Michelle Purdy

Associate Professor of Education
Director of the Undergraduate Program in Educational Studies
PhD, Emory University
MA, Washington University in St. Louis
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    Professor Purdy's specialties include the history of U.S. education, the history of African American education, the history of school desegregation, and the history of policy, access, and opportunity.

    Dr. Michelle A. Purdy is an Associate Professor of Education in Arts and Sciences, Director of Undergraduate Educational Studies, Chair of the Department of Education Curriculum Committee, and an affiliate faculty member of the Interdisciplinary Program in Urban Studies and the Center on Urban Research and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. With research, teaching, and service commitments to race, culture, and equity in education, her specialties include the history of U.S. education, the history of African American education, the history of school desegregation, and the history of policy, access, and opportunity. Her book, Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools (University of North Carolina Press), has been awarded the 2019 New Scholar’s Book Award from Division F (History and Historiography) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). She also is a past recipient of a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the Graduate Student Senate at Washington University in St. Louis, and other awards and recognition.

    In Transforming the Elite Purdy analyzes how and why historically white elite private schools, or the most prestigious independent schools, opted to desegregate when not legally obligated to so during the mid-20th century. Combining social history, policy analysis, and oral history, Purdy examines the desegregation of the well-known The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia alongside national efforts to diversify independent schools and argues that independent school leaders blurred notions of public and private as they contended with desegregation. Further she details how the first African American students to desegregate Westminster courageously navigated institutional and interpersonal racism in a contradictory and complex school culture.

    Transforming the Elite has garnered national attention. Scholars and practitioners have invited Purdy to present on her work throughout the country including at Washington University in St. Louis, Teachers College-Columbia University, Yale University, Stanford University, The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia, Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, the Dalton School in New York City, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, Mississippi. She has also held book talks at The Potter’s House Bookstore in Washington, DC, Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Seminary Co-Op in Chicago, Illinois. She has been interviewed by Joe Madison. Don Marsh of St. Louis Public Radio, and Virginia Prescott of Georgia Public Broadcasting and was a featured author during the 2019 Mississippi Book Festival’s panel on Civil Rights, School Desegregation, and African American Educational History.

    Purdy is also co-editor of Using Past as Prologue: Contemporary Perspectives on African American Educational History and “African American Education, Civil Rights, and Black Power,” a special issue of The Journal of African American History. She has authored articles in History of Education Quarterly and The Journal of African American History, book chapters in The Power of Resistance: Culture, Ideology, and Social Reproduction and The Crisis of Race in Higher Education: A Day of Discovery and Dialogue, and other scholarly writing including book reviews and encyclopedia entries. Purdy has written for The Washington Post and has been featured in Teen Vogue.

    Purdy teaches The American School, History of Education in the United States, and the Capstone Seminar in Educational Studies, and she has mentored both undergraduate and graduate students. She has served in numerous capacities at the department and institutional levels and in professional associations. Currently she is co-Program Chair of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and a board member for the History of Education Society (HES).

    Purdy earned her A.B. in educational studies and African and African-American studies and M.A. in history from Washington University in St. Louis, and Ph.D. in educational studies from Emory University. She has previously held administrative, instructional, and research positions at Michigan State University, Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, Mississippi, and Exploration Summer Program at Yale University.

    Awards

    2017 Outstanding Graduate Student Faculty Mentor Award 

    Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools

    Transforming the Elite: Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools

    When traditionally white public schools in the South became sites of massive resistance in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, numerous white students exited the public system altogether, with parents choosing homeschooling or private segregationist academies. But some historically white elite private schools opted to desegregate. The black students that attended these schools courageously navigated institutional and interpersonal racism but ultimately emerged as upwardly mobile leaders. Transforming the Elite tells this story. Focusing on the experiences of the first black students to desegregate Atlanta's well-known The Westminster Schools and national efforts to diversify private schools, Michelle A. Purdy combines social history with policy analysis in a dynamic narrative that expertly re-creates this overlooked history.

    Through gripping oral histories and rich archival research, this book showcases educational changes for black southerners during the civil rights movement including the political tensions confronted, struggles faced, and school cultures transformed during private school desegregation. This history foreshadows contemporary complexities at the heart of the black community's mixed feelings about charter schools, school choice, and education reform.

    Using Past as Prologue: Contemporary Perspectives on African American Educational History (Research on African American Education) Paperback – August 1, 2015

    Using Past as Prologue: Contemporary Perspectives on African American Educational History (Research on African American Education) Paperback – August 1, 2015

    In 1978, V. P. Franklin and James D. Anderson co-edited New Perspectives on Black Educational History. For Franklin, Anderson, and their contributors, there were glaring gaps in the historiography of Black education that each of the essays began to fill with new information or fresh perspectives. There have been a number of important studies on the history of African American education in the more than three decades since Franklin and Anderson published their volume that has pushed the field forward. Scholars have redefined the views of Black southern schools as simply inferior, demonstrated the active role Blacks had in creating and sustaining their schools, sharpened our understanding of Black teachers' and educational leaders' role in educating Black students and themselves with professional development, provided a better understanding and recognition of the struggles in the North (particularly in urban and metropolitan areas), expanded our thinking about school desegregation and community control, and broadened our understanding of Black experiences and activism in higher education and private schools. Our volume will highlight and expand upon the changes to the field over the last three and a half decades. In the shadow of 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, contributors expand on the way African Americans viewed and experienced a variety of educational policies including segregation and desegregation, and the varied options they chose beyond desegregation. The volume covers both the North and South in the 19th and 20th centuries. Contributors explore how educators, administrators, students, and communities responded to educational policies in various settings including K-12 public and private schooling and higher education. A significant contribution of the book is showcasing the growing and concentrated work in the era immediately following the Brown decision. Finally, scholars consider the historian's engagement with recent history, contemporary issues, future directions, methodology, and teaching.