published Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Brown v. Board 60 years later: What the desegregation case has meant for Chattanooga area schools

The former Linda Brown, now Mrs. Charles P. Smith, stands in front of Sumner School in Topeka, Kan., in this  May 8, 1964, file photo. The refusal of the school to admit Linda, then 9 years old in 1951, led to the Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka lawsuit in which the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.
The former Linda Brown, now Mrs. Charles P. Smith, stands in front of Sumner School in Topeka, Kan., in this May 8, 1964, file photo. The refusal of the school to admit Linda, then 9 years old in 1951, led to the Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka lawsuit in which the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It's been 60 years since the gavel came down and "separate but equal" took its last breath, since the U.S. Supreme Court said black children and white children wouldn't learn in separate schools and travel on separate buses and learn from separate teachers.

It's been 60 years since white women stood in picket lines in Chattanooga and decried the decision, along with a good portion of the rest of the South.

People say we've come a long way in those 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case in Kansas that changed the face of public education.

After all, many of our schools are growing more diverse. In the inner city and in the suburbs, many schools are a mix of Hispanics, Bosnians, blacks and whites.

But some say we aren't much better off, that schools are as segregated as they were 60 years ago. Or more so.

Many of Chattanooga's schools are still starkly white or starkly black. Black students here and across the country perform well below their white counterparts. Many parents and politicians complain of a lack of resources -- from experienced teachers to funding -- at predominantly black schools.

Much of the conversation about school racial demographics has shifted, focusing more today on narrowing achievement gaps between black and white schools or poor and non-poor schools. It's a focus on equality of opportunity and resources, not necessarily a balanced mix of the races.

But many observers agree it's important to pause and remember the moment. To remember that an entire system can be recast, forced onto a new course.

"I think it's time to reflect," said Hamilton County school board member Jeffrey Wilson. "Chattanooga has a rich history. It's a two-headed sword in this city of ours. We've made some good strides, but we've had some real issues, as is the case with school segregation."

•••

It took Chattanooga decades to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. City schools dragged their heels like the rest of the South.

Franklin McCallie said he remembers the day the decision echoed across the country in 1954. His father, the headmaster of McCallie School who would later fight for the integration of private schools in Chattanooga, was irate when he first heard the news.

While he and his father walked from the campus to the family's home, McCallie's father called the ruling the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court.

"It will throw racial relations 50 years backwards in the South. Whites and Negroes were doing better together," McCallie remembers his father saying.

There were billboards around town and throughout the South that called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The Chattanooga school board in 1956 said that racial integration "would do the community irreparable damage." It would take a 26-year lawsuit -- the longest of its kind -- to compel the schools to integrate.

When McCallie began teaching at Howard School in 1968, the all-black school wasn't integrated and the students were still getting used to the presence of white teachers in their classrooms. There were tough moments that year, McCallie said, but there were tender ones, too.

While teaching American literature to juniors he had the students read a Western called The Ox-Bow Incident, which tells the story of a mob that falsely accused some Hispanic men of stealing cattle. The mob hanged them without getting proof of their theft.

A gadfly in the class questioned why they were learning about the book.

"Mr. McCallie why are you, a white man, coming over to us colored students teaching us this white Western story? This doesn't have anything to do with us," the student said.

"Well, what is this story about?" McCallie replied.

"It's a Western," the student answered. "A white story."

"No," McCallie said. "What is the story about?"

"A mob and rustling cattle," the student replied again.

"And ..." McCallie added, "it's about justice."

Years later the boy in his class, Walter Williams, would end up going to law school and become a prominent local judge.

•••

The Brown decision sparked the sit-ins and freedom rides of the wider civil rights movement.

"But Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission -- to undo the school segregation that persists as a central feature of American public education today," Richard Rothstein, an education researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution, wrote last month.

And in Hamilton County Schools, racial lines are still visible.

Of the county's students, 21,698 -- more than half -- attend schools where at least 70 percent of their peers are of the same race. Of 75 public schools, 30 are predominantly white and 16 are predominantly black, according to data from the 2012-13 Tennessee Report Card.

"The shame of it is that parts of Chattanooga are worse than it was before," said James Mapp, who led the 26-year lawsuit to end school segregation here.

In Hamilton County and across the country, racial demographics strongly correlate to academic success.

Many of our highest-performing schools -- Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, Nolan Elementary, Normal Park Museum Magnet -- are predominantly white. Conversely, many of the lowest-performing schools -- Woodmore Elementary, Brainerd High, Orchard Knob Elementary -- are mostly black.

Superintendent Rick Smith said the school system is working to narrow those achievement gaps.

Past policies like mass busing programs focused on achieving a balance among the races, Smith said. But the state's current accountability model is more focused on improving performance of poor students and minorities where they are. He said the school system is looking beyond the racial makeup of each school and focusing on programming to ensure it can offer "the best quality for every child regardless of where they are."

But location still matters.

A 2013 report from the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies highlighted both the racial and socioeconomic gaps. The report found that Chattanooga is essentially two cities, one healthy and affluent with good schools.

"The other Chattanooga is poor and detached where children attend racially and socioeconomically isolated schools that typically fail to prepare students for future success," it said.

On a trip to Chattanooga 10 years ago, Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the plaintiff named in the Brown decision, talked about the half century since the ruling.

"We've made strides, but Brown v. Board remains unfinished business," Henderson said. "We're still allowing the color of the child to determine the quality of the education."

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at 423-757-6601.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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