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Laboratory of Learning

HBCU Laboratory Schools and Alabama State College Lab High in the Era of Jim Crow


Sharon Gay Pierson

During the progressive education movement, laboratory high schools evolved from model schools that were part of the core teacher training curriculum at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These laboratory schools were at the vanguard of the accreditation battle, participated in national curriculum studies, and boasted high graduation and college entrance rates. Led by well-educated, reform-minded African Americans who molded their own approaches to teaching and curriculum and were grounded in sound progressive educational theory, these HBCU lab high schools represented privileged educational experiences. Yet, this collective effort of high-achieving Black lab schools has been overlooked by historians. Through an examination of Alabama State Teachers College Laboratory High School (1920–1960), Laboratory of Learning illuminates the strategies, challenges, and successes of providing secondary education to Southern Black citizens during the Jim Crow era and provides evidence that HBCU laboratory schools and Lab High should be added to our histories as an example of distinctive, progressive schooling.


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Introduction 1


1 Oral histories are considered a central aspect of this qualitative study. It is oral history that brings to life the importance of the African American community in shaping the experiences of their children and schools. The tes- timonies of those who lived this history convey the importance of racial identity, culture, and opportunity. Carol D. Lee posits in Black Education: A Transformative Research and Action Agenda for the New Century “that it is through everyday practices and institutional social structures … in African American communities that [the] nexus of interrelated cultural models or belief systems are constructed.”43 The dynamics of those everyday practices and social structures are brought into view through oral histories. As applied to historians, the culture and social structures so meaningful in African American educational histories can be revealed by including oral histories as part of the historical research. The oral histories of former laboratory school teachers and students al- low this study to include the voices of those citizens who lived the history of Alabama State College Laboratory School and other laboratory schools in the Jim Crow era. Following traditional methods of historical investigation, key issues from these oral histories have been explicitly confirmed through other primary source materials. Relying solely on archival data would not only present an incomplete history of this period of American education dur- ing legal segregation, but it would also obscure the richness of African American educational history in general, and specifically Alabama educa- tional history. Illuminating the strategies, successes,...

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