JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi school district says it’s ready to stop fighting a plan to merge historically black and white schools. But the district’s willingness to act comes at a cost — closing historically black schools.
The move is a concession for the Cleveland school district, which has fought federal efforts to merge two middle schools and two high schools. But some African American supporters of desegregation are unhappy about a plan that would close historically black East Side High.
“The plan calls for closing down all the schools on the black side of town and moving all the kids to the white side of town,” said the Rev. Edward DuVall, a desegregation supporter who spoke against the plan Monday before the local school board. “The bottom line is racism.”
Historically, African-American residents were concentrated on Cleveland’s east side. The west side, where Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High School are located, had white residents.
The district has told the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals it would appeal the ruling the 52-year-old case, seeking to maintain two high schools. The district says that plan meets constitutional desegregation obligations and would prompt less white flight, although U.S. District Judge Debra Brown found no proof it would lead to whites enrolling at East Side.
But lawyers have delayed filing those arguments. In August, the district asked Brown to approve its new proposal to consolidate all students in grades 7-12 in the adjoining buildings of Cleveland High and Margaret Green. That plan would house most sixth graders at the district’s current alternative school.
With a racially identifiable system of dual schools, Cleveland is a throwback. But closing historically black schools would also hearken back to an earlier time. Across the South, when ordered to integrate in the 1960 and 1970s, many districts moved all students to traditionally white schools, either closing black schools or downgrading them. University of North Carolina Greensboro Professor Charles Bolton, who wrote a history of desegregation in Mississippi schools, said black communities felt they had lost a cornerstone.
“To destroy our legacy and our culture and leave theirs standing, we think that’s unfair,” DuVall said. He and other supporters of desegregation want Cleveland to build a new high school that would have a neutral racial legacy and offer upgraded programs to all students.
But a new high school for now has taken a back seat to arguments over consolidation. In May, Brown ordered the district to house all high school students on the combined campuses of Cleveland High and Margaret Green. East Side would become a combined middle school, while D.M. Smith Middle School would close.
Cleveland High now has a plurality of white students, while Margaret Green is majority black, according to state figures. All but one student at East Side was black last year, as were all but two at D.M. Smith. Overall, two thirds of the district’s students are black, while 29 percent are white. The rest are Asian or Hispanic.
Brown ordered schools to merge by next fall, and change looms. At the Sept. 23 football game between Cleveland and East Side, the schools’ bands played together at halftime, symbolically combining.
District lawyers say their plan would help retain more white students, continuing district concerns about possible white flight. In August, two principals swore in court-filed statements that parents had transferred at least 12 white students to Bayou Academy, a local private school, citing “forced consolidation and the fact that their choices as parents are being taken away.”
“With its consolidation plan, the district hopes to minimize the loss of white enrollment already occurring in the district,” lawyer John Hooks wrote Aug. 30.
Brown wrote on Sept. 29 that she’s “optimistic that the proposed modification could represent a constitutional desegregation plan which would enjoy the support of the district’s leadership.”
But she said she needs to see more details, ordering the district to file them by Friday. A hearing on the district’s plan is likely by January.