Back to School: The College Board Desegregates the SATs

It’s September, and school is back in session! In honor of the end of summer and the start of another school year, we’ve asked Jan Bates Wheeler to swing by the blog and tell us the remarkable story of the desegregation of the College Board and its partner, Educational Testing Services.

In 1960, the College Board and its testing partner, Educational Testing Services (ETS), unexpectedly became participants in the movement to desegregate schools. Many southern black students wishing to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) complained that they were treated disrespectfully at the white high schools that administered the tests. Moreover, some were turned away altogether, left with no SAT scores to report to admissions offices. The injustice of this insidious barrier to higher education for the growing number of black students in the South wishing to enroll in college motivated the two organizations. “Standardized testing” meant that all those being tested should receive the same, fair treatment.

Working through the College Board’s newly established Southern Regional Office, the College Board and ETS desegregated SAT centers in the Deep South before the schools themselves integrated. The actual work of negotiating for desegregated testing fell on two College Board employees, Ben Cameron and Ben Gibson, both white southern liberals. For nearly four years, they traveled, separately, around Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, dropping in unannounced at hundreds of high schools to convince white school officials to allow black students into their segregated schools and treat them respectfully. State laws, local customs, and white supremacist organizations dictated otherwise. Consequently, Cameron and Gibson often faced open hostility and sometimes even the possibility of violence toward themselves and anyone whose cooperation they won. Their quiet, persistent strategy, reinforced by a contingency plan hatched with the Department of Defense that established test centers at military bases, eventually succeeded. Significantly, they accomplished most of their work prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which accelerated the pace of school desegregation.

Cameron and Gibson’s story, told through their candid reports and records of conversations with individual school officials, offers a unique perspective on school desegregation. Their responsibility placed them in the unusual position of advocating for school desegregation as part of their jobs. Their writings, apparently untouched for nearly fifty years, reveal the dedication required to reach a goal many thought unachievable. The College Board had charged the Southern Regional Office with expanding its programs throughout the South. Insisting on desegregated SAT test centers placed the College Board squarely in opposition to prevailing laws, customs, and attitudes—an unenviable and ill-advised position for any nascent business venture—and added a financial risk to their already daunting task.

In order to minimize the risk to all concerned, Cameron and Gibson pledged not to publicize their efforts in any way. Even years after they completed their work, the two men refused to write about their campaign for fear of compromising the safety of the school officials and military base commanders who had helped them. Their legitimate concern kept this story largely untold until now.

Remarkably, throughout their campaign the two men consistently treated everyone with respect, no matter how offensive some school officials became. At one point, following an unsuccessful meeting with a South Carolina superintendent, Cameron took follow-up telephone calls from the official almost daily for three weeks, patiently “listenin’ ” and talkin’” until he achieved a desegregated center. Cameron and Gibson agreed that they would never leave an adversary “in a bad mood,” no matter what. Their ability to remain civil and even friendly in situations where widely divergent views collided stands in sharp contrast to today’s polarized exchanges. I admire the courage, dedication, patience, and powers of persuasion of Cameron and Gibson. Had they wanted to retreat and wait for school desegregation to solve their testing center problem, their superiors at the College Board would have acquiesced. Instead, the two men persisted.

Having found this “lost” story while looking for material for my dissertation, I felt responsible for sharing it. Besides contributing a minor chapter to an important period of U.S. history, Cameron and Gibson offer valuable lessons through the low-key, personal approach they brought to a difficult situation. As we reflect on important milestones in the Civil Rights movement, we might remember especially its characteristics of persistence, non-violence, and civility, exemplified by the SAT desegregation project, and consider the approach we ourselves might take in pursuing similar injustices.

Jan Bates Wheeler is associate director for Accreditation in the Office of Academic Planning at the University of Georgia, and the author of A Campaign of Quiet Persuasion: How the College Board Desegregated SAT® Test Centers in the Deep South, 1960-1965. This piece appeared for the first time at UGA’s Research Magazine, and it is reused here by permission.

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