Juanita Barbee’s cat-eye glasses sparkled as she looked down at the page. Reading elementary school textbooks was not a normal part of her job as California Representative Gus Hawkins’s administrative assistant. But this book—the “multicultural” Dick and Jane reader—played a role in a congressional hearing about bias, race, and education.
In 1966, a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee held a series of hearings on the portrayal of minorities in schoolbooks. New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell chaired the full committee, as well as its Ad Hoc Subcommittee on De Facto School Segregation. Powell was joined by other Members, including Patsy Mink of Hawaii, Phillip Burton of California, and Hawkins. The subcommittee investigated the depiction of minorities in schoolbooks, why school districts selected certain books, and how publishers distributed texts. As Powell pointed out, the committee authorized an appropriation of federal funds to assist schools in purchasing schoolbooks, so it “has a legislative responsibility to determine the extent to which congressional intent is being fulfilled.” The “congressional intent” included ensuring that textbooks adequately represented their diverse readership.
The Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal in 1954. As Powell noted 11 years later, segregation by law was easy to spot and could be dismantled through legislation. “A far more difficult social problem to solve is the form of racial segregation whose roots are not nourished in the law, but instead germinate in the soil of social mores and custom. This is segregation in fact.” In this context, the Dick and Jane books became a powerful example of de facto segregation.
The Dick and Jane basic readers, first published in 1930, used simple, repeated words alongside illustrations to teach young students to read. By the mid-20th century, readers, educators, and politicians noted a lack of diversity in the books. Powell quoted 20-year-old Jennifer Karen Lawson during the hearings: “‘I realized I was born black when I went to elementary school and they told me about Dick and Jane and Bow and Wow and all that crap and I knew it wasn’t me.’ For the millions of Jennifer Karen Lawsons in America,” Powell continued, “I hope these hearings will uncover methods to destroy the invisibility of one-tenth of America’s population so when every schoolchild in America reads about Dick and Jane and Bow and Wow, he or she can say to themselves with pride: ‘This is indeed I.’”
The publisher of the Dick and Jane series, Scott, Foresman & Company, responded to concerns by adding an African-American family. Mike, Pam, and Penny joined Dick and Jane in 1965. A photograph from 1966 shows an older book on the left, next to the 1965 version. Other publishers also added some characters and storylines that included minorities. Yet not all of these books got to students.
The Wall Street Journal reported that in 1964, a publisher integrated a series of grammar and writing schoolbooks. Education officials from a Southern state approved the new books without reading them, and then were shocked to find that textbooks featured integrated content. After the officials threatened to scrap its contract, “the publisher went to the extra expense of issuing a special version of the text with ‘de-integrated’ illustrations, showing only white youngsters.” Rumors circulated that some books had a multicultural version for Northern readers and an all-white version for Southern schools. This exposé spurred the House Education and Labor Committee to hold hearings about de facto segregation in schoolbooks.
During the hearings, Hawkins questioned Darrel E. Peterson, president of Scott, Foresman & Company, about different versions of the Dick and Jane readers. Hawkins asked the publisher why some school districts still purchased the 1962 version, which included only white characters, instead of the 1965 edition with Mike, Pam, and Penny. “They didn’t tell us their reasons. I think you have to read between the lines and decide for yourself,” Peterson hedged. Hawkins gently crushed Peterson’s equivocation: “I think perhaps you know the reason.”
The hearings of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on De Facto School Segregation, as well as those of other Education and Labor subcommittees, called out publishers and administrators for biased practices. They emphasized the importance of diversity in schoolbooks. As Powell stated, one of the goals of the subcommittee was “to provide a new and more wholesome image in textbooks of minority groups in America—not only for their pride, but for the pride of all Americans in the eclectic society we know as the United States.”
Sources: Hearings Before the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on De Facto School Segregation of the Committee on Education and Labor, Books for Schools and the Treatment of Minorities, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., (August–September, 1966); Hearings Before a Special Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, Investigation of de Facto Racial Segregation in Chicago’s Public Schools, 89th Cong., 1st sess., (July 27–28, 1965); and Wall Street Journal, March 24, 1965.Follow @USHouseHistory