Their Highest Potential

An African American School Community in the Segregated South

By Vanessa Siddle Walker

276 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, 1 maps, 6 tables, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4581-3
    Published: June 1996
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6619-1
    Published: November 2000
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8624-8
    Published: November 2000

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Awards & distinctions

2000 Grawemeyer Award in Education, University of Louisville

1998 Critics Choice Award, American Educational Studies Association

1998 Early Career Award, American Educational Research Association

1998 First Book Award, American Educational Research Association

African American schools in the segregated South faced enormous obstacles in educating their students. But some of these schools succeeded in providing nurturing educational environments in spite of the injustices of segregation. Vanessa Siddle Walker tells the story of one such school in rural North Carolina, the Caswell County Training School, which operated from 1934 to 1969. She focuses especially on the importance of dedicated teachers and the principal, who believed their jobs extended well beyond the classroom, and on the community's parents, who worked hard to support the school. According to Walker, the relationship between school and community was mutually dependent. Parents sacrificed financially to meet the school's needs, and teachers and administrators put in extra time for professional development, specialized student assistance, and home visits. The result was a school that placed the needs of African American students at the center of its mission, which was in turn shared by the community. Walker concludes that the experience of CCTS captures a segment of the history of African Americans in segregated schools that has been overlooked and that provides important context for the ongoing debate about how best to educate African American children. African American History/Education/North Carolina

About the Author

Vanessa Siddle Walker, assistant professor of educational studies at Emory University, is coeditor of Facing Racism in American Education.
For more information about Vanessa Siddle Walker, visit the Author Page.


"A compelling story. . . . Their Highest Potential is noteworthy for the author's innovative use of community informants as her primary source for documenting the existence of an educational system designed to subvert the corrosive messages of a racist society." —Journal of American History

"Excellent. . . . Walker should be commended for her work in bringing forth the 'voice of the people.' Clearly, a much-needed addition to an overly lopsided history that continues to ignore 'their highest potential.'" —MultiCultural Review

"This is a first-rate book and a very moving story. . . . [It is] without question the finest re-creation of African American education in the rural South from the post-World War I era to the modern civil rights movement." —James D. Anderson, author of The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935

"Walker reminds us of at least two important things about the education of African American students. First, African Americans always have been and always will be able to educate themselves. Much of the literature attempts to suggest that African Americans are incapable of providing quality education for themselves. Walker's book is empirical proof to refute such notions. Second, her book reminds us of that moment in history when school was a caring place for African American children — a stark contrast to what many experience in schools today. Caswell County Training School was an integral part of the community where the hopes, dreams, and aspirations for academic and cultural excellence were mutually reinforced by school, home, and community. This is a must read for anyone seriously interested in promoting excellence for African American learners." —Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison [if used with Anderson quote, use her book title instead of affiliation: author of The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children]