Fifty years after the nation’s highest court gave a black fifth-grader permission to attend a white school in her Topeka, Kan., neighborhood, officials of Hamilton County’s public schools say they still are trying to achieve more racial diversity in local classrooms.
Today, a majority of Hamilton County students go to classes where nearly three-fourths of their peers are the same race, according to a 2002 report by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. The study suggests that America’s public schools are resegregating because of economics and housing patterns. "Brown was right 50 years ago, and it’s important and valuable today," said Dr. Jesse Register, Hamilton County school superintendent, noting that public schools must prepare citizens to live in a diverse world.
The May 17, 1954, decision is known as Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
Today in Hamilton County, families have access to 13 open-zone magnet schools, and students can transfer to schools where their race is in the minority. Yet, 22 schools have student populations that are more than 90 percent white, and eight are more than 90 percent black. For 26 years, from 1960 until 1986, Chattanooga was under a court-supervised plan to desegregate schools in a case called Mapp v. the Board of Education of the City of Chattanooga. "I’m not sure we are at the point where we were at the time of (the) Mapp (case)," said Eddie Holmes, 57, president of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We may even have regressed."
He cited the county’s large number of private schools (36), segregated housing and a lower socioeconomic level of minorities overall as evidence that Chattanooga’s blacks may not have gained much from Brown. "What we wanted then is what we want now — for our kids to have the same access to a quality education as white kids have," said Mr. Holmes, a 1965 graduate of all-black Riverside High School, which has since closed. "It was never about integrating schools."
EARLY RESPONSE TO THE RULING The 1954 Brown v. Board case struck down the "separate, but equal" standard that had created networks of dual schools for black and white children in the United States since 1896. The decision in the case outlawed an 1870 provision in the Tennessee Constitution banning students of different skin colors from being "received as scholars together in the same school." The Brown ruling also spawned the Mapp case in Chattanooga.
Filed in 1960, the local case was active for more than 26 years in federal court, making it the longest such case in the nation’s history.
In Chattanooga, the Brown decision brought a seismic shift to a city school district that, in 1954, served roughly 17,500 students in 32 all-white schools and some 7,500 others on a dozen black-only campuses.
It caused further upheaval in Hamilton County’s separate school system, which had six all-black schools with 1,000 students and 46 all-white schools that educated more than 19,000 other children.
Chattanooga was one of the first cities in the South to declare that it would comply with the 1954 Brown decision when it vowed to begin desegregating classrooms by the following year’s fall school term.
In November 1955, a group of 28 whites and 12 blacks met at Dickinson Junior High on East Eighth Street to plan for implementing the court’s order. But the meeting broke up when someone discharged a tube of tear gas.
"That smoke bomb scared everybody," recalled James R. Mapp, 76, then secretary of the NAACP’s local branch and the father of the plaintiffs in the local desegregation case. "It turned everything back."
Segregation polarized the community, according to some of those who lived here through the era.
"We supported the court’s decision from the first, but it was an unpopular stance," said Ruth Holmberg, former publisher of The Chattanooga Times and publisher emeritus of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We lost quite a bit of circulation right away. There were a lot of anti (desegregation) mail and phone calls."
Segregation continued in Chattanooga classrooms throughout the 1950s, largely due to the city’s "time-buying tactics," according to Mr. Mapp. "The Supreme Court allowed desegregation ‘with all deliberate speed,’ and that’s what slowed it down," he said of the 1954 ruling’s language. "They (school board officials) interpreted it to mean, ‘Take your time.’"
MAPP V. BOARD OF EDUCATION Chattanooga already had seen some lunch-counter sit-ins when Mr. Mapp filed his lawsuit against the city school board. At the time, all-black Orchard Knob Elementary was so crowded that three of his children, and others, could attend classes there only a half day. In the afternoons they were bused to three other black schools. Yet, the nearby allwhite Glenwood School "had empty classrooms," Mr. Mapp said. When his children were refused admission to Glenwood, he and several other parents sued the Chattanooga Board of Education. The case came before soon-to-retire U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Darr and later was passed to U.S. District Court Judge Frank W. Wilson.
Helen Wilson, Judge Wilson’s widow, said when her late husband inherited Mapp v. Board, "he realized it was going to be a hard-to-handle case. I don’t think anyone imagined it would go on as long as it did."
In 1962, grades 1 through 3 were desegregated in 16 city schools. The next year, 1963, saw the first four grades in all of Chattanooga’s elementary schools desegregated, with more than 500 blacks attending 10 formerly all-white schools. But only four white children had enrolled in a pair of schools that earlier had served black students alone. The county was exempt from the plan for racially mixed classrooms that Judge Wilson approved in 1962.
But its schools also inched toward desegregation for a growing student body that numbered nearly 30,000 by 1966. When the school term began that fall, 17 of its 59 schools had integrated, but 36 remained all-white and six were still all black.
Gradually the color bar lifted in city classrooms during the remainder of the 1960s, with 25 of Chattanooga’s 44 schools desegregated by 1967.
Violence temporarily closed some city schools in 1969. During eight days of unrest at Central High, where the racial composition was 840 whites and 160 blacks, protesters carried signs that read, "Why should black men die in Vietnam when the fight for freedom is right here?" And at Brainerd High, which had 170 blacks among 1,400 students, fighting marred a football rally when the song "Dixie" sounded and Confederate flags hailed the rebel mascot. To some, the symbols evoked an era of slavery.
Among them was Eron Epstein, 52, a 1970 Brainerd graduate.
"I was disillusioned by the actions of some of my classmates who were really representative of their parents’ viewpoints," said Mr. Epstein, who is white. "I didn’t understand how they could be so hateful. I didn’t get it."
WHITE FLIGHT IN THE ’70S Chattanooga tried various means to achieve the racial balance prescribed by the court — no less than 30 percent, and no more than 70 percent, of either race in its schools.
Yet 20 years after Brown v. Board, East Brainerd Elementary was still all-white and Howard High was all-black. In the county, which had integrated all its schools by 1974, only 4 percent of students were black.
"Looking back, mistakes were made," said Jack Benson, city councilman, 73, who was director of attendance centers for city schools in the 1970s.
He said efforts to desegregate schools created an environment that divided families, dismantled PTAs and was "conducive to the opening of private schools."
By October 1973, with Judge Wilson’s full desegregation target date just three months away, city schools were serving only 8,125 white students — a drop of some 6,000 children in just seven years.
Some had enrolled in religious schools that were "popping up all over," according to Mr. Benson. Others fled to predominantly white suburbs, where recently annexed schools, like those in the county system, were excluded from the court-ordered racial mix.
Those shifting demographics — dubbed "white flight" — stymied the board’s efforts to attain a balance of blacks and whites in its schools. They prompted Mr. Mapp to ask the court in 1973 to reopen his 1960 case to allow zoning of more white students to Riverside and Howard.
The Mapps’ home had been bombed in 1970. Someone had put sugar in his car’s gas tank in 1961, he said.
But, he said, "I kept pushing to eliminate the remaining vestiges of segregation. I never thought to drop out. We never even changed our phone number." SHIFTING RACIAL COMPOSITIONS By 1985, inner-city schools were about 73 percent black. Most of the roughly 12,000 white children still educated in the city system attended suburban schools in annexed areas such as Tiftonia, Hixson and Tyner. The number of black students in city schools hadn’t varied much since the filing of the Mapp case 25 years earlier — from 11,700 to 11,200.
In 1986, U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar, who had taken the bench at the 1982 death of Judge Wilson, ruled the city school board had complied with all aspects of the desegregation plan except in regard to faculty and staff.
He ordered the board to ensure a 60/40 staff ratio.
The "60/40 shuffle," as educators called it, led to the reassignment of 180 faculty members.
Hixson and Howard high schools each had 17 teachers transferred, the most of any schools in the system.
In December 1986, Judge Edgar dismissed the Mapp case with the words, "The role of this court has now come to an end. Operation of Chattanooga city schools now is best left to publicly elected officials."
WHAT BROWN BROUGHT As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, opinions differ on the status of desegregation in Chattanooga.
While the ruling eliminated the state-imposed segregation of earlier years, "we’ve only just begun to see that the system is willing to provide equal access to quality education for blacks and whites," said Mr. Holmes. "The Benwood Foundation’s efforts to raise the standard of education in inner-city schools were a very positive step for the community," he said, referring to reading-improvement initiatives at nine low-performing urban elementary schools.
"The real challenge is getting parents to understand," he said. "Parents should be students." E-mail Jan Galletta at firstname.lastname@example.org Henderson to speak here May 24 Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the late Rev. Oliver Brown, namesake of the landmark Brown v.
Board of Education case, will be the guest speaker for the annual Chattanooga Bar Association’s Law Day luncheon May 24 and keynote speaker for the Chattanooga Human Rights and Human Relations Commission that evening. The lecture series event is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Chattanooga African American Museum/Bessie Smith Hall on M.L. King Boulevard. The evening lecture is free and open to the public.