Sixty years after the US Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” had no place in America’s schools, a mammoth ProPublica investigation has revealed that segregation is creeping back into the nation’s education system.
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spent more than a year reporting “Segregation Now,” which focuses on the successful integration of the Tuscaloosa, AL, city school district, and its subsequent slide back into segregation.
Hannah-Jones interviewed teachers, students, school board officials, and parents and presents a wealth of information and research—much of it interactive—deftly tied to the story of single black family, the Dents. James Dent was educated in all-black schools, while his daughter Melissa attended an integrated high school and was the first in her family to go to college. His granddaughter, D’Leisha, now faces limited prospects at a struggling, all-black high school. The investigation is a comprehensive and extremely emotive look at an important subject.
ProPublica editors Steve Engelberg and Robin Fields consider it one of the site’s “most ambitious reporting efforts”:
Almost everywhere in the country, Hannah-Jones found, the gains of integration have been eroded. And nowhere has that been more powerfully and disturbingly true than in the South - once home to both the worst of segregation and the greatest triumphs of integration. Freed from the federal oversight that produced integration, schools districts across the 11 former states of the Confederacy have effectively re-instituted segregation for large numbers of black students, in practical terms if not in law.
Although Tuscaloosa was praised in the 1950s for its comparatively good race relations, the city’s black residents lived under Jim Crow until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. “Black people took their first breaths in segregated hospital rooms, worshipped in segregated churches, and, when they died, were buried in segregated graveyards,” Hanna-Jones writes.
Tuscaloosa had been educating black children in black-only schools for nearly 70 years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling laid the groundwork for integration, and the school district continued to drag its heels until a court order forced it to desegregate in the late ’70s. In 1979, a black high school and its white counterpart were merged to create Central High School, a city-wide integrated school that was as celebrated for its host of National Merit Scholars as it was for its successful football team.
But by the mid-1990s, the city’s leaders had grown concerned about the pronounced drop in white students attending the Tuscaloosa City District schools. Many white parents preferred to send their children to predominantly white private schools, or to move across the city line so their children could attend the largely white Tuscaloosa County Schools. The district was experiencing white flight. “Money follows kids, and the loss of white students was very, very critical,” Shelley Jones, a school board member in the ’90s, tells Hannah-Jones. City leaders wanted more schools where white students made up the majority and, sensing a change in the Supreme Court’s attitude to desegregation orders, decided to challenge the Tuscaloosa City District mandate.
In 1998, a federal judge declared that Tuscaloosa’s schools had successfully achieved integration and withdrew the desegregation mandate. School superintendent Bob Winter assured the community that no new schools that might lead to less integration were planned. Two years later, Central was replaced by three smaller institutions, including a new school, also named Central, that has become a fixture on Alabama’s list of failing schools. The school board’s gerrymandering of attendance zones means that although it is located in a racially diverse area, the new Central’s student body is 99 percent black. Nearly one in three black children in Tuscaloosa now attends a de-facto segregated school.
Produced in collaboration with The Atlantic, “Segregation Now” was published in daily instalments on ProPublica’s website, and will also be appearing in print in the May issue of The Atlantic.