The ‘hidden injuries’ of school desegregation: Cultural trauma and transforming African American identities


The 1954 Supreme Court ruling against the applicability of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in the public school system in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka augured the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement in twentieth century America. This decision sparked a major transformation in the nation’s educational system – school desegregation – a process that in some cases took decades to come to fruition. Much has been written about the social and economic outcomes that have resulted from this landmark decision, but research on the psychosocial consequences of school desegregation on the generation of African Americans who experienced this process is sparse. Employing a cultural trauma theoretical framework, this study takes up the latter issue by analyzing the ways in which the dislocation of the ‘colored school’ system affected the social structures of the African American community and the collective identity of the children of integration. I analyzes this phenomenon in a local context by using oral history interview data collected on a cohort of African Americans who matriculated through the ‘colored school’ system in Harlan County, Kentucky. The school systems in these communities desegregated between 1960 and 1963, and share similar cultural, regional and political contexts. The primary questions guiding this research are (i) How did this generation of African Americans understand their racialized subjectivity prior to school desegregation? (ii) What was the localized experience with school desegregation for this cohort of African Americans? and (iii) What impact did school desegregation have on the collective identity of the children who experienced integration?

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Author information



Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Brown, K. The ‘hidden injuries’ of school desegregation: Cultural trauma and transforming African American identities. Am J Cult Sociol 4, 196–220 (2016).

Download citation


  • cultural trauma
  • school desegregation
  • identity formation
  • African American
  • racialization