It’s no secret that the Cleveland School District in Mississippi opposes a recent federal ruling ordering integration of its middle and high schools. So it might sound like an empty threat when an attorney representing the district warns the ruling could result in more segregation.
But take a step back and look at the Mississippi Delta’s history when it comes to segregation, and it might not seem so far-fetched.
While white parents sent their kids to the so-called segregation academies that popped up throughout the region in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s unclear if that would happen in 2016.
Lonniesha Sampson, 17, the 2016 homecoming queen at the virtually all-black East Side High School in Cleveland, said she supports the integration plan and feels East Side students missed out on an important aspect of their educations because “we don’t know the full effect of mixing with different races.”
But how would she feel if white parents leave town or send their children to private schools to avoid the prospect of studying alongside students like herself?
“It’ll make me feel kind of bad,” she said. “I’m not going to bite them.”
‘Somewhere between the two extremes’
During testimony in the Cleveland case, the parents (plaintiffs) and the school district (defendants) produced experts with competing claims.
Boston University Professor Christine Rossell told the court that integrating the schools would trigger “white flight,” and school board member Todd Fuller worried that even if white parents didn’t leave town, they might send their kids to one of the many private academies in the area.
“The first people who will not show up will be the people who have the means [to] put children in private schools,” Rossell testified. “The next group will be motivated middle-class and working-class families. And then even the poorest families will eventually just not move into a school district.”
Testifying for the parents, Vanderbilt University professor Claire Smrekar called fears of white flight overblown and Rossell’s source material outdated.
Furthermore, Smrekar testified, economic demographics and other factors in the region led her to believe Cleveland parents would not be willing to pay for private schools.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi decided the reality “will fall somewhere between the two extremes.” Also, the court noted, the 1987 ruling in U.S. v. Pittman determined that white flight could not be considered in establishing desegregation plans.
“The (Cleveland) District is likely to suffer some white enrollment loss as a result of consolidation. While this is a concern, it is insufficient, in the absence of an alternative constitutional plan, to reject consolidation. Rather, potential white enrollment loss is a problem that must be met with creativity,” the ruling said.
Civil rights-era private schools
In 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision stamped out the blaze of segregation that Plessy v. Ferguson had set with its “separate but equal” ruling in 1896, it would be an understatement to say that certain Southern states targeted by the ruling were reluctant to integrate.
One product of the federal desegregation demands was that white communities, many of them the minority in their town, established private schools so that their sons and daughters would never study or eat lunch next to a black child.
Many Mississippi Delta communities were part of this movement, as it were.
While some of the schools were founded by cotton planters and those with means throughout the delta, others had ties to groups like the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of supremacist groups throughout the South.
One school in Charleston, Mississippi, was built on land donated by the wife of H.C. Strider, the Tallahatchie County sheriff and plantation owner who testified on behalf of the accused killers of Emmett Till.
Many of the academies there, which run the gamut from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, still have overwhelmingly white student bodies today.
Could white students in Cleveland flock to one of these academies again? In 2016? Jamie Jacks, an attorney for the school district, and others around the city certainly think it’s possible.
Calls to Shellie Steadman, a financial secretary listed as the admissions contact at Cleveland’s private Bayou Academy, were not returned, so it’s unclear whether the school is seeing a spike in enrollment as a result of the federal ruling. Already, according to startclass.com, it is 98% white.
It’s also unclear if the school district will continue to put up a fight over the order.
“The board has not put any specific deadline on a decision. Obviously, they will want to thoughtfully consider all options,” Jacks said.