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'The Harvest': First-hand perspectives of school desegregation in Leland, MS

The Harvest from PBS explores the desegregation of schools in Leland, MS in the 1970's.
The Harvest from PBS explores the desegregation of schools in Leland, MS in the 1970's.
"That's the part that I look back on, I think in some respects, with the most regret, because nobody really questioned it. It just was what it was."

- Judge Pam Pepper on her school years in Leland, MS.

In its landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional. But the path to desegregating schools hasn’t been straightforward. In the following decades, states that had resisted desegregation were forced to follow the law. New segregation academies popped up in small towns throughout the south, like Leland, Mississippi - a town of about 6 thousand people in the Mississippi delta.

Leland’s experience desegregating its public schools is the subject of a recent documentary from PBS, called The Harvest. It features a number of the students who were part of the first generation of kids desegregating schools, including Pam Pepper — a U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Pepper was one of the few white students who returned to Leland’s public schools.

Similar to here in Milwaukee, Leland is noticeably and historically segregated. "The town has a beautiful creek that bisects it, going one direction. And there's a railroad track that bisects it going perpendicular. So, the town's almost as in quadrants, if you will," says Pepper. "And when I was growing up, for the most part, white people lived on one side of the railroad track, creek divide and and Black people lived on another. And as best as I can tell, since I've been back as an adult, it is still that way."

The Brown vs. Board ruling from the U.S. Supreme court that declared segregation in schools unconstitutional was issued in 1954. But many Southern states, including Mississippi, resisted the mandate for years. After 16 years of resistance, the Supreme Court issued another mandate that specifically directed Mississippi to integrate in 1970. That was also Pepper's first grade school year.

"By the time I went to middle school, which is when I went to the public school, I would say probably [the school was] maybe 18-20% white and 80% Black ... But there were more white students in the public school at that time than I think there are now," explains Pepper.

Despite the desegregated schools, life in Leland still didn't fully integrate. "We sat together for eight [to] nine hours a day. We did sports together. We did extracurricular activities together. I had friends. And yet that friendship stopped as soon as the school activities stopped. As one person said in the film, over the summers we hardly saw each other at all," describes Pepper.

Pepper continues, "And it wasn't like anybody decided it or said it. It's just was the way it was and I look back on that with a tremendous amount of regret that I wish I had just looked over one day and said, 'Do you want to come over my house after school?' and see what happened."

While many of these segregation conditions are still present today, there could be multiple contributing factors. Pepper explains it this way,"If people are living in separate communities ... they are going to want to go to school in their community. They're going to want to go to school with other people who they know who've had the same experience that they have had. And maybe that's racially motivated, but maybe it's just 'This is what's familiar to me."


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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