On weekends, North Smithfield Manor smells like freshly cut grass, as men venture out under the Alabama sun to tend to their lawns. Kids race their bikes up and down the neighborhood’s hilly streets. Leslie Williams, a 34-year-old mother of three, lives in her childhood home in this secluded subdivision, perched atop a ridge five miles north of downtown Birmingham. The neighborhood hasn’t changed much since Williams was growing up. She remembers riding her bike over the same hills, admiring the men with their lawn mowers, and hanging out in the small park that serves as the community’s heart.
After her husband took a job that would keep him on the road most of the time, Williams moved back in with her parents in 2012 to save money. Her daughter, 12, and two sons, 11 and 10, started school, and Williams got a job in medical billing in Jasper, 30 minutes from Birmingham. The plan was for her children to follow in another longtime neighborhood tradition. Since 1971, a county school bus has arrived to take kids from North Smithfield Manor, a small pocket of suburban bliss built by black families who were blocked from buying homes in white subdivisions, to Gardendale High School, Williams’s alma mater, eight miles north. But if the white parents in Gardendale get their way, that 46-year-old tradition may come to an end.
On May 16, the eve of the 63rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-segregation decision, Williams saw a post on Facebook shared by an old high-school friend she knew from her days playing trumpet in the Gardendale marching band: The newly empowered Gardendale Board of Education would be meeting in a few hours. Gardendale, a mostly white city 15 minutes north of Birmingham, had proposed separating from the Jefferson County School District, which encompasses Birmingham’s suburbs. The majority of children living in Jefferson County’s increasingly diverse subdivisions are black and Latino; Gardendale’s new district would be about 80 percent white. The move had come to the attention of the federal judge overseeing a decades-old desegregation order that requires Jefferson County—once a front in the resistance against the Brown decision—to maintain racially integrated schools.
Williams knew that she had to be there, so she asked her parents to watch the kids. North Smithfield Manor has long been zoned for Gardendale schools as part of the district’s integration efforts, and Williams had planned her life around sending her children to Gardendale High, where more than seven out of 10 graduates enroll in college—one of the highest rates in the district. The majority-white city’s secession effort soon turned Williams into a reluctant community spokesperson.
Williams is a woman with a strong, round face and prominent features, and she easily charms strangers with her warmth and wit. That night, she twisted her braided hair into a tight bun and put on black slacks and a black-and-white cardigan, then headed out the door to fight the rush-hour traffic.