Leading While Black: The Paradox and Prospects of Black Education Leadership in Urban Schools

Sonya Douglass Horsford, ArCasia James-Gallaway, and Phillip A. Smith


The effective education of Black students in predominately Black urban schools remains a conundrum for education researchers, leaders, and policymakers across the United States (U.S.). Whether considered a distinct racial or cultural group requiring additional resources and supports or an urban policy problem to be monitored and solved, the (mis)education of African-descendent children reflects the paradox of Black education in a white-dominated society. As Shujaa (1994) argued in his important volume, Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life in White Societies, it is critical that African-descendent people possess a clear understanding of the difference between schooling and education. In his view, schooling is “a societal imperative necessary for the maintenance of existing relations of power and privilege” (p. 10) whereby the goals of schooling are to reproduce the racial, economic, political, and social order. Education, on the other hand, is “a process that locates the members of a culture within their cultural history, facilitates the transmission of knowledge, and affirms the cultural identity” (p. 11). As such, Shujaa argues,

Education is our means of providing for the inter-generational transmission of values, beliefs, traditions, customs, rituals and sensibilities along with the knowledge of why these things must be sustained. Through education we learn how to determine what is in our interests, distinguish our interests from those of others, and recognize when our interests are consistent or inconsistent with those of others. Education prepares us to accept the staff of cultural leadership from the generation that precedes ours, build upon our inheritance and make ready the generation that will follow us.

(p- 10)

Decades after countless efforts intended to close achievement gaps, increase teacher diversity, and lead schools for equity and social justice, urban educational leaders continue to struggle with how to take up this work in ways that improve teaching, learning, and schools. The larger purpose and vision of education for Black children and youth, coupled with the leadership identities, experiences, beliefs, and values that animate leadership practice, are marginalized in the research literature (Gordon, 1990). Much of the problem, we argue, lies in the fact that educational leadership as a field has failed to distinguish schooling from education and lacks an appreciation for Black epistemological and research perspectives even on issues of race, culture, and diversity within the leadership for equity and social justice discourses.

Purpose of the Chapter

The purpose of this chapter is to explore leadership and urban education from a Black epistemological perspective (Gordon, 1990), with a focus on the paradox and prospects of Black education leadership in urban contexts. Drawing from a selected review of research literature on the epistemologies, theories, and practices of Black education leaders from the antebellum period to the present, we are particularly interested in how historic movements and moments in the Black freedom struggle for education embody shared beliefs, values, traditions, and practices that can enrich the fields theoretical understanding of leadership for equity and justice in urban contexts. We also consider how the marginalization of Black education leadership and research perspectives has compromised the capacity and utility of leadership theory and research when applied to issues of race, inequality, oppression, and injustice.

Working toward a comprehensive critical theory that clarifies the temporal manifestations of Black education leadership, we retrace key eras and historical moments to call attention to the innovative ways African Americans wrought something from nothing in their work to realize America’s promise of equal protection and democracy. Commonly viewed as problems to be solved (DuBois, 1903; James-Gallaway, 2019), many Black populations in this category flourished under the tutelage of Black school and district leaders, who may have provided some of the best examples of Black education leadership in U.S. history. As evidenced by the historical record, as well as contemporary research documenting the contributions of Black education leaders working to advance equity and social justice in the post-Civil Rights Era, the legacy and tradition of what we describe in this chapter as “Black education leadership” offers important insights and lessons for the field. Thus, our going back to fetch these approaches and learn from these epistemologies characterizes one of our contributions to this discourse and volume.

Black Education and Urban Schools: What’s Urban About Education?

Given the delimitations of our project, we focus on U.S. history and how it has intersected with, and been largely driven by, the Black freedom struggle for quality education. Building on Milner and Lomotey’s (2014) conceptualization of urban education in the first edition of the Handbook, we offer one rooted in the Akan, or west African, principle of Sankofa (King, Swartz, Campbell, Lemons-Smith, & López, 2014; Watson & Wiggan, 2016), which is taken to mean people of African descent should “return and retrieve that which Africans lost during the periods of destruction” (Shockley & Frederick, 2010, p. 1222). Rather than embrace the use of urban education as coded language for the education of low-income students of color in densely populated areas, or a proxy for Black education (King, 2005), urban education in this chapter is most concerned with the ways in which Black education leaders draw from the notion of Sankofa, or our history as African-descendent people, to inform and guide their educational praxis toward one that is epistemologically sound and nestled in broader Black experiences that value Blackness, Black agency, and Black self-determination. Defining urban education from this place with regard to Black education leadership obligates us to acknowledge and look to the deep, rich legacies of our African ancestors and the principles undergirding Black education practices that persist today despite pointed destruction efforts, specifically white hegemony, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness (Hopson, Hotep, Schneider, & Turenne, 2010).

A History and Tradition of Black Education Leadership

Historically, African American communities have collectively sacrificed for the education of their children, and school leaders often shirked recognition for their efforts to maintain emphasis on the broader Black community (Anderson, 1988; Walker, 1996, 2009). African American education leaders worked to improve their racial community through extra-educational, formal, established networks (Franklin, 1978, 1984, 1990; Murtadha & Watts, 2005). These leaders also employed interpersonal and institutional care within their schools that branched out to foster community efforts for racial uplift (Tillman, 2004a, 2004b; Walker, 1993, 1996, 2003, 2009). Another consistent theme across literature emphasizes the deliberate ways Black school leaders maneuvered around anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and economic oppression by devising adept plans to manage their white supervisors, most often school superintendents. For example, Walker (2003) asserts that centering Black principal leaders is important for scholarship because it supplies an image of “the ways in which local leaders propelled community development . . . [because] the leader to whom Southern black communities looked was the black high school principal” (p. 59).

To examine these historical aspects, scholars have leaned on more traditional historical methods and methodologies, and these works mainly engaged archival research, though some draw on oral history interviews and secondary source analyses. The three themes of targeted care, tactical engagement with white superiors, and extra-educational involvement exemplify central tenets in scholars’ examinations of Black education leadership historically. Principals marshaled these tenets to curb impediments and tended to work collaboratively in the face of extreme opposition to educating Black students (Foster, 2005; Walker & Archung, 2003). Drawing on community knowledge to identify their students’ specific needs, Black principals constructed school policies for holistic support and developed targeted, institutional responses. They relayed information to their white supervisors in a manner that revealed only essential details in a non-threatening way to elicit desired results for the wider benefit of the Black communities (Walker, 2003, 2005, 2009). Moreover, Black men and women involved in education leadership were often part of clubs or larger organizations that struggled for African American advancement and prioritized racial uplift, demonstrating Black educational leaders’ widescale commitment to the improvement of African American life both within and beyond schooling (Franklin, 1978, 1984, 1990; Murtadha & Watts, 2005).

Since the antebellum era, educational freedom fighters such as Richard Allen, Absolom Jones, Daniel Coker, Alexander Twilight, John Francis Cook, Jeremiah Burke Sanderson, and Prince Hall worked in the North to expand educational opportunities available to Black children by founding schools, developing curricula, working with local communities, and acquiring funding and resources (Franklin, 1978, 1984, 1990; Murtadha & Watts, 2005; Randolph, 2004). Committed to defining the terms of their own education, these actors employed self-determination to shape the education they were cultivating in accordance with community visions of Black success. Scholarship exploring prominent Black education leaders and their leadership practices from the end of the Civil War until the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation have identified how Black education leaders conceptualized Black education as a distinct form of knowledge requisite for racial uplift during this era. Educators were forward thinking and sought to provide learning that prepared Black students for a future in which they were treated as fully human and deserving of equitable rights.

Black school leaders also devised ways to work either around or with white superintendents to acquire what their segregated Black schools needed (Walker, 1993, 1996, 2003, 2005, 2009). Due to the precarious contexts in which many Black educational leaders worked, “the principal leader had to feign submission to an educational regime that was overtly designed to discount the abilities of his students, while simultaneously building community support to nullify the plans of his boss and the school board” (Walker, 2003, p. 71). In some cases, Black leaders seldom shared the totality of their plans with presiding Whites. For example, without telling his white superintendent, Byas collaborated with his Black community to create a formal report which revealed the need for missing yet essential school resources such as science equipment and guidance counselors. Once Byas’ plans were disclosed, improvements were already underway, leaving little opportunity for his white boss to protest.1 Other figures such as Booker T. Washington politically postured toward and substantively engaged white Northern industrial philanthropy and industrial education at the Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, schools he led (Anderson, 1978, 1988; Murtadha & Watts, 2005; Spivey, 1978). In a move to downplay the issue of recently freed Black Americans shortly after the Civil War, Washington denounced the importance of classical education and sociopolitical equality with Whites for trade skills that he argued would allow Black people to acquire economic stability and mobility. Our review revealed that his views, though controversial, informed many schooling projects in Black communities across the country.

One of these projects included the Anna T. Jeanes Foundation supervisors, Black women whom white philanthropists hired to oversee Jeanes teachers and schools; they worked as liaisons between superintendents, who were often white men, and local schools (Alston, 2005; Alston & Jones, 2002; Irvine & Hill, 1990). Therefore, many Jeanes supervisors, who were expected to promote Booker T Washingtons educational model, might have found themselves in the crossfire between what some scholars have referred to as education for servitude or more classical approaches thought to better facilitate racial uplift (Anderson, 1978; Spivey, 1978). With few to no guidelines circumscribing their job, Jeanes supervisors also served in numerous capacities, such as health clinic coordinator, enrollment manager, human resource officer, and resource allocation specialist (Alston, 2005; Krause, 2003a, 2003b). These innovative supervisors were made to carefully navigate their precarious work environments, maneuvering around white superintendents to serve Black communities.

Researchers have written about other Black women education leaders of this era in largely biographical terms, portraying the complexity of their lives and how education intersected with their personal missions (Bair, 2009; Franklin, 1990; Giddings, 1984; Haven, 1980; Haven, Adkinson, & Bagley, 1980; Irvine & Hill, 1990; Johnson, 2000; Lomotey, 2019; McCluskey, 1997; Murray, 2012; Murtadha & Watts, 2005; Perkins, 1978, 1987, 1982; Smith, 1982). Figures such as Sarah Smith Garnet, Fanny Jackson Coppin, and Anna Julia Cooper founded and led northern schools for Black students for decades. These individuals worked in their communities, joining clubs and organizations such as the Home for Aged and Infirmed Colored Persons, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Missionary Society, the Women’s Home and Missionary Society, National Women’s Club, Equal Suffrage Club, and the NAACP. Boldly challenging discriminatory and oppressive constraints placed upon them by white supremacy, anti-Blackness, classism, and sexism typical of the day, leaders of this ilk fashioned creative ways to acquire the necessary resources to teach their students and strengthen their communities. Such comprehensive and dynamic visions for African American people display commitment to interpersonal and institutional care through close student relationships and involvement with varied organizations beyond school walls.

Prior to school desegregation, African American education leaders continued to seek community feedback and participation to enhance the social, economic, and political plight of the entire Black populous (Franklin, 1978, 1990; Tillman, 2004a, 2004b; Walker, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2009). African American culture played an important role in how Black principals crafted their leadership practices, which related to racial literacy or race-consciousness as an integral element in segregated Black schools (Horsford, 2011a, 2011b; Tillman, 2004a, 2004b). Racial isolation during school segregation likely helped African Americans identify their opposition and devise plans to surmount related obstacles. Although in many cases, desegregation afforded Black students the tangible resources they lacked in segregated schools, the trade-offs required them to sacrifice many aspects of the holistic care, affirmation, encouragement, and fortification which their Black schools granted. This protective dimension waned in the era of school desegregation once Black communities lost much of their bargaining power (Cecelski, 1994). Unfortunately, research has shown that more than 50 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka verdict, Black principal candidates still face employment discrimination (McCray, Wright, & Beachum, 2007). Scholars have taken up this topic by underlining the important perspectives that Black superintendents deployed regarding their “mixed feelings” about school desegregation, some even claiming that many of todays issues with Black education can be traced back to forced school desegregation (Horsford & McKenzie, 2008; Horsford, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b). Scholars (Horsford, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b; Karpinski, 2006; Tillman, 2004a, 2004b) have elucidated the conflicted sense of progress many Black school and district leaders in desegregated schools post-Brown encountered, findings that illustrate the unintended consequences of school desegregation, especially on Black communities and Black education leaders.2

Importantly, scholars (Spencer, 2009; Tillman, 2004a, 2004b) have identified a significant rise in the employment opportunities in the North and/or in large urban districts available to Black school leaders after mandated school desegregation, namely cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. For example, Marcus Foster, who assumed a principalship role at Gratz High School in Philadelphia in 1966 (Spencer, 2009), and Dr. Barbara Sizemore, who in Washington, D.C. was the first African American woman to hold the position of superintendent over a large urban school district in the 1970s (Tillman, 2004a, 2004b), are representative of individuals who worked to enhance the educational options available to Black youth while balancing the needs of underserved schools and the demands placed on them in tumultuous political and social contexts. By championing holistic care of students’ needs and demonstrating targeted care as greater than curriculum or pedagogy, Spencer and Sizemore strategically worked with the local communities to support students multi-dimensionally, aligning with our observation that extra-educational involvement partly characterized Black education leadership.

Black Education Leadership: Paradox and Prospects for Urban Education

Scholars have done a relatively thorough job of examining Black education leadership, specifically principals, after the Brown verdict (Rousmaniere, 2007). Employment prospects, responses to shifts in school composition and climate, and negotiation with Black communities, white school boards, and superintendents, represent common topics across this line of education leadership scholarship (Haven et al., 1980; Horsford, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b; Horsford & McKenzie, 2008; Karpinski, 2006; Tillman, 2004a, 2004b; Walker, 2009, 2018). Examinations explore the dilemma that school desegregation posed for Black education leaders and its chiefly negative impact on Black communities, given their systematically termination or demotion once school desegregation began, particularly in the South (Abney, 1974; Butler, 1974; Fultz, 2004; Horsford, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b; Horsford & McKenzie, 2008; Hudson & Holmes, 1994; Johnson, 1977; Rousmaniere, 2007; Smith, 2016; Tillman, 2004a, 2004b).

Research has also shown, however, how the influence of school desegregation differed across regions; in the North, for example, contexts proved somewhat different, and frequently offered greater opportunities for Black school leaders (Spencer, 2009). Themes of targeted care and tactical engagement with white superiors did hold up in this literature strand, and this scholarship grants rich accounts of issues Black education leaders confronted in the substantive reshaping of the U.S. school system post-Brou'«. In this section, we extend this historical scholarship to center how Black education leaders in the post-Civil Rights Era have sought to navigate and manage white power structures in the quest for educational equality and social justice, while also focusing their efforts on building and protecting urban school communities through a commitment to culturally relevant, responsive, and affirming educational environments.

The Paradox of Race and Urban School Reform

Race and racism are ubiquitous features of Western, white-dominated societies, and schools are not exempt (Bell, 2000; DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). As Horsford (2014) observed, even when race is not being “discussed,” it is “almost always in the room — on every student registration application, school accountability report, school improvement plan, federal grant application” (p. 125). As such, racial literacy is essential to the development of useful strategies to effectively disrupt oppressive and pervasive discriminatory structures and practices that exist within and across the U.S. public school system. Indeed, urban education is fraught with racialized politics, policies, and practices. The expansion of market-based education policy and school choice has exacerbated racial inequality and injustice, all in the name of equity and opportunity for all. Charter schools, typically located in and serving “black and brown communities” are ostensibly publicly funded, segregated academies designed by the white architects of urban schools (Horsford, 2019; Horsford, Aleman, & Smith, 2019, p. 229,; Watkins, 2011). The relative autonomy afforded charter networks in the management of their schools means that many of the policies and practices in place within the urban school reform movement are in cultural conflict with the social, cultural, and political needs and interests of their students. Consequently, these students, through a required strict adherence to culturally insensitive discipline, and behavioral management policies are constantly subject to acts of racial micro-aggressions.

School leadership, education leadership more broadly, and administration and teacher workforce (Brooks, 2012; Brooks & Jean-Marie, 2007; Cobb, 2017; Echols, 2006; Gooden, 2012; Murtadha & Watts, 2005); curriculum choices, limited access (or denial of access) to advanced curriculum options and subjects (Ladson-Billings, 2009a, 2009b; Milner, 2012); student tracking, assessment and “labelling” (Gillborn, 2008; Rothstein, 2004); disparities of resources (Franklin, 2002); impact of social and environmental health inequalities on educational outcomes (Akom, 2011; Oakes, 2005); and educational opportunity gaps (Ladson-Billings, 2006) are all mechanisms or filters that conspire to ensure racial inequalities continue to exist across the education system. Within the specific context and focus of this research study project, schools — as racial state apparatuses — perpetuate a social formation and reproduction of social conditions that contribute to race inequalities in the school system in large metropolitan districts and cities across the U.S. (Leonardo, 2005). The enduring presence and consequences of race and racism is clearly manifested in the permeance of race inequalities and disparities in resources across schools, accentuating a need for what Brown (2005) describes thus: “to investigate school administration in specific social, political, and racial contexts” (p. 587).

School leadership is integral to school effectiveness and student success. The leadership drives, and is responsible for, the implementation of policies and mandates, as well as the desired direction, ethos, and culture of the school. The extent to which a school is able to successfully support its student community is very much tied to the developed strategies of the leadership team. In looking specifically at the school leadership of Black educational leaders, Lomotey (1989) highlighted that much of the prior research on the impact of the race-culture identity of African American principals has been through a white normative principal leadership research lens. The racialized (mis)interpretation of the leadership attributes of Black principals is further accentuated in the relationships that these leaders develop with both the staff they lead and supervise, and also with their district- and/ or network-level supervisors. Oftentimes, the Black school principal alters his or her leadership style in order to bring about a desired, seemingly supportive, response from colleagues (Lomotey, 1989). For Black leaders writ large, the exercise of leadership is inevitably enacted within environments that

“challenge or attempt to define you based on racial stereotypes, baseless assumptions, or ignorance” (Pinkett, Robinson, & Patterson, 2011, p. 28).

The Prospects of Black Education Leadership Theory and Practice

The reality of educational leadership as understood and experienced by Black leaders represents and contributes a critical and necessary counternarrative to race-neutral leadership theory and research. As Gooden (2012) observed, “much of the literature developed in educational leadership in the last century essentially came about without the voices or perspectives of African Americans and this continues to be an issue” (p. 68). In African-American Principals: School Leadership and Success, Lomotey s (1989) central argument is that Black leaders lead differently than white leaders, and that “the way a person relates to others and to circumstances that he or she encounters is shaped by the culture of that individual; African-American people respond differently to situations than do people from other cultures in America” (p. 3). Lomotey went on to highlight some of the distinctive differences to include African American principals being more likely to prioritize community engagement and an understanding of the significance of civil rights activism and advocacy to the Black education experience. For the Black school principal, community is an expression of social justice educational leadership, civil rights activism, and advocacy. This is evidenced through greater (and positively encouraged) levels of parental and other community member involvement in school activities, as a core aspect of the leadership and decision-making processes of African American school principals. This is particularly the case in schools serving predominantly African American student communities, where race-culture synergy between the African American principal and student community is also seen as a key factor leading to improved academic outcomes for African American students (Lomotey & Lowery, 2014).

For the African American principal, leadership attributes associated with a race-culture identity are a composite of what Lomotey (1993) termed the “bureaucrat/administrator role identity” and the “ethno-humanist role identity” of African American principals (p. 396). The bureaucrat/administrator aspect of the principal’s role identity is focused on schooling, centered on meeting societal goals and expectations on the schooling experience through: clearly developed and articulated organizational goals, the principal’s ability to capture the energies of the teachers to work collaboratively toward shared goals, facilitation of effective two-way communication between principal and staff, and successful instructional management, including curriculum planning, teacher supervision, and student assessment. The principal’s ethno-humanist role identity is focused on pursuing the goals of education and supporting students in the meeting of cultural goals and objectives associated with the race-cultural identity and well-being of the student learners.

For the African American principal, an ethno-humanist role identity' is evident through: a commitment to the education of all students, and in particular to those from a Black race-cultural background, as well as students from other race-marginalized; a compassionate understanding of African American children, relative to both their local community context, and also their lived realities as being racialized Black in the wider society; and confidence in their professional abilities as leaders to support students effectively in race-sensitive ways (Lomotey, 1993). In a 2019 study on Black male principals, Smith (2019) explored how their racial identities and lived experiences informed their professional lives and leadership. Key themes that emerged among the participants concerning what it means to lead while Black and male included the following elements: (a) growing up as a Black boy (family and childhood educational experiences); (b) leadership as ministry (leadership philosophy and influences); (c) when a Black man is in the principal’s office (navigating racialized spaces); and (d) safeguarding the village (supporting students through social, emotional learning, leadership, and community).

Conclusions and Recommendations

In this chapter, we explored Black education leadership as theory and practice, arguing for a paradigmatic shift away from educational leadership theories that lack analyses of race, ideology, discourse, and power and toward those that generate knowledge at the intersection of Black education, urban education, and educational leadership. Despite growing interest in racial equity, culturally responsive education, and social justice in educational leadership, Black research epistemologies, theories, and perspectives remain marginalized, even within equity and justice discourses (Gordon, 1990; Horsford, 2019; King, 2005; Milner, 2016). We find this to be a major limitation of contemporary leadership literature, which typically frames problems of educational inequality through the white gaze (Baldwin, 1963) and fails to grasp the irony of dominant group members serving as epistemic authorities on issues of race, racism, and injustice. As Patricia Hill Collins (1991) explained, “epistemological choices about who to trust, what to believe, and why something is true are not benign academic issues. Instead, these concerns tap the fundamental question of which version of truth will prevail and shape thought and action” (p. 203). Thus, by centering the well-documented examples of Black education leadership over time as proven models of what we might describe in the post-Civil Rights Era as culturally relevant or equity-oriented, we can move beyond the rhetoric of social justice and toward more concrete ways to positively impact the educational lives of Black children (Milner, 2012, 2015, 2016). Within urban contexts, making explicit the distinctions between the education and schooling of Black children as part of a larger struggle for control of the education of minoritized individuals is key for the prospects of Black education leadership rooted not in cultural diversity or assimilation, but critical consciousness, self-determination, and education as a practice of freedom.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. According to Shujaa (1994), what are the major distinctions between schooling and education? How might these conceptualizations inform how an educational leader makes sense of their leadership role and responsibilities?
  • 2. What are the key characteristics and features of Black education leadership as theory? As practice? How might these characteristics or features inform leadership research and the preparation of urban school leaders?
  • 3. How can and should leadership for educational equity and social justice be measured assessed, and accounted for? By whom? To what end?


  • 1. Walker (2003) offers this account as an example of how Black principals had to “leap frog” the superintendent and think multiple steps ahead to secure resources for their schools (p. 65). Byas obtained approval from his supervisor and then engaged parents, faculty, and community volunteers to design a data-informed school improvement plan; this effort produced an official report and request, obligating the district to provide essential school resources such as guidance counselors, a typing program, a chemistry class, and physical education curriculum and facilities. By the time the white superintendent learned details of Byas’plan, Byas had already started to expand opportunities for students at his school.
  • 2. This insight is significant in light of Horsford’s participants’ segregated schooling experiences, which gave them rich perspectives from which to draw as superintendents of racially mixed school districts.


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