Excerpts from Interview with Roger Abrams, Morgan v. Hennigan Lawyer

Posted: October 21, 2014 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized
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As mentioned in the previous post, I recently interviewed Roger Abrams, who was part of the plaintiffs’ legal team that tried Morgan v Hennigan in 1972.  He had a lot of interesting things to say, some of which were included in the other post, but I wanted to put up a few more excerpts.  Abrams’ focus in the case was proving that the Boston Public Schools discriminated in hiring and placement of teachers and administrators, and hearing his story was very valuable in understanding the tools the school committee used to create a segregated system, and relevant to questions today about access, equity, and excellence.

On teacher evaluation:

“So I went to School Street and I went through the teacher files, and one thing they would require of the applicants for teaching positions is a birth certificate, a copy of a birth certificate. The birth certificates of people who were born in the South contained racial data. And I was able to convince the folks at Foley that I needed a whole bunch of secretaries to record this data, so I made up a form where we would put the person’s name and background and race and scores on the teacher’s exam, the National Teacher’s Exam, which was created by, administered by Educational Testing Service in Princeton. And I didn’t know whether we had enough data, but there was a statistician that the Harvard Center had affiliated with, not sure exactly what his status was. He looked over the eventual report that I wrote and he said, ‘It’s perfect. It’s great.’ And he so testified for me at trial. And then I went to visit the folks in Princeton who were appalled at what I had found because their directives to the users of their exam, because of the foreseeable racial disparities in outcomes on the teacher’s exam was, ‘Do not use this as the sole criterion for hiring,’ because it would be foreseeably racially discriminatory. What I was able to show, with the help of the statistician, was that all the other factors: the interviewer of the teacher, their prior credentials, their prior teaching experience, all became null factors, because everyone got the same score or around the same score. The only score that made the difference was the National Teacher’s Exam. And so they said, ‘What could we do to help?’ I said, ‘Come to Boston and testify.’ And so one of my witnesses was the administrator of the National Teacher’s Exam from ETS, who explained why Boston was misusing it.”

On building schools and busing:

“And so in Dorchester the [attendance] line would move as the people moved, so as to keep students apart by race. They would choose to build, they were still building schools back then, small schools in homogeneous neighborhoods, both Black and white. But it was a small school because it was a larger school that would draw from a larger attendance area which would cut over racial boundaries. And then, of course, as often as we could, we would show information about bus routes. This is a big city. Students can’t always walk to school. The question is not whether there were buses. There always had been buses. The question is where did the buses go? The buses would drive white students past Black schools to white schools. The only thing that happened with the remedy was that the routes were changed, and they would take white students to schools that had been predominantly Black and Black students to schools that had been predominantly white. This wasn’t a case of busing. There’s always transportation in every urban school system. But it’s a question of the routes. And we finished presenting our case. [J. Harold] Flannery and Bob [Pressman] had taken depositions of their own. I was not involved with those. They were mostly fact-oriented—what did you do then, what did you do then, and they would alert the witnesses as to the questions they were going to be asked. The question was not, ‘Why’d you discriminate this way?’ The question was ‘What did you do?’ Not to alert them in any way that what they were doing happened to be unconstitutional. Violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. There were a lot of individual incidents that are set forth in Judge Garrity’s opinion that [Flannery] put witnesses on that were indicative of the repeated decisions to segregate the schools.”

On white flight:

“People often say that the school case created white flight. Not true. If you look at the trends, the decrease in white population in schools continued at the same level. That is, an increasing decrease. The people who could escape, whether to Catholic schools or out to the suburbs, continued to do so.”

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