In 1951, author and humanitarian Pearl Buck took a stand against racism after the Washington, D.C, school district banned her from speaking at an all-Black school. The Washington Post and other newspapers published her speech instead, which rings true today now more than ever.
The speech can be found in several textbooks and in online newspaper archives, including the free archives at Chronicling America, a Library of Congress website. But for the most part, it is not widely discussed today.
Buck had been a vocal opponent of discrimination and segregation after her return to the United States in the mid-1930s from China. In 1942, Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically Black university, had awarded an honorary degree to Buck for her stance against racism. In a speech at Howard in 1942, Buck told students that discrimination in the United States had to end. “We cannot fight for freedom unless we fight for freedom for all,” Buck said. “Press steadily for human equality, not only for yourselves, but for all those groups who are not given equality.”
Buck’s highly public profile had caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, by then. The FBI kept a dossier on Buck until her death in 1973, and the Bureau tracked her movements and also her mail at the family farm outside of Perkasie.
By late 1950, the United States had entered the Korean Conflict, which also elevated Buck’s profile for her opinions on Asian politics. At the same time, the Washington, D.C. school district felt pressure from the growing civil rights movement to end its segregation of public schools.
Buck and the school district would collide publicly in January 1951 when the assistant principal of Cardozo High School, Jennie Mustapha, invited Buck to speak at its semi-annual commencement ceremony. Just as quickly, Washington, D.C. School Superintendent Hobart M. Corning, banned Buck from appearing at Cardozo.
Cardozo was not just any other Washington, D.C. public school. For generations, the building was the stately, grand Central High School. Designed by architect William Ittner in 1914, Central was an all-white school until 1950 and its notable alumni included actress Helen Hayes and the then-unknown John Edgar Hoover. Cardozo had been an all-Black school that ran out of room for students by 1949, when population shifts within the district saw enrollment fall at Central High School. The district held contentious hearings about moving the Cardozo students to the Central High School building and making it an all-Black school.
In March 1950, the district said it would close Central High School and make it the new Cardozo High School. Among the most prominent objectors was Central High alum Hobart M. Corning, the school district’s superintendent. The school district’s real reason for the move, it was alleged, was to keep its segregated system at all costs by sending the former Central students to other all-White schools.
In that context, the invitation to Pearl Buck to speak to the first Black graduates at the old Central High School set off a firestorm. Early in January 1951, Buck had been in a public feud with columnist Dorothy Thompson about an interview Buck gave to the Japanese press. (Thompson later apologized to Buck about her remarks.) Buck’s name appeared daily in the national newspapers. However, on January 21, 1951, news broke in Washington that the school district had banned Buck’s speech. Corning said that Buck had not been “cleared” by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for her alleged past or current connections to Communists. He also blamed Jennie Mustapha, the assistant principal, for not asking his permission to invite Buck.
Buck said the school district cancelled her appearance because of her public stance against desegregation and denied any Communist ties. Howard University, the NAACP, and local ministers in Washington soon condemned Superintendent Hobart Corning.
On the next day, Buck spoke at Deep Run Valley High School in Hilltown, near her home in Bucks County, to a history class. After 90 minutes, she gave a plea to the students about the need for tolerance. “We must never hate any peoples of any nation. We must only hate ideas that these people believe in.”
On January 25, 1951, Perkasie News-Herald editor John Sprenkle noted that it had been nearly 15 years since Buck and her husband, publisher Richard Walsh, moved to Green Hills Farm to introduce themselves to the Perkasie community. Sprenkle wrote a long defense of Buck’s civil rights record and character and he told about how Buck played a role in the local desegregation of public swimming pools.
At the same time, Buck and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom sent a “message” from the author to be given to students at Cardozo High School, but school officials also banned her printed speech. Copies of the speech made it to the press, and the full speech appeared in the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star. Highlights from Buck’s message then appeared in the editorial columns of other newspapers around the country for the next month.
The most quoted passages from Buck’s remarks made it clear that she was not a big supporter of Communism:
“Today under Communist governments, people do not dare even to speak their thoughts to each other. If you and I were in totalitarian countries today, I would not be allowed to speak to you, either, because I stand for human freedom and equality, and these are the opposites of communism.”
Buck also asked students to avoid bitterness about the school’s censorship. “Do not be discouraged by what has happened to you and me. There are millions of people in our country who believe in our American ideals and practice them. Such people will be warned by what has happened to us, this incident, which keeps me from speaking to you face to face. … That it did happen is a fact that we must use, too, in our own lives.”
She then talked about her vision of America, as someone who spent most of her life overseas. “What is America? What makes our country more than any other piece of land and water on the globe? Nothing, except our ideal of human freedom, freedom for the individual. Because we have this ideal, we almost alone among the peoples today, have hope. We still dare to hope,” Buck wrote.
Buck concluded by reminding students that ideals “alone give us the strength to keep our own freedom” and these ideals needed to be practiced. “Practice them whether others do or not. Practice them the more earnestly because others do not. If one person fails, another must stand the more strong. Freedom is our birthright. Never forget that!”
Her final paragraph was Thomas Jefferson’s famous passage from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
After printing Buck’s remarks, the Washington Post commented, “If this be subversive, what kind of doctrine would the school board like our children to hear?”
On January 28, 1951, Buck gave one of her only interviews about the incident to the Perkasie News-Herald. She now considered the controversy “closed” at Cardozo High School and remained convinced she was banned because of her views against segregation. Buck told the News-Herald that “racial discrimination has no place in a nation of free people” and it was up to Washington, D.C. as “the capital of the entire world” to eliminate it. She also denied rumors in Washington about her ties to Communists. The News-Herald then reprinted her speech in full.
Not all newspapers supported Buck. The Alabama Journal in Montgomery said Buck’s remarks were “not much of a speech” and it supported House Committee on Un-American Activities and also Senator Joseph McCarthy. However, the Washington Post’s editorials were syndicated nationally and critical of Hobart Corning and the school district. The Post compared the school district’s stance to “100 percent Americanism,” the 1920s rallying cry of the Ku Klux Klan.
By March 1951, the controversy faded away until Superintendent Corning publicly reprimanded assistant principal Jennie Mustapha and Principal Robert Mattingly for misconduct, and Corning threatened to fire Mustapha for conduct “unbecoming a public official.”
Three years later, the Washington, D.C. school segregation policy was one of several cases consolidated in the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which ended school segregation nationally. Hobart Corning was put in charge of integrating schools in Washington, including Cardozo High School, in 1954.
Years later, much of the FBI’s dossier on Pearl Buck was released. The bureau had found no evidence she was a Communist and knew that for decades. In one instance, the FBI said a 1952 investigation confirmed Buck had not made statements advocating the government’s overthrow. But Pearl Buck was known as someone who was against racial segregation.