ATLANTA – When Jan Bates Wheeler, a researcher at the University of Georgia, was preparing for her doctorate dissertation a few years ago, she never suspected she'd uncover a secret mission to stamp out racism and segregation in education during the 1960s.
While examining nearly 10,000 pages of letters, memos and reports in a box of old files, she discovered that two workers for the American College Board, Ben Cameron and Ben Gibson, had been sent to nearly every school district in five Southern states to make sure that black students were given the same opportunity as white students to take SAT college entrance exams.
"I knew it was something that hadn't been written about," said Wheeler, who is the associate director for accreditation at the UGA Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
"My first question was why don't we know about this?
"It's an example of how a few people put forth a lot of effort at great personal risk to make higher education available to people who were being denied access." she said.
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Students who take the SAT are supposed to be tested impartially and under similar conditions. But in the segregated South, black students were turned away from most testing sites, which almost always were all-white high schools and colleges. Wheeler says it was a tactic to keep black students from gaining admission to some colleges and universities that required prospective students to submit SAT scores.
In the few cases where black students were allowed to take the exams, they often were tucked away in a separate — and often inferior — location. Wheeler pointed to an example of an unfair testing environment in Columbia, S.C. While white students took the 3-hour exam in standard classrooms, black students had to take the test in a poorly lit room in the basement. Wheeler says students complained they could not see very well and the administrator talked loudly to an assistant during the entire exam.
"That was a very touching case to read. Many of those students felt they didn't do well on that exam because of the lack of lighting and the distraction of this administrator talking," she said.
In response to such abuses the non-profit New York-based College Board, which administers the SAT, launched a campaign to desegregate the testing centers. Cameron and Gibson quietly drove from district to district to convince administrators that they needed to give black students an equal opportunity during college testing. Wheeler says it was a well-executed tactic to keep segregated school districts and communities unaware of what was happening in neighboring towns.
"If you got advanced warning about the desegregation campaign that was taking place in a nearby community, you could rally forces to thwart the plan," she said. "Cameron and Gibson didn't want publicity because they knew that it would further solidify the massive resistance against school desegregation."
The men were regularly subjected to racial slurs and hostility. Although they never were victims of violence, Wheeler noted that one school superintendent tried to intimidate them by taking them to a meeting of the segregationist White Citizens Council and driving them through neighborhoods that had been burned during race riots.
"We know that [Cameron] was trailed by the FBI for their protection, but no one knows why the Jackson, Miss., Police Department followed him," Wheeler said. "They really put themselves at risk. Turns out it wasn't a physical risk, but they also risked their standing in their communities and standing with their family."
Cameron, who led the effort, was the son of Ben Cameron, Sr., a judge in the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit who worked to prevent James Meredith from becoming the first black student at the University of Mississippi.
"Ben Cameron served in the Navy with black sailors in World War II. It was that experience that drove him in his work to give all students, regardless of their skin color, a chance to get a college education," Wheeler said.
"He was committed to this, even if it meant risking his relationship with his father, who was a known segregationist."
Within five years of launching the "campaign of quiet persuasion," Harper and Cameron had succeeded in desegregating SAT testing centers in the Deep South. Some administrators willingly committed seats in testing centers for black students. Those who resisted saw their facilities shut down. In those cases, the testing sites were usually moved to nearby military bases to ensure that every student had an equal chance to take the college entrance exams.
Many of the battles to desegregate schools and universities in the South are well documented, widely reported by the media and take up whole chapters in American history books.
Wheeler says this campaign was kept secret for decades to protect the administrators who desegregated their testing centers.
"A lot of times we take things for granted, and this is something important that we should all hear about," she said.