Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Has reality of school integration matched its lofty promise?

When she heard the Evans High student say, "We're not bad kids," it sounded to Gayle Pritchett Danner like an echo from her own childhood.

Back then, in 1970, it was Jones High students reacting to white teachers who were forced to transfer to their black high school. Today, it's the black students at Evans reacting to opponents of their school's proposed move to a site near Ocoee.

"It's the same thing repeating itself," said Danner, 53, one of the 10 children on the 1962 lawsuit to desegregate Orange County public schools.

In the 46 years since the eight black families sued to integrate the schools, so much has changed, so much is the same. The dual school systems of black and white have been dismantled. Today, 32 percent of the district's students are white, 27 percent black, 31 percent Hispanic.

But opposition to moving predominantly black Evans High School to a predominantly white area sounds no different to some than the opposition to black students attending a white school.

"It's race at the core of it," said Rev. Randolph Bracy, president of the Orange County branch of the NAACP. "Integration has gone a long ways to bring us to where we are today, but we have still not come to be a colorblind society."

The difference between 1962 and 2008 is traceable in the lives, and perspectives, of the eight adults and their 10 children who filed the lawsuit.

For Emma Gaines Little, the transformation that began with school desegregation was a triumph from the days when a black adult dared not knock on the front door of a white person's house.

"It was a bad fight, but what we did, we should be joyous. I'm proud of it," said Little, 87.

Gayle Danner's mother, Altamese Pritchett, sees it less as a triumph than a betrayal. The elimination of segregated school systems resulted in the closing of black schools, the transfer of black teachers and the exodus of middle-class families from black neighborhoods.

"We didn't sue for them to close the schools," said Pritchett, 82. "We wanted integration -- period. They turned what we wanted around and started closing schools in our area."

Pritchett's opinion is shared by her daughter, who sees the end result of integration as a dismantling of the black community.

"Was it worth it? Not for me. We lost community," said Danner. "Segregation had to end. But the decline of the community didn't have to come with it."

Reflected in the children of the lawsuit is a growing feeling among some blacks that integration at any cost is no longer worth the price. To them, all-black schools are not all bad, nor are all-black neighborhoods less desirable than integrated ones.

"I'm not sure what we did was the right thing. My father is probably rolling over in his grave to hear that," said Evelyn Ellis Snipes, 58, daughter of John P. Ellis. "I am a proponent of neighborhood schools. I'm as opposed to school busing as my father was in favor of it."

'Integration exhaustion'

After decades of trying to assimilate with whites, many blacks feel "integration exhaustion." Studies show blacks are increasingly reluctant to move into white neighborhoods and are less willing than past generations to be integration pioneers.

America seems to be retreating from integration at the same time the nation is becoming more diverse. Among educators in particular, there is growing concern that the country is resegregating into black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods. That change is reflected in the schools.

The peak of school integration was 1988, when 43 percent of black students in the South attended white schools. Today, less than 31 percent do. The U.S. Supreme Court, which initiated school integration in 1954, has been ruling since 1991 that federal courts have no business in local schools and that race should not be a factor in pupil placement.

"Every year since 1990, schools have become more segregated. We are back to where we were in the late 1960s," said Gary Orfield, a desegregation scholar and co-founder of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

The most segregated black schools are also the poorest. Leaving poor, black kids in segregated schools doesn't move the nation forward in race relations or prepare it to compete in a global economy, said Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, a historically black school for women in Atlanta.

In a nation as multiracial and ethnically diverse as the United States, less integration jeopardizes a country steaming toward the day when no racial or ethnic group can claim a majority.

"We're entering an era where diversity cannot be avoided," said Sheryll Cashin, author of The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream. "To be competitive in the workplace, you have to be culturally dexterous. The people most comfortable in America are culturally diverse people."

For that reason, integration may be more important today than it was in 1962.

"I believe in integration. That's what my mother believed in," said Pam Woodley, 57, daughter of Georgia Nell Woodley. "This is a continuum. We are still in the process of getting to know each other and understanding each other."

What Woodley's mother and the other seven parents wanted when they filed that lawsuit in 1962 was equality and choice. They didn't want to be told their children could attend only black schools. They wanted all schools to have equal facilities, materials and teachers regardless of race.

But the days of forced integration seem over. The use of busing to achieve school integration has given way to magnet schools, charter schools and voluntary "minority to majority" transfers.

The freedom of people to choose where to live is reflected in the racial mix found in the public schools, said Board Member Kat Gordon. Schools in her predominantly black district have children of all races and ethnicities.

"In most of our areas, we're already integrated," Gordon said. "These are people buying homes in these communities because it's where they want to live."

But choice doesn't mean equality. That much has not changed.

"The issue today is: Does equality exist in the school system regardless of whether they are black or white, an affluent neighborhood or a poor neighborhood?" said Danny Curry, 62, son of Willie Lee Curry.

Looking forward

The true measure of race relations in America is not found in the lives of the eight parents or their 10 children -- it's in the attitudes of their children, grandchildren, and the generations beyond them.

Dick Brink and Syryal Kinsler played football together at Edgewater High in the late 1960s. They shared the same hallways and the same locker room, but little else. Brink is white. Kinsler is black.

Today their children share similar attitudes regarding race. Brink's sons have black friends. Kinsler's children have white friends.

"I think we've progressed as far as racism goes. I know for myself, deep down inside there is a little bit left, but it is trying to clear up," said Brink, 55. "Over time, I think racism will be nothing. I don't know if it will be in my day."

Young people of today -- black, white, Hispanic, Asian -- interact and socialize in ways impossible for Syryal and his generation.

"We were put together. They choose to be together," said Kinsler, 57, son of Mavis Starke. "It didn't happen for that first set of kids. They didn't bond; they didn't unite. Those who pushed the door open for integration did it for you when you came out -- black children and white children."

Some wonder whether the level of racial comfort parents see in their children is true progress or an aberration. Which way are we headed: more integrated and together, or more segregated and apart?

"If we want a society that has less rather than more social conflict, that has more ability to have a common discourse and solve problems together, you need to cultivate a society where diversity is a comforting thing," Cashin said.

"I don't see how we get there in a segregated society."

Jeff Kunerth can be reached at jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5392.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Comments
Loading