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School Social Work and School Segregation

School Social Work and School Segregation

Racial segregation impacts resource distribution, access to opportunity, and democratic participation in public education. In 1954 the Supreme Court made a historic ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case. This first ruling dictated that state laws mandating racial segregation in public education were unconstitutional. The court then made a second ruling in 1955, stressing that districts segregated by civic law would desegregate with “deliberate speed”. Without federal guidelines, local regions took liberties in undermining the desegregation process (Bell, 2004). We are now 66 years past the second ruling and it is undeniable that public schools remain highly segregated.

If the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in 1954 on school segregation, then why are our public schools still segregated and what is the role of school social work in school segregation?

Photographer: Claire Anderson | Source: Unsplash

The historical and ongoing issue of school segregation is deeply tied to racist policies across multiple institutions, particularly housing. In Ghosts in the Schoolyard Sociologist Dr. Eve L. Ewing wrote about the connection between school and housing- “The troubling history of racism in housing and schooling as paired institutions in the community—at once parallel and circling one another like the strands of a double helix—is an affront to the aspirations of those black migrants who came north a century ago…” (page 92). Dr. Ewing is referencing the housing segregation Black Americans experienced during the Great Migration. In the Upper Midwest and Northeast during the early 20th-century school segregation was not written into civic law (de jure segregation). Instead, school segregation operated through housing discrimination (de facto segregation).

Though Brown v. Board I declared de jure school segregation unconstitutional, the ruling did not tackle de facto segregation. This is partly due to the perception of de facto segregation. Since the early 20th-century racial segregation was perceived as natural occurrence or unintended outcome. However, school segregation and its implications (distribution of resources, opportunities, and power that privileges White families) are not accidental. Rather they are the result of racist policy making layered over decades and across multiple institutions.

This article will explore the visiting teachers' movement’s engagement with school segregation in the early 20th century. Given the regional use of de jure and de facto segregation during the 20th century I will analyze the history through three regional cases- Black students in the South, students of Chinese and Mexican descent in the West, and Indigenous children in the Midwest. Within each of these cases, I will show how the visiting teachers' movement engaged with regional school segregation.

The Visiting Teachers Movement Engagement With School Segregation

The Visiting Teachers Movement and the Miseducation of Black Students in the South

Reconstruction was particularly important to public education in the United States. Prior to Reconstruction, education was not readily accessible to White people living in poverty, and enslaved people of African descent were barred from receiving an education (Du Bois, 2017). During Reconstruction in 1865, Congress established the Freedman’s Bureau, a social service organization designed to support Black communities in the South. The Freedman’s Bureau provided a range of social services including medical care, housing, legal assistance, and schools.

An image of the Freedman’s Bureau providing social services and distributing resources. This image comes from Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics.

The importance of the Freedman’s Bureau to public education cannot be overstated. In 1901 Sociologist W.E.B Du Bois wrote, “The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South.” Unfortunately, the Bureau never had the staffing, funding, or federal support needed to fully actualize its purpose. Under pressure from White Southerners, the Freedman’s Bureau was dismantled by Congress in 1872. This decision greatly impacted the lives of Black Southern residents. Many depended on the Freedman’s Bureau for material resources and civil protections. Not long after, in 1896 the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson. This landmark case ruled that ‘separate but equal’ was constitutional and opened the door for states to create and enforce Jim Crow laws. This included writing racial school segregation into state law. Racial segregation in schools would remain the standard in the South through the Progressive Era.

Given this historical context, it is clear that visiting teachers in the South practiced in schools segregated by civic law. The image below is taken from a 1924 report of the visiting teachers' movement across the country. In the report visiting teachers from regional districts reported on the district demographics, direct practice, and municipal governance. In the image, a visiting teacher in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma described the organization of the public school district. The text reads “With characteristic energy the schools began the visiting teacher work with four visiting teachers, three for the white schools and one for the colored schools.” Here is direct evidence of the visiting teachers' movement engagement with de jure segregation. Further, the visiting teachers' assignments are part of the inequitable resource distribution. The schools for White students received three visiting teachers whereas the school for Black students received one visiting teacher. This mirrors the contemporary distribution of resources and opportunity across majority White schools and majority Black schools.

Excerpt from 1924 issue of the Bulletin

Further we have to consider the type of work visiting teachers were doing in segregated schools with Black students. In a 1928 article about Black social workers it was noted that “The work of the visiting teacher is being extended somewhat among Negroes, so that the colored children in many public schools are receiving the benefit of professional advice to parents on the causes of retardation” (Jones, 1928). The author was not clear if this extension was prevalent across the entire United States or occurring in specific regional pockets. However what is clear is that the visiting teacher movement exposed Black families to intelligence testing and other elements of casework. The racializing impact of such exposure is discussed in the first article of the series.

The Visiting Teachers Movement and Miseducation of Chinese and Mexican Students in the West

As I established in the second article in the series, Chinese immigrants were racialized as Other and denied citizenship. In the early 20th century Mexican American families also experienced severe institutional and structural racism. The denial of citizenship for Chinese American and Mexican American families included segregated schools. Throughout the West state law and local school practices ensured that children of Chinese and Mexican descent were barred from White public schools.

Though the visiting teachers' movement wrote extensively about European immigrant groups, the movement was less descriptive about Chinese and Mexican communities. In a 1924 report on regional visiting teachers' practice, a practitioner from Pocatello, Idaho wrote, “It is a city of about 15,000, whose somewhat large foreign population includes many Indians, Chinese and Mexicans.” Here the label of foreign stands in for ‘not-White’. It is not clear if the visiting teacher’s use of the word Indians is referring to Indigenous people. If so, then labeling Indigenous people as ‘foreign’ demonstrates the ties public education had with settler colonialism.

Ultimately this is the most detail the visiting teachers' movement gives about work with Chinese and Mexican American students. While it is clear that the visiting teachers' movement engaged with these students and their families, beyond this point we are left to speculation. Historical context about de jure and de facto segregation makes it clear that Chinese and Mexican students in the early 20th century would have attended segregated schools. As discussed in the second article of the series, the visiting teachers' movement publicized an intent to protect the educational rights of immigrant children. However the discourse the movement used to describe those immigrant children and families limited their ability to provide services. This example of school segregation provided deepens the contradiction, though the visiting teachers' movement positioned themselves as an ally to immigrant families, the visiting teachers' movement also reinforced school segregation.

Excerpt from 1924 issue of the Bulletin

The Visiting Teachers Movement and the Forced Removal of Indigenous Children into Boarding Schools

Throughout the United States, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools. These boarding schools were sites of violence, neglect, and trauma. From the mid 19th century through the Progressive Era thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly placed in these schools. Activist Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz plainly described the mission of these schools, “The stated goal of the boarding schools was assimilation into the dominant culture, but the intent was cultural genocide. Indigenous children were prohibited from and beaten for speaking their mother tongues or practicing their religions, among other infractions that expressed their humanity.”

This is an image from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. The photo is dated 1900 and shows 7 Indigenous youth outside the steps of a schoolhouse.

Visiting teachers were recruited and worked in these boarding schools. In the 1932 excerpt below several state supervisors of the boarding schools attended a conference in Washington DC. The excerpt goes onto say “Dr. W. Carson Ryan Jr., Director of Education of the Indian Bureau, then told of his plan to introduce visiting teacher service into the Indian Schools and introduced Miss Dorothy Deane as the first visiting teacher to be appointed. Miss Deane has been serving in this capacity since September in the school at Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin”. The participation of the visiting teachers' movement in Indigenous boarding schools is unsurprising but nevertheless haunting. This case is different from the two above. While those examples of segregation prevented students from receiving equal educational opportunities, in contrast, this example is the use of public education as a mechanism of settler colonialism.

Excerpt from a 1932 issue of the Bulletin


In this piece, I outlined regional histories of school segregation and the visiting teachers' engagement with segregation.

The history of school segregation in combination with a close examination of visiting teacher’s practice underlines our professional responsibility.

Though the regional cases differed, in all the cases public education was an institution of social control. Specifically a form of social control that aligned with White supremacy. Black, Chinese, and Mexican American students were denied access to equal educational opportunities while Indigenous students were forced into boarding schools.

The use of public education in racist agenda setting and ambitions has continued into the 21st century. As I described in the first part of the series, the visiting teachers' movement’s use of casework was directed by racist ideology. The engagement with racist ideology went beyond direct practice tools, in this article, I demonstrated that the visiting teachers did not advocate against the policy that made public education a violent and dehumanized institution. Rather the visiting teachers' movement participated in making public education a racializing experience for students. The final article in the series will build across all the previous articles to detail school social work’s relationship with White womanhood.


Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. Oxford University Press.

Jones, E. K. (1928). Social work among Negroes. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 140(1), 287-293.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (Ed.). (2017). Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. Routledge.

Ewing, E. L. (2018). Ghosts in the schoolyard: Racism and school closings on Chicago's South Side. University of Chicago Press.

About The Author

Samantha Guz

Samantha Guz LCSW is a doctoral student at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include school social work, public education policy and politics, holistic family and adolescent wellbeing, gendered Whiteness, as well as critical feminist research and practice. Her current work is focused on alternative high schools and gendered Whiteness within the profession of social work.

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