Decades later, an Alabama town still struggles with segregated schools, 70 years after Brown v Board

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive ProPublica’s stories in your inbox every week. Join ProPublica for a virtual discussion on how private schools, known as “segregation academies,” in the Deep South, continue to preserve divisions within communities even 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

A mile stretches between the two schools in Alabama, marking a stark divide rooted in a history of racism. The road that connects them undergoes a transformation at the stop sign, changing its name from Threadgill Road, named after a civil rights hero, to Whiskey Run. Black students travel along Threadgill Road to one campus, while white students veer off onto Whiskey Run towards the other.

Wilcox County, located in the Black Belt region, is grappling with a declining population, a prevailing issue in this part of the South. This decline has led to the shrinking of both schools in the county. Unfortunately, the presence of two separate school systems in the area further exacerbates the isolation of entire communities along racial lines.

Wilcox Academy, a private school, has been categorized as a “segregation academy” by researchers due to its long-standing tradition of having a predominantly white student body and its establishment during a time of racial segregation. Currently, the school has a total of 200 students spanning across 12 grades. The school building itself is a single-story structure with beige siding and brown brick veneer. While Wilcox Academy provides chapel and core academic classes, it does not offer music, theater, or band programs.

Wilcox Central High School, located down the road, offers a wider range of courses and accommodates a larger student population. The school’s impressive facility includes a medical-training lab and a competition-sized swimming pool, making it capable of accommodating up to 1,000 students. However, the current enrollment of the school is just 400, consisting predominantly of Black students from across the expansive 888-square-mile county.

In the 1954 landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared public school segregation unconstitutional. This decision sparked a significant shift in the South, particularly in the Black Belt region. Despite federal courts consistently ruling against the South’s resistance, many white individuals adopted a different strategy that continues to have a profound impact today. They established an extensive network of private schools, numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, to educate white children.

About 70 years have passed since the Brown decision, and it has come to light that approximately 300 schools in the South, which were likely established as segregation academies, are still in operation today. These schools have taken various forms, ranging from high-end college-preparatory institutions to small Christian schools like Wilcox Academy. Over time, some of these schools have made efforts to admit more nonwhite students and now strive to better represent the diverse communities they serve.

In the 18 Black Belt counties of Alabama, the segregation academies that remain, identified by ProPublica, are predominantly white. This is despite the fact that the majority of the region’s population is Black. These schools continue to exist as a source of division in the communities where they are located.

White parents often hesitate to enroll their children in majority-Black public schools, even if rural segregation academies lack the same resources and amenities. This reluctance can have a negative impact on all students, particularly in underprivileged communities where funding is limited. As a result, schools face higher overhead costs when they have to operate multiple facilities, and the smaller student population prevents both schools from offering the full range of programs that could be available if their resources were pooled together.

According to Bryan Mann, a professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in studying school segregation and school choice, when you divide money that you don’t have in half, it becomes problematic.

In the near future, private schools are set to receive a significant increase in tax funding. Republican lawmakers are implementing strategies to allocate substantial amounts of state money to cater to the growing demand for private education. This movement is gaining momentum across the nation, especially in the Southeast region. In counties like Wilcox, where segregation academies are the sole private school alternative, this trend is particularly prominent.

In March, Republican Governor Kay Ivey, hailing from Wilcox County in Alabama, took a significant step by signing the CHOOSE Act. This groundbreaking legislation establishes an education savings account program, akin to vouchers, and mandates the allocation of a minimum of $100 million annually by the state legislature to support these accounts. Under this program, students have the opportunity to apply for up to $7,000 per year to cover various expenses, including private school tuition.

Starting from 2023, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida have followed Alabama’s lead and introduced voucher-style programs that are accessible to all students, rather than being limited to lower-income or underperforming students. South Carolina has gone a step further by extending its program to middle-income and some upper-income families. Similarly, Georgia has implemented its own program specifically targeting children in low-performing public schools. Moreover, the governors of Texas and Tennessee have expressed their commitment to pursuing similar initiatives in the coming year.

History is repeating itself, according to Steve Suitts, who hails from Alabama.

Suitts expressed skepticism about the impact of recent laws, stating that he does not believe there will be any significant difference. He went on to criticize Alabama’s new voucher-style program, referring to it as the Segregation Academy Rescue Act.

Republican lawmakers vehemently disagree with this notion, asserting that the current law enables both Black and white students to utilize funds for enrollment in private schools. While the legislation forbids participating schools from engaging in racial discrimination, it still grants them the autonomy to select their preferred candidates for admission.

Republican state Rep. Danny Garrett, the education budget chair, refuted the claims made by Black legislators during House debate earlier this year. He listened to their arguments that the law is racially motivated and aimed at promoting segregation, but he disagreed with these statements, stating that they are not true.

In Camden, the county seat of Wilcox, both Black and white residents express their desire to have their children educated together. However, given the long history of segregation, they are uncertain about the most effective way to achieve this goal.

Jazmyne Posey and Samantha Cook, two high school juniors, were introduced to each other when they both began working at Black Belt Treasures. Located in downtown Camden, this nonprofit organization is dedicated to showcasing and selling the creations of talented artists from the Black Belt region.

Jazmyne and Samantha may seem like they have little in common at first glance. Jazmyne, who is Black, has a fondness for rap and hip-hop, while Samantha, who is white, prefers indie pop. Furthermore, Jazmyne attends a public school, whereas Samantha is enrolled at Wilcox Academy.

But their connection grew quickly as they discovered shared life experiences and challenges, both being teenagers navigating the complexities of high school relationships. They found themselves pondering what it would be like to attend the same classes and wondered how their friends would get along.

Jazmyne and Samantha had been apart for some time, and Jazmyne couldn’t help but miss their conversations. She heard through the grapevine that Samantha felt the same way. “I caught word that she said she missed me too,” Jazmyne shared.

Samantha has witnessed a decline in her class size at Wilcox Academy, from 22 students to just 13. Although she enjoys her writing classes, she expresses a desire for more diverse offerings, particularly a theater program. “I would have definitely been a theater enthusiast,” she shares. In the future, Samantha hopes to join her sister in Atlanta, where she is eager to experience the vibrant multicultural environment and meet new people.

Jazmyne’s grandmother, who passed away earlier this year, went to the public high school a few years after it was desegregated. At that time, many white students had already transferred to the newly established academies. While racism was the reason behind segregation, Jazmyne believes that it is not the sole cause of the ongoing divisions.

“There isn’t any racism around here,” she insisted. “It’s just that we haven’t really connected with one another. We’ve all been focused on our individual pursuits.”

Roots of Division

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews was raised in an environment that was deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Her father, a well-known activist and chaplain at Camden Academy, a private Presbyterian school for Black children, played a significant role in her upbringing. Likewise, her mother was also a teacher at the same institution. The family resided, studied, and worshipped together on the campus, which was situated on a picturesque hill known as Hangman’s Hill.

She saw the dismantling of her world. Their yard was defiled when someone set fire to a cross.

The family moved ahead, determined to forge a path. A year later, as a freshman, Threadgill-Matthews enrolled at Wilcox County High, a previously all-white public school. It was September 23, 1966, marking a historic moment as she became one of the first nine Black students to break the county’s racial barrier on that memorable day.

Most of the students who had come with her also endured the school year and, like her, pleaded to return to Camden Academy.

The segregation academy movement was initiated by white families throughout the South at that time.

In Alabama, the situation intensified when a federal court mandated the desegregation of Tuskegee High School. In response, white parents hastily established a segregation academy, prompting Governor George Wallace to personally visit and endorse the initiative. Wallace not only encouraged the opening of more such academies but also appealed to state legislators for support.

In 1965, the Alabama Journal reported that the state’s legislature approved $3.75 million, equivalent to about $36 million today, to finance tuition grants. These grants were specifically intended to allow students to attend private schools instead of public schools where they would be in classes with African American students.

According to the journal Southern Spaces, six other Southern states implemented comparable programs, resulting in the unprecedented expansion of private schools in the region.

Private schools in the old Confederacy are making headlines with names like Robert E. Lee Academy, Wade Hampton Academy, and Jefferson Davis Academy. The Rebels are often chosen as the favored mascot.

In March 1970, the local newspaper in Camden delivered news that “Promoters of additional private school facilities in Wilcox County received a boost this week.” This boost came in the form of a plan filed by the federal government to desegregate the local schools.

According to the article, many people anticipate that this action will generate interest in building new private school facilities in Camden and Pine Hill.

Two weeks later, there was another headline that caught people’s attention: “Private School Plan Shaping Up.” The article revealed that a group of 119 families in Wilcox had come together to create a new foundation. They had unanimously voted to establish a private school and had successfully acquired 16 acres of land in Camden. This marked the beginning of what would soon become known as Wilcox Academy.

Many white people in the South argued that their motives for embracing the new academies were not racist, despite the timing of their actions. They publicly defended their decision by citing reasons such as “choice,” “freedom,” and the pursuit of a higher-quality education, often with a Christian foundation.

However, it was difficult to reconcile those sentiments with the reality that numerous academies were established hastily, often in makeshift locations such as homes, churches, or vacant buildings. Studies conducted in the 1970s by researchers who visited some of these new schools revealed that the majority of them were in a state of disrepair, showing signs of wear and tear, lacking cleanliness, and lacking sufficient supplies and materials. Additionally, these academies were often cramped and provided limited opportunities for enrichment.

Wilcox Academy, on the other hand, received significant financial backing right from the beginning. According to the Wilcox Progressive Era newspaper, when the school first opened its doors in September 1970, it was widely recognized as one of the most stunning and well-equipped new educational institutions in the region.

Two years later, the enrollment at Wilcox County public schools witnessed a significant shift. The number of Black students increased to 3,733, while the number of white students dropped to just 109. This marked a remarkable transformation from the previous year, where the nearby public school began the academic year with only half of its previous student population.

Now, after fifty years, there are only a few white students currently enrolled.

On a rainy spring day, Threadgill-Matthews drove up the grassy hill where Camden Academy used to stand. Accompanied by her 5-year-old great-nephew, she made her way to J.E. Hobbs Elementary, a public school that now occupies the academy’s former location. The school is made up of various buildings, and her nephew’s classroom is located in a single-story structure with blue walls and cheerful yellow doors.

A stand of pine trees is all that can be found on the other side of a weathered sidewalk. Once, this spot was home to her family, but the school district forced them out and condemned the house.

After getting out of the car, her nephew, carrying his Spiderman backpack, warmly embraced her and confidently made his way into a classroom brimming with Black children. It reminded her of her own experience as a student on this very campus.

At the age of 71, she prefers not to focus on the disappointment. There has been so little progress since the landmark Brown v. Board decision, or since the day when she and fellow Black children made history, enduring immense hardships along the way.

“It’s truly heartbreaking,” she expressed with deep sadness.

Tools of Resistance

A few years back, a history student from Auburn University contacted Threadgill-Matthews expressing interest in interviewing her for their master’s thesis. Amberly Sheffield, who had previously taught at Wilcox Academy, had become captivated by the school and its beginnings, leading her to dedicate her thesis to the subject of segregation academies.

Growing up in the early 2000s in a neighboring county, Sheffield witnessed her hometown dwindle to a mere population of 1,800 people. Despite the small size, she recalls that two segregation academies were in operation within a 20-minute drive from her house.

Sheffield opted not to attend either of those schools. Despite being white, her parents made the decision to enroll her in the public high school, where approximately 70% of her classmates were Black.

She enjoyed her time there. As an honors student and cheerleader, she had the opportunity to interact with teachers of different races. She also had a diverse group of friends, which allowed her to gain insight into their unique backgrounds. This made her question why some white parents chose to pay for their children to attend exclusive academies.

Curiosity got the best of her, and she resolved to uncover the truth.

In 2019, after completing her bachelor’s degree, she secured a position as a high school history teacher at Wilcox Academy. She relocated to Camden, a town situated 40 miles south of Selma, and rented a charming old plantation house.

As she made her way into downtown, she couldn’t help but notice the bustling activity of attorneys, restaurants, and clothing boutiques, all housed in charming storefronts with flower boxes adding a touch of beauty. As she stopped at one of the three traffic lights, she caught a glimpse of the historic red brick county courthouse, a testament to the area’s rich history. Continuing down the road, she couldn’t overlook the peeling white paint on Antioch Baptist Church, a site that held a dark past. It was here that the KKK had once targeted congregants, and a tragic incident occurred when a white man fatally shot a Black man during a funeral gathering.

Sheffield walked into the academy’s building on her first day at work, surrounded by athletic fields and a backdrop of trees. Despite the fact that the county had a Black majority, the classrooms were filled with white students and teachers. The only Black individuals she encountered were two custodians.

While getting acquainted with her students, she delved deeper into their reasons for not attending public schools. She anticipated responses that would highlight the academy’s Christian education or the presence of alumni in their family. And indeed, some students did provide these reasons.

Wilcox Academy’s academics were often considered superior by some, although it was difficult to ascertain the accuracy of such claims. Unlike public schools, private schools are not obligated to disclose test scores, which makes it challenging to make direct comparisons.

To her surprise, Sheffield discovered that many of her students expressed fear when discussing their experiences in public schools. They believed that these schools were dangerous and there was a constant threat of violence, such as getting shot. Although they didn’t explicitly mention race as the reason for their fear, Sheffield sensed that it played a significant role in their perceptions.

She had a startling realization that her students were primarily surrounded by individuals of the same race. Almost all of their friends, as well as the friends of their parents, were white. Furthermore, they had never experienced the guidance or discipline of Black teachers.

Alabama had already implemented a tuition scholarship program for lower-income families, aimed primarily at supporting Black students and facilitating their enrollment in predominantly white private schools. However, Wilcox Academy made the decision to opt out of this initiative, thus not affording African American families the opportunity to benefit from it.

According to state records, it appears that even the segregation academies in neighboring counties have not opted in. In fact, a researcher discovered that private schools in Alabama with student populations that are more than 94% white are the least likely to participate.

ProPublica reached out to the principal of Wilcox Academy multiple times via email and phone calls to discuss various topics. These topics included the academy’s influence on local school segregation, its decision not to participate in the current tuition-grant program, and its potential participation in the new program. Unfortunately, the principal did not respond to these inquiries.

Sheffield discovered that numerous families continue to select the academy based on race, seeking the familiarity and avoiding potential discomfort that comes with integration, even if they are unaware of this underlying motivation.

After completing one school year, she immediately began pursuing her master’s degree. Currently, she is a doctoral student at the University of Mississippi, where her research focuses on segregation academies.

In her master’s thesis, she closely examined the establishment of these schools throughout Alabama, specifically focusing on the significant increase in school openings in 1970. During that particular autumn, a total of 23 schools emerged across the state, including the renowned Wilcox Academy. By 1978, the enrollment in public schools within seven counties of the Black Belt region, including Wilcox County, consisted of over 90% Black students.

According to Sheffield, the segregation academies were an extremely effective tool used by white resisters.

The Persistence of Division

Creating an integrated school system where none has ever existed can be quite challenging, according to him. In Willcox, the residents, both black and white, still regard each other warily, as the chasm between them has been shaped by centuries of history.

“We lack trust in each other due to our significant divisions,” he expressed.

Two years ago, Alabama legislators succumbed to the influence of predominantly white large landowners, effectively derailing the county and school board’s proposal to have a property tax increase put to a local vote. This increase would have allocated fifty percent of the funds to the predominantly Black schools, which desperately needed the support. One of the pressing needs was a new building for Threadgill-Matthews’ nephew’s elementary school, as the current structures had already experienced two fires and were showing signs of age.

Black residents in Wilcox County express their concern over the lack of investment in public schools by families who choose not to send their children there. They question how the community would have benefited if white families had directed their time and resources towards improving the public school system instead of supporting private academies.

Saulsberry emphasized the importance of unity and understanding among people. He believes that when individuals come together, they can understand each other on a deeper level and build trust. By fostering this sense of togetherness, the county can overcome its challenges and prevent further loss of life.

In Camden, there are certain establishments that have successfully brought Black and white individuals together, creating a sense of community and fostering meaningful connections. One such place is Black Belt Treasures, where the staff organizes arts programs for students from both public and private schools. They make it a priority to create an inclusive environment that welcomes everyone. Betty Anderson, a Black artist who operates a civil rights museum nearby, has developed a close friendship with the white women employed at Black Belt Treasures.

Two women, who are actively involved in a local racial reconciliation group, found themselves in the gallery, where they were tasked with judging a public school’s art poster contest. Their involvement in the group had temporarily ceased due to the onset of COVID-19, but their desire for community unity remained steadfast.

Both of them made the difficult and complex decision to enroll their children in Wilcox Academy.

Vera Spinks understands that many people question why she doesn’t choose to send her children to public schools.

“It’s not as straightforward,” she remarked.

The women strongly deny that race played a role in their decision. When it came time to choose where to enroll their children, the schools had already been segregated for a while. They both follow the Christian faith and mentioned that the religious education offered by the academy was a significant factor in their decision. Additionally, they were attracted to the small class sizes and the personalized attention provided by the teachers.

Strong family ties also connect individuals to the academy. Kristin Law, who was working alongside Spinks at the gallery, is also an alumna. According to Law, there are now multiple generations of students who have attended the school, and this has fostered a sense of school pride and tradition.

Parents play a significant role in the school, investing a great deal of time and effort. Fundraising is a constant activity, with the academy’s annual turkey hunt, which has been supporting the school since 1971. Parents and students work together to organize, transport, assemble, and collect donations for the extravagant prom event. This tradition has been passed down for four decades.

Law and Johnson expressed their satisfaction with the increased presence of Black and other nonwhite students at the school. According to Law, they are eager to promote unity and are actively seeking ways to achieve this goal.

Crossing the Broken Bridge

Integration may still be a possibility for areas like Wilcox County, although it may not be implemented in the public school system.

Alabama plans to launch its new school-choice program in January 2025, allowing most students to participate, and expanding to include all students by 2027. Currently, Alabama’s tuition-scholarship program has predominantly benefited Black students, with approximately 60% of recent recipients being from this demographic. However, the new program will also provide opportunities for wealthier families, potentially supporting a significantly larger number of students, more than four times the current figure.

In regions like Wilcox and numerous other counties in the Black Belt, the Black children represent the most significant group of potential new enrollees for private schools.

In 2019, when Sheffield joined the school, Wilcox Academy made a groundbreaking decision to hire Michael Woods as its first Black coach in order to breathe new life into the basketball program. Now, four years into his role, Woods finds himself grappling with the complex implications of the recently introduced voucher opportunities.

Black children continue to make up only a meager 5% of the student population in over half of the schools in the South that were initially established as segregation academies. As a result, white parents and students remain in a position of power and control, even in communities where Black individuals make up the majority. However, as more Black students express interest in attending these academies, an important question arises: how many of them will be accepted by white leaders?

Growing up in Camden’s public schools, Woods personally experienced the disconnect that existed between the two communities. The lack of representation was evident, as there were no Black teachers and only two Black students at the academy. However, to his surprise, the academy’s leaders reached out to him, offering him an opportunity to work there. This unexpected turn of events left him both amazed and intrigued.

He was made to feel so welcomed that he decided to bring his niece and nephew to the academy, along with another Black student. Although he has heard racially insensitive comments from some individuals, he does not believe that he has experienced outright racism.

“We still adhere to those traditional ways,” he expressed, “but with God’s intervention, we have been able to improve, and now it’s time to move on.”

Woods is determined to ensure that Black children are afforded the same opportunities that white kids have long been privileged with. However, for these children to truly have a choice, it is crucial for them to feel valued within the academy. Woods mentioned that he has emphasized to the staff, “We must still offer something that demonstrates our appreciation for these kids and motivates them to attend the school.”

According to Saulsberry, the superintendent, he does not anticipate a significant number of applications. He expresses concern about the potential discomfort that may arise if a Black child were to attend the school.

Public school leaders are well aware that their students’ performance on standardized tests is often below the proficient level in subjects like math and reading. This knowledge puts them at risk of being judged solely based on these test results. However, Saulsberry firmly believes that his schools offer much more than what can be measured by test scores.

At the public high school, the teachers are required to be certified, which sets it apart from certain private schools. Moreover, students attending this school have the opportunity to pursue various certifications in fields such as nursing assistance, patient care, medication assistance, welding, brick masonry, and heavy equipment operation. Additionally, the school plans to introduce a certification program for forestry, while plumbing certification will be offered starting in the fall.

His students are also able to receive mental health care, special education services, bus services, and free meals, a range of services that are not commonly offered by other academies in the area.

“We believe in taking a holistic approach to understanding each child, rather than solely focusing on their academic abilities,” Saulsberry emphasized.

Public school leaders are well aware that they need to step up their game in order to highlight the strengths they have to offer. Donald Carter, the Assistant Principal of Wilcox Central High, believes that private schools will be taking a page out of the college football playbook and actively recruit students.

The gymnasium stands fill up with predominantly white parents when Woods coaches the academy’s teams. Similarly, the other teams consist mostly or entirely of white individuals. Woods ponders about the possibility of having more Black families occupying those seats and how it would impact the atmosphere.

According to Woods, he receives numerous phone calls from Black parents on a daily basis. He stated that many of these parents express their desire to enroll their children in private schools but are unable to do so due to financial constraints. Now, with a mix of curiosity and caution, they pose a question that harkens back to the past: How would their children be treated in a predominantly white school?

How We Counted Segregation Academies

To identify schools that likely opened as segregation academies, ProPublica utilized existing research and analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Private School Universe Survey. The focus was on K-12 schools established in the South between 1954 and 1976, which were predominantly white (more than 90%) as recently as 1993-1995. Schools with unique focuses, such as special education, or those that were opened for reasons unrelated to desegregation, were filtered out. It is important to note that Catholic schools often fell under this category.

To determine which schools were still in operation, the analysis compared the identified schools to the most recent data from the Private School Universe Survey (2021-2022). However, it is possible that the estimates may not account for all schools, as private school demographic data was not collected until 1993, almost two decades after desegregation. Additionally, not all private schools participate in the survey.

To identify schools that were both still operating and continued to have a disproportionately white student population, their demographic data was compared to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the respective counties in which each school was located.

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