Emory Report

December 13, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 15

Walker wins $200K Grawemeyer Award for book on segregation

Conventional wisdom holds that blacks in the segregated South studied in schools of limited means and, as a result, received educations of low quality.

That idea tells only part of the story, according to educational studies Associate Professor Vanessa Siddle Walker, who says today's educational institutions' lack of understanding about this aspect of black educational history has hindered our ability to learn from those segregated schools.

That argument, illustrated in Walker's book Their Highest Potential: An African-American School Community in the Segregated South, led to the author's selection as winner of the 2000 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education. The $200,000 Grawemeyer Award honors outstanding works and ideas that could lead to improvements in education.

Walker explores through her book the little-researched history of life in black schools before desegregation. She does so through a case study of Caswell County Training School in the Piedmont area of North Carolina from 1933 to 1969.

As expected, the book shows a school in inferior physical condition compared to nearby white schools. However, it also details strong administrative leadership, intense parental and community involvement and high teacher expectations that motivated many children to believe in what they could achieve despite the dire and unjust circumstances of segregation. Uncovering this personal, invasive approach provides critical context on black traditions of schooling that may force educators to ask different questions about black student failure in schools, Walker said.

Walker was one of 30 nominees for the education award, including submissions from six countries and 14 states.

The Grawemeyer Foundation at Louisville awards $200,000 each year for works in music composition, education, ideas improving world order and, beginning in 2001, psychology. A fifth award--the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in religion--is given by the university and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

-Elaine Justice

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