Natchez schools show racial success

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The entire nation took notice of Mississippi in the last few weeks as our state’s largest university went about hiring the first black football coach in the Southeastern Conference.

The event was lauded as a great advancement for a state that has been characterized with Old South images of segregation, slavery and a contemporary prejudice that still plays to these and other ideas.

That hiring does play to our state’s advancement when it comes to equality among the races. However, what is a better sign of a &8220;new South&8221; is what happens in individual communities. Take Natchez for example, where a 14-year-old federal court order that dictated school boundaries and make-ups has now been lifted.

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This event, a truly significant one for not only Natchez but possibly for much of the more rural areas surrounding Adams County, received little play in statewide press, much less that from national media and talking heads.

Here’s what happened. In 1988, several black community leaders and student representatives filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Natchez-Adams County School District was violating desegregation laws because North Natchez High School was predominantly black and South Natchez High was majority white. With North Natchez being the larger school, it was quite evident the district was majority black in makeup.

The plaintiffs argued the district was unfairly stacked against minorities. To illustrate this argument, they pointed to the fact that the district had never hired a black superintendent and the school board was majority white.

U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. in 1989 ruled that the district be divided into two elementary zones and that secondary grades be unified into a consolidated middle school for grades seven and eight and a consolidated high school for grades nine through 12.

To argue whether or not the ruling was beneficial from an educational standpoint is an entirely different matter. Private schools have flourished in the area, and all three are majority white. Public schools have had to battle overcrowding, not only in the classroom but in extra-curricular activities as well, where positions on varying teams are often limited and many potential members are therefore left out.

That said, the advancement that has been made is significant. In that 14-year span, the Natchez-Adams School District has hired three black superintendents and now has a school board that holds a 3-2 black majority.

State Rep. Phillip West, D-Natchez, was one of the original plaintiffs in the case, representing his sone, Kareem, who was a representative of the senior class of 1990. West, who is also president of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, says that now &8220;everyone has a chance to put in a vision for what the school district needs.&8221; He and his son were the only original plaintiffs to speak at the Dec. 5 fairness hearing held to entertain a motion by the school district to release them from the court order. West and his son supported the motion.

Furthermore, it might be noted the school board voted unanimously to make the motion. What is the significance? The significance is that black and white leaders in Mississippi are acknowledging our state is moving forward. In Natchez, black and white leaders have stepped up and said that the equality desired through the court order has been reached and now new dilemmas exist.

Those dilemmas are overcrowding in and white flight from public schools. To address this, it is going to require the district to have more leverage, which they now have, and for black and white leaders to work together, which they say they are committed to do.

Perhaps it is not the head coaching position of a major university, but what is happening in Natchez is of great importance. It will mean a better school system for the children, better economic recruitment tools and hopefully a better future for all involved.

Sam R. Hall

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