Just two weeks before we officially mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated American schools, high school students in Tuscaloosa, Ala. laid out some issues in education that need to be discussed not only here, but across America.
Two generations removed from those who in the wake of 1954 Supreme Court decision broke racial barriers as black and white students began attending classes at the same schools, 20 students at Northridge High School and Central High School showed how a digital camera can capture the realities of so-called “resegregation” in 2014.
Starting Friday, May 2 and continuing through the May 17th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the fruit of their labor with the camera lens is on display at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in downtown Tuscaloosa. To coincide with the opening of the photo exhibit, ProPublica hosted a screening of Maisie Crow’s mini-documentary Saving Central, which was produced in conjunction with the publication of “Segregation Now” story in the May issue of The Atlantic Magazine.
“On top of me writing an article, we wanted to give students a chance to show what race in education looks like for them instead of adults always speaking for them,” said Nikole Hanna-Jones, the award-winning investigative journalist who spent more than a year researching the situation in the Tuscaloosa City Schools.
“She is basically the best reporter on desegregation and integration out there,” said Gene Demby of National Public Radio’s Code Switch Team, which focuses on issues of race, ethnicity and culture.
Demby moderated a brief panel discussion Friday, which featured five of the 20 students whose photography work followed up on issues raised in Hanna-Jones’ reporting on resegregation.
The students wrote six-word essays as part of The Race Card Project, but also captured images using digital camera that served as a status report on the situation with race in the Tuscaloosa City Schools.
The glaring omission from the group of students who were involved were those from the city’s eastside at Paul W. Bryant High School.
“We picked Northridge [High School] because it’s the most integrated high school in the city. And we picked Central [High School] because it’s the most segregated high school in the city,” Hanna-Jones said. “They produced really amazing work, beautiful photos that tell the truth that not just Tuscaloosa, but communities all across this country are largely ignoring.”
The Issues: Through Today’s Students’ Eyes
ISSUE 1: EXPOSURE to those of other races
Students were queried about the whole idea that 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, schools that did desegregate are now segregated again. In Tuscaloosa, Northridge High School is the best example of an integrated high school setting.
“I actually am happy that I go to the school that I do because I am able to interact with people of other races rather than just black and white, said Camri Mason, sophomore at Northridge High School.
“We all learned about Brown versus Board of Education in history class, but you never really think segregation still exists in our school system,” said Rebecca Griesbach, a sophomore at Northridge High School. “I remember the first time we collaborated with the students at Central and they told us that they really had any diversity at all and it really shocked me.”
ISSUE 2: EQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF RESOURCES
Perhaps the topic that received the most attention during the panel discussion was Tuscaloosa City School System’s allocation of resources to the three high schools. Pre-1954, predominantly black schools were known to have inferior textbooks and sub-par facilities compared to white schools. The desegregation of the schools was supposed to correct that problem.
Today, with re-segregated schools, the matter of “unequal” class offerings was identified as an example of how the experiences of the more integrated Northridge High School was different from the nearly all-black Central High School.
Board Vice Chair Earnestine Tucker, who several years ago raised the issue of why Physics courses were not offered all the schools, tonight made it clear that now “resources were not the issue,” even though some of the students felt that they were not getting all the resources that were needed. In some cases, something as similar as a whiteboard was mentioned as a lacking piece of equipment at one school.
After a somewhat heated exchange between members of the audience and those on the panel, it was suggested that students needed to know the manner for requesting resources when they are needed at their school.
ISSUE 3: SEGREGATED STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS
During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience introduced the matter of segregated sororities and fraternities, a problem that cast the University of Alabama’s Greek System into the national spotlight last fall. Students from the local high schools were asked if this type of segregation was evident at their high schools.
One of the student panelists indicated segregated student sororities are a problem at the high school level. Often these sororities are “by invitation only.”
ISSUE 4: SCHOOL ZONING MAPS
At least two questions were asked tonight about why students living a few minutes from one school were zoned to travel a far distance to another school?
Clearly the concept of “neighborhood” school is not fully understood or being implemented to the satisfaction of all in Tuscaloosa.
Through The Camera Lens
Many of the 15 students who did not participate in the panel discussion expressed themselves through the photos that are on display at the Cultural Arts Center.
Among them is Jazmine Thompson, a senior at Central High School.
Thompson says she’s found herself frequently having to dispel myths about students at her school being under-achieving or not having the same excitement about their school as Northridge High School and Bryant High School.
“We do have school spirit like other two schools, “said Thompson, who recalls painting her own face half red and half white as part homecoming.
Thompson plans to attend Shelton State Community College, which is located in Tuscaloosa, in the fall.
In the past, she’s written stories for her school publications.
Meanwhile at Northridge High School, James Niiler, who will be the editor of award-winning Northridge Reporter next year, took some photos that were included in the exhibit. His photo entitled “BUSED” was designed to show the experience that many face when they are transported out to his high school north of time.
Niiler also participated in the panel discussion.
“We can’t constantly be focusing on the wrongness of the past,” said Niileer, who recalls attending school with people from different racial groups virtually all of his life, including during a brief school experience in Texas. “We just have to learn to live together.”
Clearly the students at Central High School and Northridge High School are learning a lot about the educational dilemmas that face our nation six decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
When May 17th rolls around later this month, the nation can turn to these Tuscaloosa area students for an understanding of where we are as a nation in providing equal access to a quality education to all children.
“The whole point of this exhibit was the be able to foster a conversation, to be able to see the truth through photography and then invite the community in, talk about the issues and decide what is to be done,” said Hannah Jones.