The Anonymous Town That Was the Model of Desegregation in the Civil-Rights Era

The Anonymous Town That Was the Model of Desegregation in the Civil-Rights Era

The Anonymous Town That Was the Model of Desegregation in the Civil-Rights Era

Here’s how it fell apart.


Greenville, MississippiThey called it “River City,” singled out half a century ago as a beacon of hope for school integration in the South. Authors of the landmark civil rights–era Coleman Report, a massive federal survey of US educational inequality, concluded that if desegregation were to work anywhere in the Deep South, it would be in this town, an oasis of tolerance and pragmatic gentility in the Mississippi Delta, the blackest, poorest, “most southern place on earth.”

The Coleman Report became legendary, fueling and informing debates that are still raging today. But no one gave away River City’s identity, or kept track to see if its promise came true. Did the town’s well-intentioned integration plan succeed in bringing a deeply divided community together to improve education for both black and white students?

The town, it turns out, was Greenville, an unusually diverse community of blacks, whites, Chinese, Creoles, and Jews, as well as immigrants from Lebanon and Syria. Home to more than 12,000 public-school children, the district was the first in Mississippi to defy the governor and voluntarily offer real choice for white and black children to enroll in each other’s schools.

This was not Grenada, Mississippi, where angry white residents beat black elementary-school children with pipes and fists for trying to enroll in that town’s token “freedom of choice” plan. Nor was it Yazoo City, where the White Citizen’s Council strong-armed 53 black citizens for signing an NAACP petition endorsing integrated schools. Some were fired from their jobs, others evicted from their homes; all were refused service at the town’s white-owned grocery stores. Greenville took pride in its reputation as a city apart.

By 1977, the US Civil Rights Commission declared Greenville’s desegregation to be a near-total success, not just in deeds but also in hearts and minds. “Good leadership and good will” had created a district where “not one school is left with an all-black student body.” A few bubbles of trouble percolated. About 2,000 students had left by then. A newly opened private academy called the Washington School had claimed about 15 percent of the white children. The black community expressed dismay that all symbols of black accomplishment—plaques, citations, trophies, and class pictures—were removed and tossed aside when the all-black Coleman High School was converted into an integrated middle school. Still, the commission held, the majority of Greenville’s citizens—planters, business folks, community members—all understood that they were better off with diverse, unified public schools.

What happened next in Greenville, a de-evolution of sorts, is a lesson for another Mississippi town, Cleveland, now wrestling with a federal court order to merge its historically black and white schools—and a warning siren for the rest of the nation.

A recent government survey showed that segregation by race and class in the nation’s public schools is getting worse, not better. This is in large part an expected result of demographic, rather than policy, shifts. In other words, it is taking place at the same time that black and Hispanic children are approaching a majority in the nation’s public schools. But what’s more, a 2016 Stanford study found that poverty is rising faster in predominantly minority schools than in white schools.

Meanwhile, years of research underscore what the Coleman Report pointed to 50 years ago, a real correlation between segregation and an educational achievement gap along lines of class and race. In fact, a 2006 re-analysis of the original data, using more sophisticated statistical techniques, found that schools with concentrated levels of black and poor students do even more harm to black students’ achievement than Coleman originally conceived.

The collapse of Greenville’s integrated school system not only shows how fragile racially balanced schools are but also why they’re surely worth protecting.

In Cleveland, a federal judge surprised the nation last May by deciding the district’s longtime desegregation plan wasn’t enough, because only one of its two high schools is racially integrated. The current plan has kept white families happy—and out of the all-black East Side High School—even though they’re in the minority in the district. “It was the right thing to do,” said professor Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University, of the court decision. “But there is a lot of hard work that has to happen now to make this a viable solution.” (Disclaimer: The Hechinger Report is an independent unit based at Teachers College, Columbia University.)

In Greenville, the federally approved desegregation plans of 50 years ago were nothing if not a sincere attempt to achieve total integration. The current Greenville school superintendent, Leeson Taylor II, was a student at Greenville High at the tail end of those heady days.

“I have to say, we all got along. It’s just the way it was,” Taylor, 45, said from his office on Main Street, where the black superintendent was tackling issues more immediate than integration, such as severe flooding and aging school roofs. “We didn’t think, was this an African-American school or a Caucasian school, but was it a good school? And most were very good.”

Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1971, Taylor moved to Greenville when he was 5 years old to live with his grandparents, one a school-cafeteria manager, the other a retired Pullman railroad worker. His 26-year-old mother had been killed in Indiana, allegedly by his Jamaica-born father, who was never caught or convicted.

The schools were so egalitarian in the early 1980s that one of his elementary school classmates was Roy Percy, descendant of Greenville’s legendary white planter family. The patriarch, Senator LeRoy Percy, was famous for driving the Ku Klux Klan out of town during its heyday in the ’20s, convincing townspeople it was nothing but a fascist band of hoodlums.

When Taylor graduated from Greenville High School in 1989, there were still enough white students, barely, to fill the mandated balance for positions of responsibility. Taylor was the black class president, so his vice president had to be white, by design. When he returned from college in 1993 to work as a history teacher in the district, he wondered where all the white students had gone.

Today, all five of Taylor’s children, ages 5 to 28, went to, or are about to enter, Greenville’s completely resegregated schools. Ninety-eight percent of the 5,714 students—down by more than half since integration began in earnest—are black and 94 percent live in poverty. Resources are scarce; qualified teachers are hard to recruit and retain. Mississippi’s state legislature has underfunded Greenville’s schools by roughly $21 million over the last six years. The district’s starting teacher salaries are among the very lowest in in the United States.

Taylor remains undeterred by the mounting obstacles to success. “People say it can’t be done in the Delta. I just don’t believe it.” he said.

The superintendent faces a long climb back. Greenville High, once a top high school in the state, struggled to pull itself up from the F status it received for many years from Mississippi’s state accounting system to the D it has now.

Across town, the private Washington School charges up to almost $6,000 annual tuition and is 95 percent white. Eleven out of its nearly 700 students are black.

“This is the core of our problem in Greenville. The entire white population has abandoned the public schools,” said Kimberly Jones Merchant, Greenville school board member for the last four years. “You can count the white kids on one hand.”

Merchant worries not only about her own town but also about the Cleveland district, where she believes families will find excuses to leave under a more aggressive effort to force white and black students together.

“Cleveland will be the true test of where we really are in this so-called post-racial society,” said Merchant, a lawyer with the Mississippi Center for Justice, and a Greenville resident for 19 years. “People think we’re better now than we used to be. But we’re not. Those white families in Cleveland are going to flee.”

“We couldn’t afford the luxury of segregation”

The white families did in fact flee Greenville, but not at first.

The town, like most others in Mississippi, established two school systems by the late 19th century, segregated by race and wholly unequal in money, facilities, and trained teachers from the outset. By the 1950s, Mississippi was spending three times more on white students than on black. By 1962, Greenville, despite its progressive reputation, was spending four times more on its white schools than on its black ones.

Hodding Carter Jr., the influential founder of Greenville’s Delta DemocratTimes, where he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, had little quarrel with the idea of dual school systems, but condemned their inequality. He blamed the entire state for bringing on the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. “If ever a region asked for such a decision, the South did through its shocking, calculated, and cynical disobedience to its own state constitutions, which specify that separate school systems must be equal,” he wrote at the time. “For 75 years, we sent Negro kids to school in hovels and pig pens.”

His son Hodding Carter III took over as the paper’s crusading editor in the early 1970s, tilting its editorial support to full school desegregation. Greenville’s economy was booming at the time. Alexander Smith Carpets had moved its mills down to cotton country to escape union regulations in New York. Some of the largest tugboat builders in the country were set up along Greenville’s banks of the Mississippi River. The Stein Mart department store chain was founded in Greenville by a prominent Russian Jewish immigrant family. All are gone now. Uncle Ben’s, the rice company, a division of Mars, is one of the few manufacturers that remain.

There was always deep poverty among the black population, but the Greenville black middle class was larger and more independent than elsewhere in the Delta. “The only bakery for a long time in Greenville was black owned,” said Carter III. “The only bookstore for a time was black owned.” Skilled jobs in the newspaper’s back shop were filled largely by black employees. “I won’t pretend for a minute that they got paid what they deserved, but they got paid a hell of a lot more than they would on a farm.”

Greenville caught the attention of the Coleman Report researchers in 1965 when its school board defied Mississippi’s segregationist governor, Paul B. Johnson Jr., and the obstructionist White Citizens’ Councils to submit its own freedom of choice plan to the US Department of Education.

Commissioned by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to study the state of school inequality across the United States, the nation’s top sociologist, James Coleman, undertook a massive survey of around 600,000 students in a little over a year’s time. The 749-page report, officially called “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” is still regularly cited, used by liberals and conservatives alike to serve their arguments, and is just as often misconstrued. Coleman expected to find that vast discrepancies in resources between black and white schools were the main reason for the achievement gap. Instead, he found that about two-thirds of the gap was likely due to family poverty and to race segregation. Providing lower class sizes and other resources in schools with concentrated racial isolation and poverty was crucial, but they did not make a big dent in children’s achievement. What did matter was integration.

As incentive to integrate, the federal government offered emergency dollars to districts whose desegregation plans were approved. As disincentive, it threatened to withhold new Title I funds for disadvantaged students from districts that refused to comply.

“We couldn’t afford the luxury of segregation,” school board chairman J. Barthelle Joseph Jr. told civil-rights staffers at the time.

Greenville school-board leaders proposed that students in four grades could choose among any of the district’s 16 schools. At first only a handful of black children—147 all together, one-tenth of those eligible—chose to brave the all-white schools. No white children crossed over to attend the all-black Coleman High School, or any other black elementary or middle schools. Voluntary desegregation worked in only one direction.

Still, what looks like a whisper of change today was singled out in the Coleman Report half a century ago as a courageous movement, in large part because the town did not enact the cynical delay tactics used in other towns to maintain segregation. Success was measured by the absence of bloodshed. “All confess astonishment at the lack of difficulty,” the Coleman Report said, referring to Greenville parents, teachers, administrators, militant civil-rights workers, and even “the reputed leader of the local chapter of the United Klans of America.”

“What integration there was at the time didn’t amount to a hill of beans until the ’70s,” said Carter III, now professor emeritus at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Even so, in the eyes of the rest of Mississippi, whatever little bit we did was considered a threat to white supremacy, white privilege and a threat to ‘our way of life.’”

The Delta Democrat-Times played a significant role in shaping public opinion. “You had this overhang of an extremely vigorous newspaper editorial policy,” said Carter III. Its editorial pages promoted the view that Greenville was a decent, law-abiding town that followed the Constitution. Integration was right and necessary, but a step-by-step approach was the wisest.

As the Coleman Report went to press, though, Greenville’s black community was headed to court. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, local black plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court meant to push for a faster timetable. A federal judge requested a new plan in 1969, to be put in place the following school year.

By 1970, black and white children and teachers were fully integrated class by class, school by school. Town leaders put to use nearly every integration tool available to ensure a fair mix of students and teachers. Elementary-school populations were merged; T.L. Weston became a 10th grade school, and Greenville High admitted all the town’s juniors and seniors. Black and white teachers were evenly distributed, zoning laws were changed, and curricula were altered. Black History was added, busing was provided. This was not just lip service but a real attempt to make it work.

“I had four children who went through the whole thing,” said William Percy Jr., 76, a retired farmer and businessman who co-chaired the town’s biracial planning committee in the ’60s, and the school board in the ’70s. His son Roy was Leeson Taylor’s elementary-school classmate. “Those of us who stayed in the public schools were satisfied that everything was working.”

By all accounts, if the adults had left the children of Greenville alone, integration might have survived.

Black and white students shared school leadership positions and leads in the class plays. One of the first valedictorians of the newly integrated Greenville High in the early ’70s was a brilliant black student, Eddie Muhammad, who later enrolled in Harvard University.

“Most of my friends enjoyed the experience,” said Catherine Carter Sullivan, Hodding Carter’s oldest child, now a lawyer and HIV/AIDS worker in Jackson. “But the parents didn’t let it happen.”

By the time Catherine graduated Greenville High in 1976, she could already feel the fabric fraying. Her white friends began to slowly and reluctantly peel away to private schools, parochial schools, boarding schools. Most talked about their defection in social terms, friends following friends. It would be more than a decade before parents and school officials would allow integrated proms, dances, or any other school-organized social events. Black students in town held dances at the VFW; white teens held parties in their homes.

By all accounts, black and white students alike expected their youthful example of peace and harmony to eventually overcome the prejudices of the older generation. But scars from a relentless history of white and black educational inequity were not readily healed.

Sacrificing Coleman High School

Inside a small, dimly lit room off the main corridor at Greenville’s Coleman Middle School, gold and silver sports trophies are crowded next to sepia photos of long-ago teachers. Behind, are framed portraits of graduating seniors dating back to the school’s storied beginnings as Coleman High School, one of the first in the Delta for black teenagers—a legacy the black community in Greenville was forced to sacrifice.

“There’s a lot of pride, a lot of pride here,” mused Dianne Zanders, the school’s principal for the last nine years, as she peered into the locked glass door and searched, without success, for the key. The high school was founded in the ’20s at a time when less than one-third of blacks in Mississippi went to school past the fifth grade.

A class of sixth graders in their burgundy and khaki school uniforms buzzed past, smiling, somewhat anxiously, as Zanders turned to welcome them back from spring break. State tests were coming up. Officials and teachers hoped to continue the improvement in scores that resulted in the school’s upgrade in state-standard status from an F to a C in the last year.

Zanders was a Coleman middle-school student herself in the 1970s, when about 30 to 40 percent of the students were white. “We all competed with each other, we all strived to be the best in everything,” she said. Today, the school’s 650 sixth through eighth graders are 99 percent black, 94 percent poor, and struggling for the last several years to climb from its bottom-level academic scores. The biggest need, she said, is a pool of qualified teachers who will stick around longer than a couple of years.

Zanders finds herself in the role of spiritual booster, rallying her kids to value learning by example. “I let them know where I come from,” she said. “Mom drove a school bus. My daddy worked on a farm. They didn’t finish high school, but they valued education. They didn’t want to see me working like they did.”

The archive room is a recent addition, created at the insistent urging of the old high school’s alumni. Many still resent the mistreatment of their memorabilia over the years. When Coleman was converted into the town’s integrated middle school during the late ’60s, its trophy cases were dismantled, the school’s citations, banners, plaques and triumphs scattered willy-nilly. To many, this disregard showed an insensitivity by white leaders to the galvanizing role that Coleman High School played for Greenville’s black community. All symbols of blackness were cast away.

The original high school opened in 1922 just off Nelson Street, historically the thriving African-American heart of Greenville’s business, life, and the heart of Delta music. The school was named after Lizzie W. Coleman, who was principal of the district’s segregated No. 2 elementary school on Theobald Street for more than 40 years. Like many black Mississippi educators, Lizzie Coleman had no college training.

“I don’t understand why they would want to destroy Coleman like that,” said Davis Weathersby, 84, who was hired as a science teacher and coach in 1955. “It had so much pride and notoriety in the state.” Under his leadership as athletic director from 1955 to 1970, Coleman’s teams captured one national basketball title and numerous state championships in the varied sports of football, girls and boys basketball, and girls track.

The seventh-through-12th-grade school enjoyed nowhere near the resources of the white Greenville High School across town. Textbooks were ragged, the gym barely adequate, the track was not regulation size.

“Kids would chop cotton and do what they could to raise money,” said Weathersby. “We had to pay for our own uniforms, our own bus, everything. Our community came out and supported us. That doesn’t happen now.”

When Coleman High closed in 1970, the superintendent offered Weathersby a job in Greenville High School—a demotion to assistant football coach. “He told me Greenville wasn’t ready for a black head football coach,” said Weathersby, who held a bachelor’s degree from Alcorn University, where he and Medgar Evers were football players. The superintendent wanted him to work under the Greenville High coach. “He hadn’t won a ball game,” Weathersby said. Stung, the proud coach declined the offer, and went on to become the athletic director at Mississippi Valley State University, where he was eventually honored by the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s lifetime achievement award.

Black administrators across Mississippi were probably hit hardest by integration. In 1969 Mississippi had 168 black principals. A year later, there were only 19. “Greenville has never been the same since Coleman disappeared and the white private schools came,” Weathersby said.

Right here in River City

Bob Boyd remembers the day he believes the great promise of Greenville was upended. Boyd, a lifelong Mississippi civil-rights worker, had landed his first job out of Ole Miss in 1968 as an education and court reporter for the Delta Democrat-Times. His editor, Hodding Carter III, got wind of a secret meeting at the Buster Brown Community Center, down the road from Greenville High School, and sent Boyd to cover it. It was several days after a federal court had decided in favor of the black plaintiffs who had pressed for a speedier desegregation plan in 1969. Some in the white population bristled at such interference.

Boyd poked his head in the door of the center, and stayed long enough to see it was packed to capacity, before he was shooed away. Somewhere around 200 white citizens were meeting to discuss opening the private Washington School.

“One act of stupidity and we have paid for it ever since,” said Boyd. “The story of Greenville would have been very different if the school had never opened. I’ve been watching two generations of families and kids, and all the resegregation. Now every white family that can afford it sends their kids there.”

Washington School opened with around 320 students in the spring of 1969, the year before the district shuttered Coleman High School. The private school now has a manicured campus and around 700 students, K-12, the vast majority white, 1.6 percent black. Tuition ranges from $3,800 to almost $6,000, depending on the grade.

Nell Sistrunk Schwartz, now a Houston clinical psychologist, was one of the private school’s first students in 1970. “My parents told me I would be going to Washington School, and that was all there was to it,” said Schwartz. “The party line was that we would get a better education at Washington. It was gauche to say anything different,” she said. “I hated every day of that school.” Schwartz left Greenville in 1973 to go to college and never came back.

The authors of the 1977 Civil Rights Commission report noted that a key goal for Greenville was to lure the 15 to 19 percent of white kids who had left for private alternatives back to the public schools. Instead, a trickle of defections became a steady current.

Looking back, William Percy Jr. wondered what Greenville would look like now if the slower, steadier form of school integration had continued to run its course. White families might not have fled over social concerns.

“What that tells me is that if we had left the system alone with freedom of choice we may very well have had a better outcome than we’ve got now,” said Percy.

Others believe resegregation was inevitable, once whites felt they were no longer in charge.

“Let me put this bluntly and bitterly,” said Carter, who left Greenville for Washington, DC, in 1976 to join President Jimmy Carter’s administration as spokesman for the US State Department. “There is no place in America in which there are truly integrated schools when the black numbers get higher than 60 percent.” When members of the old, stable town leadership began to leave, citing a need for “quality education,” the die was cast.

“White leadership did what it always does,” Carter III said. “It ran like hell. Nothing peculiar to Greenville. What was peculiar was that we tried.”

Greenville wears its history close

A gentle arch leading up to the levee reminds people that the town in its halcyon days was the “Queen of the Delta.” Some of its buildings downtown were listed two years ago in the National Register of Historic Places. Two wide boulevards, Main Street and Washington Avenue, are lined with occasional grandeur—a neoclassical bank, a gothic-revival Catholic Church, one with Italian marble, the other with German-crafted stained-glass windows. Amid such relative elegance now exist papered-over storefronts with names like Toxic Bar and Grill, Nothing Over $10, and Jesus Is Lord for the Greater Delta. Other buildings are boarded up.

The general exodus from Greenville is palpable. Its population is down to under 33,000, 78 percent black, 20 percent white. Poverty is among the nation’s worst: Forty-seven percent live below the poverty line; the median household income in $27,000. It’s impossible to untangle all the reasons for the decline. Whites departed at a much faster rate than blacks during the upheaval in the ’60s—perhaps because they could afford to relocate. Industry left, in part for cheap overseas labor, but the decline in the public-school system as it became more segregated may have also made it a less attractive home base.

This is what’s at stake up the road in Cleveland, and in other communities across the United States where there’s enough racial diversity to make integration still a tenable, if fragile option: places such as New York City; Madison County, Alabama; and Louisville, Kentucky. Integration usually forces people to make sacrifices. But the fallout of segregated schools is often worse. The resegregation of the Greenville schools didn’t just mean a decline in the town’s academic standing as middle-class whites fled to their own schools. It coincided with the end of the town as both black and white families once knew it.

In Greenville, those still remaining are dedicated to a revitalization, despite the obstacles inherent in trying to make separate equal.

The town’s first black male mayor was elected last January with nearly three-quarters of the popular vote. Errick D. Simmons, 39, is widely considered the next best hope for Greenville. The young, ebullient homegrown lawyer with a penchant for brightly striped bow ties shows the early enthusiasm of a Delta-style Cory Booker.

Errick graduated from Greenville public schools in 1995, losing the valedictorian honor by a whisker to his twin brother, Derrick, who is now a state senator in Mississippi. Errick earned a law degree from Howard University and came back to his hometown with a zeal to give back.

One of his first acts as mayor was to remove from public buildings the Mississippi state flag, the last in the nation to include the Confederate battle flag. Another was to announce a $9.1 million renewal of the former Sears Roebuck building downtown. Using federal and state tax credits, the plan is for mixed-use retail space, a boutique hotel, and a restaurant.

All concede that a struggling, poorly funded school system does not help recruitment. Superintendent Taylor has made some minor strides in his four years on the job, despite having begun his term on damaged ground. He followed a corrupt superintendent, Harvey Franklin Sr., who is currently serving a six-year prison term for taking more than $270,000 in bribes and kickbacks from a reading company. Under Taylor, the high-school graduation rate has gone up from 48 percent in 2012 (a figure he believes was miscalculated) to 72 percent for the class of 2016. (The Mississippi Department of Education, using older data gathered in 2014, put the rate at 58 percent.) Taylor added 10 Advanced Placement courses, and a comprehensive social-services program to offset some of the barriers of poverty. Improvements, yes, but not yet enough to move the district up from its D standing in the state.

The Mississippi State Legislature has not helped much. Its session ended this April with an education budget that once again shortchanged its funding commitment, this time by $172 million, $1.9 million of which would have been Greenville’s share. For the last nine years, the state’s schools have been underfunded by nearly $2 billion from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a reform passed in 1997 in response to vast education inequities between poor and not-poor districts. The schools have been fully funded only four times in the last 16 years.

“For a high-poverty district like Greenville, MAEP underfunding is devastating,” said Matt Williams, of the Mississippi Center for Justice. Poor districts dependent on federal and state dollars do not own alternative local resources for things like yearly teacher salary increases when state funding is flat. Greenville suffers from one of the state’s highest teacher shortages, and one of the lowest starting salaries—$36,000. This year there were as many as 40 teacher vacancies at one point. One junior high, T.L. Weston, had to patch in a math teacher via web conferencing for a period of time.

For Greenville, the shortfall in funding means larger class sizes, no foreign language in middle school, and fewer art and music offerings. Repairs that can be deferred must be deferred. Last March, after torrential rains flooded the region leaving fields and playgrounds sitting in lakes of stagnant water, the superintendent worried about several schools with aging roofs. “Four or five have roofs that are 25 and 30 years old,” Taylor said. “It’s disturbing to try and strive for excellence in substandard facilities.”

“Lack of funding is a way of life around here,” Taylor said. “These are students from highly impoverished homes. We need to invest in them.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

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