More than six decades after the United States Supreme Court ordered the nation’s public schools desegregated, and 48 years after officials in Sumter County, Alabama, were ordered to desegregate schools immediately, the county’s first integrated school opened its doors last week.
University Charter School is only the second charter school to open in Alabama. It has approximately 270 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade, and more than 30 students enrolled in pre-K classes.
Head of School J.J. Wedgworth told AL.com that the student body is 54 percent Black, 45 percent white, and 1 percent Asian.
“While not fully representative of the county’s split — 76 percent Black, 24 percent white,” AL.com reported, “no public school in the county has come close to reaching the percentage at UCS, according to historical enrollment documents.”
School Desegregation and “Massive Resistance”
On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated racial segregation in public education, reasoning that segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Overturning the nearly 60-year-old precedent of “separate but equal,” Brown threatened to dislodge a cornerstone of the Southern racial caste system. Throughout the South, where state constitutions and state law mandated segregated schools, white people decried the decision as a tyrannical exercise of federal power.
White Americans implemented a strategy of “massive resistance” to desegregation. Millions of white parents nationwide acted to deny Black children equal education by voting to close and defund public schools, transferring their children to private, white-only schools, and harassing and violently attacking Black students while their own children watched or participated.
In May 1955, the Court in Brown II rejected calls for immediate, federally-enforced desegregation and instead told schools to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” By the start of the 1964-65 school year, less than 3 percent of African American children in the South attended school with white students, and in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1 percent.
Many states closed public schools to avoid integration. States also redirected public funds to maintain segregated education. Federal courts struck down state efforts to selectively close public schools to avoid integration, but those rulings failed to stop white residents from fleeing public schools.
For example, in 1963, after a federal court ordered immediate integration in Macon County, Alabama, Governor George Wallace temporarily closed Tuskegee High School to prevent 13 Black students from enrolling. When the school reopened, all 275 white students withdrew, and most used state-funded scholarships to enroll at Macon Academy — a newly formed, all-white private school.
In rural Sumter County, Alabama, after a federal judicial panel ordered immediate desegregation of the county’s public schools in 1970, white parents sent their children to Sumter Academy, a newly opened private school, the Washington Post reports. Before the court order, Sumter County had three predominantly white public schools; when school started in 1970, one had only four white students, another had no white students, and the third had closed.
In 1983, the Commission on Civil Rights reported that Sumter County’s population was 30 percent white, but only 2 percent of public school students were white.
More than two decades later, it was clear that desegregation had failed in Sumter County: in 2015-2016, none of Sumter Academy’s 170 students was Black; and all but about 31 of the county’s 1593 public school students were Black.
Racial segregation in American public schools persists today. A 2001 study warned that school districts across the nation — particularly in the South — were re-segregating at an alarming rate. The study reported that more than 70 percent of African American students attended predominately minority schools in the 1998-1999 school year — more than in the 1972-1973 school year.
Between 2000 and 2014, the number of schools classified as “high poverty and comprised mostly of Black or Hispanic students” more than doubled, from 7009 to 15,089. Today, across the country, schools with at least 90 percent non-white students spend $733 less per student than schools that are 90 percent white.
School segregation remains most deeply entrenched in the South. Alabama’s constitution still mandates separate schools for white and Black children because voters rejected repeal attempts in 2004 and 2012. Alabama schools remain deeply separate and unequal: 90 percent of students attending Alabama’s 75 failing schools in 2018 were African American.
“An Opportunity for Whites and Blacks to Go to School Together”
Sumter Academy closed in June 2017, citing falling enrollment that school representatives attributed to the anticipated opening of the new charter school. “The sad part about it is there’s always been a need for this school in Sumter County,” Sumter Academy headmaster Glenn Sanders told WTOK. “And now, it’s not here and quite honestly, it’s almost like someone died.”
But University Charter School parents and school officials see in the state’s first rural charter school a chance for a new beginning — and a needed change that is long overdue. Parent Markeitha Tolliver said the school’s mission of integrating schoolchildren means a lot to her. “Change is good. It’s been a slow process, but it’s happening.”
Head of School J.J. Wedgworth told AL.com that students are “coming home” to Sumter County to enroll at the new integrated charter school. She said that integrating the school means “finally that we as a county and community can move forward.”
“It’s an opportunity for whites and Blacks to go to school together,” University Charter School board member Anthony Crear told AL.com, “to give the kids in Sumter County an educational experience that they perhaps have not had before.”