Reflecting on the PTA Legacy: A Challenge for 21st Century Leaders
Sandra L. Zelno, Consultant to the Pennsylvania PTA
Chapter 8. Separate but Equal: Another Challenge for the PTA
The roots of the National PTA were in Washington D. C. in 1897. Every winter, however, my memories take me to our nation’s capital and reflect upon a later date—January of 1996. I was serving as a member of the National PTA Legislative Committee that met in Washington, D. C. and became stranded in an historic blizzard that would paralyze the East Coast for days. My roommate was Lois Jean White of Knoxville, Tennessee. We became fast friends as we positioned ourselves at the window of the Washington Marriott, like guards watching over a fort. There were only about 20 guests in the entire hotel, including the six of us from the PTA. All night long, we watched the snow mount to several feet. No planes, no cars, and no movement—we had to wait out the storm.
As the days went on, fresh food supplies were diminishing in the hotel. The management would announce designated times when they would prepare meals with limited menus. We’d join our PTA friends for a meal, often smuggling a piece of fruit or a yogurt into our tote bags for later, rationalizing that this was an acceptable practice under the circumstances. We were all easily identifiable since we wore the same clothes daily. On the third day, we all ventured out for a walk to a convenience store two blocks away where it was rumored there were snacks for sale. The snow was almost thigh-high as we trekked through it, most of us only in tennis shoes at best, but driven by visions of chips and pretzels at the end of the journey. Cold and wet, that evening we happily snacked on the junk food, and Lois Jean rented a movie for our entertainment –Sleepless in Seattle. If I had to be stranded, I could not have asked for a better roommate than Lois Jean. And, more importantly, the National PTA could not have asked for a better person who was destined to become the living legacy of the PTA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Why that distinction would be made deserves a closer look at more of the history of the PTA.
In the early 1900’s, African-American mothers in the South knew that conditions were bad for poor children—black and white. However, by law in the South, African-Americans were to be schooled in “separate but equal” facilities from whites, but conditions in reality were more separate than equal. Selena Sloan Butler, an African-American teacher and wife of a prominent Atlanta physician, was motivated by the plight of poor kids segregated in schools. Graduating in the second graduating class of Spelman College in Atlanta, she taught in the Atlanta Public Schools and Florida State College. Like the earlier founders of the National PTA, she had a strong interest in kindergarten and organized classes in the South. She had researched the work of the founders of the National PTA and decided to work towards organizing something similar in Georgia for what was then called colored or Negro parents. Her calling was to unite African-American mothers in Atlanta, and she sought the assistance of the National PTA. Mrs. Butler will be remembered as a pioneer, humanitarian, and peacemaker.
By 1911, Mrs. Butler had organized the Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta as the first Colored Parent Teacher unit, following the structure already put in place years earlier by Phoebe Apperson Hearst and Alice McLellan Birney when they formed the National PTA. The movement prospered, and she worked relentlessly across the state forming other units where dual school systems existed. By 1919, all of the schools had a local unit and they formed the Georgia Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers. The movement spread to Alabama, Florida, Delaware, and other southern states. In early 1926, the Georgia Congress issued a nationwide call to a convention in Atlanta for the purpose of forming a national association.
On May 7, 1926, the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (NCCPT) was formed, and Selena Sloan Butler was elected as its first president. The group would operate in those states where separate schools for the races were maintained. It is important to note that it was individual state segregation laws for schools—not the National PTA bylaws—that prevented African-American schools from joining the larger, older association. The National PTA worked closely and supported the new NCCPT and made it very clear that no one would ever be excluded from National PTA membership. History tells us that, although the two congresses were separate, there was always a spirit of collaboration between them over the decades.
In 1951, Oliver Brown tried to enroll his African-American daughter Linda in an “all white” Topeka, Kansas school. When denied admission, he joined in a lawsuit with twelve other families that landed in the U. S. Supreme Court. The face of public education would be changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional. There were court challenges and even enforced implementation by the National Guard, but the process to end legal segregation had finally begun. Following the Supreme Court decision, the National PTA and the NCCPT held their conventions in conjunction with one another. Many believed the two should become one. As schools slowly desegregated in the 1950’s and 1960’s, local units of the NCCPT dissolved and their members joined local units of the National PTA. Just as some of the nation disagreed with the desegregation of schools, some in the ranks of both the National PTA and the NCCPT also resisted integration.
In 1966, formal negotiations began between the two national associations. At the last convention of the NCCPT in Atlanta, Georgia on June 22, 1970, the long awaited merger happened when the organizations formally signed a Declaration of Unification. After forty years of working separately, their common goal to uphold the quality education, safety, and well-being of every child finally had become a united mission.
Lois Jean White made history in June 1997 when she took office as the first African-American President of the National PTA, more than a quarter of a century after the merger of the two congresses. When recently asked how that felt, she replied, “I felt I was a continuation of the merger, but felt there was still much work to do to unify the group. It’s a more subtle thing now but it pervades all areas of not only the PTA but the country.” I continued to query her about why she thought it took so long for the merger to take place. “Just look at history,” she replied, “even the history of our country. It takes a long time to get things done. The merger of the PTA was not an iconic movement by itself. The atmosphere in the whole country contributed to all of it. People always fear losing what power they had gained.” Lois Jean was quick to point out that during those four decades, a great deal of collaboration did take place between the organizations. In closing, she recalls that one of the best parts of her presidency was outreach and meeting all people across the country, having visited almost every single state except one or two. “Meeting and listening to people was the best thing,” she quipped. I was proud to have played a small role in her historic administration as a member of her “Urban Initiative.”
Selena Sloan Butler was the pioneer for beginning a movement and is credited with being one of the founders of the National PTA. Lois Jean White became the face and voice of that same movement, but that part proudly happened in our lifetime. The transition after the original merger was not easy. It was an uphill battle all the way, entrenched in laws that did nothing to overcome bias and prejudice. But that is both the lesson and the wake-up call for today’s PTA leaders. The hard work to achieve equality and equal opportunity for all kids is not done. We must accept the baton from past leaders and do the “meeting and listening” that Lois Jean did if we truly want a unified PTA.
Note: Lois Jean White served as President of the National PTA from 1997-1999. She currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband George.