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Probe: Gains Of Integration Eroded, Especially In The South


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

This spring will mark 60 years since Brown versus Board of Education. That's the Supreme Court ruling that was intended to end segregation in America's public schools. But a year-long study by the investigative journalism group ProPublica finds that we've never gotten to that goal. In fact, America in recent decades has been moving backward.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: When I decided to tell this story, I really wanted to show to people how fleeting integration really was, because I think people think the Supreme Court made the decision in Brown, everyone complied, and we've had integration for 60 years.

GREENE: That's ProPublica staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who reported the story for The Atlantic Monthly. She went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she met the Dent family: three generations all touched by the city's struggles with desegregation.

HANNAH-JONES: So I looked for a family where the grandfather - and in this case, James Dent - was born the same year that Brown was decided, yet he never attended an integrated school. He started school right after the Brown decision, but desegregation never came to his schools. So then we have James's daughter, Melissa, and Melissa also attended segregated schools until middle school. And that's the year that the federal judge merged the middle and the high schools in order to create citywide integrated schools.

So, she goes from middle school to high school in integrated schools. She attends the integrated Central, and she becomes the first person in her family to graduate from college. She goes on to walk onto the University of Alabama track team. And she is a homeowner where her father has never been able to own a home. She is a single mother. She still struggles a little, but she's definitely been able to take care of her children. And she has put education at the center of her children's lives.

GREENE: Melissa Dent: She's in many ways a success story, having graduated from Tuscaloosa's Central High School.

HANNAH-JONES: And every high school student in Tuscaloosa attended that school. And so it was extremely diverse. It was the second-largest high school in the state. It was a powerhouse, both athletically and academically. And it showed that integration in the South had been very difficult, but this was a place where it had been successful.

GREENE: But the success wouldn't last. In 2000, Tuscaloosa was released from court ordered desegregation. And because of that, Melissa's daughter, Delicia, would face a different, but familiar reality.

HANNAH-JONES: This young lady, when she graduates this year, she will have never had a white classmate.

GREENE: And Nikole Hannah-Jones is helping us understand how we got here. Looking back, she says there was apprehension about integrating schools.

HANNAH-JONES: All of the things that people said would happen to schools as they integrated - it would hurt white children, and all of these things - it didn't actually happen. It didn't happen in Tuscaloosa, and it didn't happen across the South. Though what did happen was black children, for the first time, were able to get access to the resources that usually had followed white children.

But most interesting, in Tuscaloosa, is it really did serve to unite the community. You had black children and white children who are attending the same school, and everyone in the community had a loyalty then to one high school.

GREENE: So, we're in the 1980s now, and you're describing a picture that - of successful integration. And since then, I mean, your story suggests that, in many ways, Tuscaloosa has gone back in history. I mean, talk to me about what's happened and what went wrong.

HANNAH-JONES: So, we have this period of intense desegregation. Particularly in the South, it really didn't work as well in the Northeast and the Midwest, because they had never, for the most part, the segregation there hadn't been de facto. It hadn't been a matter of law. But the integration in the South was largely forced by courts. And so what happens is in the '90s, the Supreme Court begins to go backwards on desegregation. It makes it easy for school districts to be released from their orders.

Tuscaloosa decides that they also want to be released from the court order. And it was a common kind of phenomenon that white parents began to pull their children out of schools once those schools were forced to integrate. And that happened in Tuscaloosa, as well. Tuscaloosa lost a large percentage of its white population. It went from a majority white system, to, by the mid-1990s, it was about 30 percent white.

And so, school officials, business officials in Tuscaloosa decided that they needed to do something to try attract white parents back into the district. And they believed it was the court order that was holding them back. So they went to court, they were released from their court order, and immediately following that release, the school board decided to break up Central and create three new high schools, one which was, and remains entirely black.

GREENE: And when a school district is released from that court order desegregation, what generally happens in terms of ethnic makeup and also student achievement?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, what we find and other researchers have found the same thing, is that schools doing usually within a few years of being released from their court order start to take actions that re-segregate. And what we've seen across the nation as our integration efforts have waned, is that the achievement gap has also started to widen. And I think one of the important things that I hope people will take away from my reporting, what I felt was very critical was to show that this isn't a benign process, this isn't just a matter of well, people live in neighborhoods that are segregated and that's why schools are segregated. School officials take very specific actions that lead to re-segregation and I think it's important to show that this is a process, it's not something that just happens naturally.

GREENE: Nikole, before we go, we should mention that ProPublica reached out and is collaborating with NPR's Michele Norris and The Race Card Project to get six-word essays in Tuscaloosa, and we're going to hear a few in a moment, but these essays are coming high school students. I just wondered what value do you see in having these students talk about race and education in six words.

HANNAH-JONES: It was powerful. I think what's so powerful about the six words is you have to really get to the heart of the matter because you don't have a lot of room in six words. We may think that students don't notice or aren't bothered by the segregation around them, but they absolutely feel it, they understand it and they know that it's not right.

GREENE: Well, we have a sampling of some of those six words from some students in Tuscaloosa. And we should say they're from Northridge, which is the most integrated public high school in the city, and then also some from Central, where the student body is 99 percent black. Let's give me listen here.

RYAN FOSTER: My name is Ryan Foster. I'm in the 11th grade and I attend Central High School. My six words on race and education are: Others will never determine my destiny.

SOPHIE FAIRBAIRN: I'm Sophie Fairbairn. I am a senior at Northridge High School. My six words on race and education are: Step out of your comfort zone.

JASMINE THOMPSON: My name is Jasmine Thompson. I'm a senior at Central High School. My six words on race and education are: I attend Central. I can't read. That's a stereotype that people put us under, but it's not really true.

REBECCA GRACELOCK: Rebecca Gracelock(ph) and I'm a 10th grader at Northridge High School. My six words on race and education are: My own race thinks I'm contaminated. Well, I actually dated out of my race one time, and a lot of people found out, and I've heard some pretty hurtful things about that.

D'LEISHA DENT: I am D'Leisha Dent. I am a senior at Central High School. My six words on race and education is: Segregation should not determine our future.

GREENE: High school students in Tuscaloosa. And that last voice, D'Leisha Dent, is the granddaughter and a family you have focused on, Nikole and a voice you know well.


GREENE: Well, she's the youngest generation in the family you spent time with. And we're going to hear more from her tomorrow on our program. NPR's Michele Norris had a conversation with D'Leisha and also with her grandfather.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for ProPublica. Her year-long investigation, "Segregation Now," is out now in The Atlantic Monthly. Nikole, thanks so much for talking to us.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.