to Brown was a grassroots movement spearheaded by the girls and young women whose words, actions, and public commitment brought school desegregation to the fore in the postwar era (xii).
Devlin’s aim is to establish black girls and young women and their parents as the leaders and foot soldiers of grade school desegregation, with the NAACP following in their footsteps in the 1950s.
Devlin’s work is largely focused on biographies of the plaintiffs and is not restrained by geography, though she does focus primarily on cases in the Deep South. However, she begins in the midwest with Lucille Bluford, who attempted to desegregate the Missouri School of Journalism, and Ada Lois Sipuel, who desegregated law schools in southwestern Oklahoma and Texas. Devlin argues that these cases inspired grade school desegregation efforts between 1947 and 1949. She highlights Thurgood Marshall’s reticence to become involved in these cases, and contends that the NAACP only took on such cases because “if an outside lawyer won the case, the NAACP would forfeit its status as the premier civil rights organization of its time” (70). Devlin spends a chapter arguing that Esther Brown and her role in Webb vs School District No. 90 were a direct lead-in to Brown. The second half of the book chronicles the desegregation cases right before, including, and after Brown. The book concludes with a focus on the emotional and social experiences of “firsts,” underscoring their conviction that what they did was politically, socially, and historically important.
Devlin primarily relies on oral interviews she and others conducted with plaintiffs, their friends, their family, and those otherwise involved with the cases. In her acknowledgment, Devlin writes that she cherished the “privilege” to be “educated by some of the most courageous leaders then and now alive about what it meant to be on the front lines of the war that was school desegregation” through conducting these interviews (277). These interviews are an incredibly rich source that can tell historians much more about the desegregation fight. They also stoutly support Devlin’s argument that these black girls and young women, and their parents, were the driving force behind the grassroots movement that led to Brown. At times, the interviews and Devlin’s biographical digressions can distract from the work’s argument and organization. However, the valuable research Devlin has conducted will surely be of great use to historians and future scholarship. Like her colleague and interviewee, Deborah G. White’s, book Ar’n’t I A Woman laid the groundwork for future scholarship about enslaved women, A Girl Stands at The Door may be the catalyst for significant scholarship on female desegregation plaintiffs.
Devlin is a scholar of gender, and not race, which could possibly explain the glaring omission of significant racial analysis in this book. However, it is confounding that there is not more gender analysis in the book. It could be better described as (young) women’s history, rather than gender history. Devlin will mention, for instance, “understandings of the appropriate roles and social obligations of girls” and “the normal order of gender relations in an early 1960s American high school” but fails to interrogate—or even establish—these gendered mores (92, 236). The book is published by Basic Books, a popular press, which may serve to partially explain this aversion to gender theory. However, without such analysis the book turns into a collection of un-interrogated and decontextualized biographies and personal recollections. It could have been a much more nuanced and powerful historical work if there was a greater focus on racial and gendered norms and factors surrounding these cases. As it is, A Girl Stands at The Door accomplishes its goal—to reinsert black girls and young women into the grassroots movement of desegregation—but not much more. Due to its general lack of analysis, this book is better suited to undergraduate students or members of the general public interested in such topics than to graduate students of history. But, as previously mentioned, the book leaves much more work to be done, which could be an excellent project for a scholar of race and gender in this time period. Perhaps this book will serve as a guidepost for future scholarship, as it is certainly not the final word on this subject.