Though James Dent could watch Central High School’s homecoming parade from the porch of his faded-white bungalow, it had been years since he’d bothered. But last fall, Dent’s oldest granddaughter, D’Leisha, was vying for homecoming queen, and he knew she’d be poking up through the sunroof of her mother’s car, hand cupped in a beauty-pageant wave, looking for him.
So, at about 4:30 in the afternoon on October 18, Dent, age 64, made his way off the porch and to the curb along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the West End of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Soon he could hear the first rumblings of the band.
There was a time, little more than a decade ago, when the Central High School homecoming parade brought out the city. The parade started in the former state capital’s lively downtown and seemed to go on for miles. The horns of one of the state’s largest marching bands, some 150 members strong, would bounce off the antebellum mansions along the streets. Revelers—young and old, black and white, old money and no money—crowded the sidewalks to watch the elaborate floats and cheer a football team feared across the region.
Central was not just a renowned local high school. It was one of the South’s signature integration success stories. In 1979, a federal judge had ordered the merger of the city’s two largely segregated high schools into one. The move was clumsy and unpopular, but its consequences were profound. Within a few years, Central emerged as a powerhouse that snatched up National Merit Scholarships and math-competition victories just as readily as it won trophies in football, track, golf. James Dent’s daughter Melissa graduated from Central in 1988, during its heyday, and went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college.
But on that sunlit day last October, as Dent searched for Melissa’s daughter in the procession coming into view, he saw little to remind him of that era. More caravan than parade, Central’s homecoming pageant consisted of a wobbly group of about 30 band members, some marching children from the nearby elementary schools, and a dozen or so cars with handwritten signs attached to their sides. The route began in the predominantly black West End and ended a few blocks later, just short of the railroad tracks that divide that community from the rest of the city.
The reason for the decline of Central’s homecoming parade is no secret. In 2000, another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate that had governed it for a single generation. Central had successfully achieved integration, the district had argued—it could be trusted to manage that success going forward.
Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.
Tuscaloosa’s schools today are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared an end to separate and unequal education in America. No all-white schools exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.
Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation—among the most extensive in the country—is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s black elites. And it was blessed by a U.S. Department of Justice no longer committed to fighting for the civil-rights aims it had once championed.
Certainly what happened in Tuscaloosa was no accident. Nor was it isolated. Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s — back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.
Resegregating U.S. Schools
In recent years, a new term, apartheid schools — meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less, schools like Central—has entered the scholarly lexicon. While most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South and nearly a quarter in Alabama now attend such schools—a figure likely to rise as court oversight continues to wane. In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools, according to an analysis by ProPublica.
The Dent family, from grandfather to granddaughter, has lived out integration’s fleeting wonder, a fact that hardened James Dent’s face as he stood on that Tuscaloosa curb last October. The parade—just 15 minutes old, and yet almost over — quickly brought D’Leisha before him. Nene, as her family calls her, beamed and waved. Dent waved back and looked around to share the moment. But besides his wife and his stepson, no one else was there.
IN THE HOURS AFTER THE PARADE, James Dent sat back in a worn wingback chair in the cramped but tidy house he and his wife rent in the West End. As dusk brought out the whirring of cicadas, he quietly flipped through a photo album devoted to D’Leisha’s many accomplishments. She’s the class president, a member of the mayor’s youth council, a state champion in track and field. Later that night, she would be named homecoming queen as well.
Dent never went to college. One of 13 children born into the waning days of Jim Crow, he took his place in the earliest of integrated American institutions: the military. He served four years in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam, before returning to the West End to spend the next 40 mixing cement for a living. The work was steady, but the pay meager.
Thin, with chestnut skin, and seldom seen without a Vietnam-vet cap, Dent is a reserved man, not prone to soapboxes. But after a long silence, he gently suggested that maybe his granddaughter deserved a little more than a 12-car salute at a brief and sparsely attended parade. When D’Leisha graduates this spring, she will have spent her entire public education in segregated schools. Just like he had.
“I think about it all the time, and ain’t nothing I can do about it,” he said. “It ain’t going to get no better.” He said he just hoped she was learning as much as the city’s white students were, then grew quiet again. If integration was going to prove so brief, what, he wondered, had all the fighting been for?
TUCKED ALONG THE BLACK WARRIOR RIVER some 60 miles southwest of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa has a racial history marked by contradictions. The city is home to three colleges, the University of Alabama among them, and a pioneering psychiatric hospital. Its civic leaders have, at times, been called progressive. A New York Times reporter covering civil rights in the 1950s described Tuscaloosa as a “clean, prosperous city that has long been proud of its good race relations.”
And yet, of course, the phrase good race relations was misleading: the city operated under the dictates of Jim Crow until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black people took their first breaths in segregated hospital rooms, worshipped in segregated churches, and, when they died, were buried in segregated graveyards. The imperial wizard of the United Klans of America, responsible for the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, called Tuscaloosa home during the civil-rights era. Historians and older black residents say the city avoided the ugliest violence of that time because black people mostly stayed in their place.
Unlike many other southern cities, Tuscaloosa has a long tradition of educating black children. When the city founded its public-school system in 1885, it opened both white and black schools. That year, the new school board provided maps, tables, blackboards, and crayons for 274 white children and 173 black children.
But that does not mean that Tuscaloosa’s schools were equal before their integration, or that the city would accommodate integration willingly (as the infamous riots foiling the attempted integration of the University of Alabama in 1956 attested).
James Dent entered first grade at the “colored” Central Elementary not long after the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And yet—so ferocious and effective was the southern pushback against desegregation—Dent would never attend school with a white classmate.
The Brown ruling did not hinge on the inferior resources allotted black students under many segregated educational systems. As Warren pointed out in his decision, many southern officials, in an effort to forestall integration, had been investing heavily in bringing black schools up to white standards, so that by the time the Court agreed to hear Brown, school facilities and teacher salaries in many black public schools had “been equalized, or [were] being equalized.”
“We must look instead,” Warren wrote, “to the effect of segregation itself.” He wrote that to separate black children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The justices noted that education was “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and that the integration of schools was essential to the integration of black citizens into society as a whole.
The ruling came with a heavy compromise. Warren understood the storm of resistance likely to confront the decision. He believed only a united Court could contain southern rage, but some of the justices wanted to go slow. So, instead of laying out an explicit framework for desegregation, the Court acknowledged that the “variety of local conditions” made dismantling Jim Crow schools a complicated matter, and ultimately placed the burden of enforcing its ruling on district courts. It gave the lower courts no guidance other than to say that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.”
In some ways, the Court’s hesitancy to mandate immediate desegregation is understandable. The racial caste system the Court suddenly deemed illegal not only predated the nation itself but had been sanctioned by that very judicial body for six decades.
Yet while the Court dragged its feet on what to do, southern officials were moving quickly. Virginia Governor Thomas B. Stanley vowed to use “every legal means” to “continue segregated schools.” Alabama joined other southern states in passing laws allowing or requiring school boards to shut schools to avoid having even a handful of black children sit in classrooms with white ones. Some states helped fund the all-white academies popping up across the South. State officials encouraged white parents to remove their children from public schools, helping to set off the white flight that continues to plague school systems today. Two years after the Brown ruling, not a single black child attended school with white children in eight of the 11 former Confederate states, including Alabama.
DENT DOESN’T RECALL HEARING HIS PARENTS ever discuss his new right to an integrated education. His mother, a domestic who cleaned white people’s houses, provided the family with its only stable income; his father worked odd jobs as he could find them. Dent and his parents and 12 siblings were often on the move, sometimes crashing with relatives.
School did not come easily to Dent, an athletic boy with a serious face, nor did he particularly like it. Mostly, it reminded him of how poor his family was. “I remember going to school barefoot” as a young child, Dent told me. “I’d be so embarrassed, I’d try to play hooky.”
By the time he started his freshman year in high school, in 1964, a full decade after Brown, just 2.3 percent of the nearly 3 million school-aged black children in the old Confederate South attended school alongside white children. None of those children lived in Tuscaloosa. At Dent’s school, Druid High, students learned from hand-me-down textbooks and lagged behind their white counterparts on achievement tests. The curriculum pushed students toward learning a trade instead of preparing for college.
Even so, Dent’s experience at Druid reveals a truth often lost in the history of school integration. Though its resources were not as rich as those of the all-white Tuscaloosa High, Druid was a source of pride within the city’s black community. Its students soaked up lessons from a committed staff of all-black teachers, many of whom were exceptionally talented, in part because teaching was among the only professional careers open to black southerners at the time. What the school lacked in racial diversity, it made up for in economic variety: the children of domestic workers walked the halls with the children of college professors. Condoleezza Rice was one of Dent’s schoolmates.
McDonald Hughes, Druid’s tall, stern principal, instilled a sense of discipline and of possibility in his students. “He’d grab you by the shoulders,” Dent recalled with a laugh. “He wanted you to succeed.”
Just before Dent’s freshman year, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law barred school districts that discriminated against black students from receiving federal education funding, which would soon be increased by more than $1 billion. Under the law, the feds for the first time could sue defiant districts. The sweeping legislation brought about the rarest of moments in American history: all three branches of government were aligned on civil rights. Backed by the courts and Congress, the Johnson administration set the Justice Department to aggressively pursuing desegregation.
James Dent would never feel the impact of these changes: Druid High remained untouched until well after his graduation. Throughout the South, school officials, realizing they could not avoid integration altogether, sought “race neutral” means to control it. Some adopted plans for “neighborhood schools,” with attendance zones carefully drawn around racially distinct parts of town. As a result, token integration replaced absolute segregation in many places. All-white schools started disappearing, but all-black schools remained common.
Still, by 1968, one out of three southern black kids was going to school with white children. That same year, the Supreme Court revealed its growing impatience when it ordered school officials to produce plans that promised “realistically to work, and realistically to work now,” eliminating segregation “root and branch.” Three years later, the Court emphasized that desegregation plans should be judged by their effectiveness in eliminating racially identifiable schools.
The dominoes, at last, had begun to fall.
This article was republished from ProPublica. Read the original as well as other articles in the series on the ProPublica website.