This American town has only just desegregated its schools

This American town has only just desegregated its schools

In 1969, 15 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling which declared state laws enforcing separate schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, a judge ordered the district of Cleveland, Mississippi, to begin the process of desegregating its schools. In August 2017, after years of legal and political wrangling, it finally happened. But why did it take so long for such a change to be made? And what does it say about modern America?

Cleveland Central High School is now the sole high school of Cleveland, Mississippi. Led by Randy Grierson, and catering to 920 students of all ethnicities, the school has been hailed a new era for the town of Cleveland. With a population of 12,000 people, until recently the town remained literally and figuratively divided along two sides of the train tracks that once marked the official line of segregation, with whites on the west side and African Americans on the east side. The train tracks have since been beautified to serve as a pedestrian walkway, but the town’s two schools still reflected this split; Cleveland High School was historically white and East Side High School almost exclusively black.

The establishment of the school has followed years of litigation and controversy on both sides. In 2011, a Justice Department review found that the school district had “failed to make good faith efforts to eliminate the vestiges of its former dual school system” and began pushing for changes aimed at enforcing desegregation. Since 2013, schools in Cleveland have not had attendance zones, meaning parents could send their child to whichever school they chose to. It was hoped that this would naturally diversify the racial make up of each of the schools. However, this failed to occur. Although there were black students enrolled at all of the schools in the area, less than five white students were enrolled at East Side High as of January 2017.

After consultations with community leaders, teachers and parents, and unhappy with the progress being made, the US Justice Department went to court to ensure that the two-race two-school system was formally dismantled. It was a ruling in May 2016 by US District Judge Debra Brown that finally ordered the consolidation of the two schools, declaring in her summing up statement that: “The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education.” A challenge, brought about by the Cleveland School District, who argued concerns over overcrowding and a drop in white enrolment, was shot down in January 2017. The Justice Department welcomed the ruling. “Six decades after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared that ‘separate but equal has no place’ in public schools, this decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Research has shown that students that attend integrated schools generally score higher on tests and are more likely to enrol in college, but it’s fair to say that the school, which admits students from grades 9 to 12, still faces its challenges. During the 2015 to 16 school year, 14 per cent of East Side students were reaching the expected grades in maths and 16 per cent were proficient in reading, compared with less than five per cent of Cleveland High students in maths and 29 per cent of them in reading. As an area, it remains poor. More than two thirds of students qualify for free or reduced price school meals. But Grierson, who was formerly principal at East Side High, is hopeful about the future of students at the school, although he concedes that meaningful change will take time: “It’s not going to happen in a day; it’s not going to happen in a week,” he said in an interview with Mother Jones magazine. “It takes time. We gon’ keep pushing on.”  

Only time will tell if Cleveland can be used as a model for other schools to follow in terms of desegregation, but early indications are promising. In combining the talents of so many students, Cleveland Central High School are proving something of a sporting powerhouse, winning matches all over the place. There has also been a notable lack of the racial tension that so many people feared would erupt as a result of previously ingrained identities. Senior Rashad Harbin, who’d previously attended Cleveland High, told Mother Jones he was excited to graduate alongside kids he knew from East Side. “Now that we all together,” he said, “it’s like a big family reunion.”

America, it is sad to say, remains a country deeply segregated by race. While efforts were made to desegregate communities under the Obama administration, particularly with regard to housing, a study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and Penn State University’s Center for Education and Civil Rights found that in 2014, more than one in three black students attended a school in the South that was intensely racially segregated, meaning a school where 90 per cent of students were racial minorities. Quite the opposite of progress, this is a 56 percent rise from 1980. Under Trump, a president seemingly intent on stirring racial divide, the future of desegregation efforts in America are pushed even further in question but schemes like this do offer a glimmer of hope that times are changing, and that the next generation can do better.