A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schoolsby GDN Shared Post August 10, 2018
A new history of school desegregation in America, revealing how girls and women led the fight for interracial education
The struggle to desegregate America’s schools was a grassroots movement, and young women were its vanguard. In the late 1940s, parents began to file desegregation lawsuits with their daughters, forcing Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers to take up the issue and bring it to the Supreme Court. After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, girls far outnumbered boys in volunteering to desegregate formerly all-white schools.
In “A Girl Stands at the Door”, historian Rachel Devlin tells the remarkable stories of these desegregation pioneers. She also explains why black girls were seen, and saw themselves, as responsible for the difficult work of reaching across the color line in public schools. Highlighting the extraordinary bravery of young black women, this bold revisionist account illuminates today’s ongoing struggles for equality.
REVIEWS & PRAISE
“Before reading A Girl Stands at the Door I would have imagined that nothing new could be said about the struggle to desegregate schools—and I would have been wrong. Rachel Devlin has uncovered a neglected history of how parents and, importantly, children braved rejection, hostility, even assault to insist on their right to a decent education. Possibly most surprising, these courageous students were mostly girls, a finding that challenges some assumptions about risk-taking behavior. Not least, the book is a great read.”
—Linda Gordon, author of The Second Coming of the KKK
“Bold and unforgettable, the girls whose vivid portraits Devlin brings to life through priceless interviews should be household names for their moral courage and stalwart persistence in challenging segregated schools despite the personal costs. This book brings under-recognized female leadership in the black freedom struggle dramatically to the forefront, redrawing the known landmarks in that history.”
—Nancy F. Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Harvard University
“A Girl at the Door reveals black girls’ under-appreciated role in the Civil Rights Movement. Devlin relates the stories of well-known child activists such as Ruby Bridges, as well as the stories of numerous other brave black girls whose names have been forgotten by many. The book follows black girls down the halls of schools from Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia. The stories unveil much about the struggles of black girls’ daily lives and their steadfast determination to find a way in an often hostile world.”
—LaKisha Michelle Simmons, author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans
“A Girl Stands at the Door forces us to view a central stand of civil rights history in an entirely new way. Rachel Devlin has discovered something that should have been in plain view but nonetheless has remained invisible—that girls and young women stood at the center of the massive effort to desegregate American schools. In this compelling, lucid, and deeply researched book, Devlin makes them into flesh-and-blood actors, whose words, initiative, and subtle everyday negotiations helped shape an important strand of American history.”
—Kenneth Mack, professor at Harvard Law School and author of Representing the Race
“In this accomplished history of the school desegregation fight from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, Devlin…offers a cogent overview of the legal strategies employed and delves into the stories of the African-American girls (and their families) who defied the ignominious public school systems of the Jim Crow South.…Devlin’s use of diverse secondary and primary sources, including her own interviews with some of the surviving women, bring fresh perspectives. This informative account of change-making is well worth reading.”
“Devlin…spotlight[s] the fact that the majority of black students who stepped forward to integrate colleges, high schools, and elementary schools from the 1940s to the 1960s were girls. Some of these courageous women retain a place in American consciousness…but have since faded into obscurity. The decade of work Devlin put into recovering this underappreciated aspect of civil-rights history is fully on display.”
Rachel Devlin is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University specializing in the cultural politics of girlhood, sexuality, and race in the postwar United States. She holds a BA from Barnard College and a PhD in History from Yale University. She is the author of Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture (2005). In her most recent book, A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools (2018), Devlin draws on interviews and archival research to tell the stories of the many young women who stood up to enraged protestors, hostile teachers, and hateful white students every day while integrating classrooms. Among them were Lucile Bluford, who fought to desegregate the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism before World War II, and Marguerite Carr and Doris Faye Jennings, who as teenagers became the public faces of desegregation years before Brown v. Board of Education. Devlin has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History (Harvard University), and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute (Harvard University).