By Trisha Powell Crain

photo credit: New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZ62-127042) U.S. SUPREME COURT: BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA – – A mother explaining to her daughter the significance of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; photographed on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., November 19, 1954.
JOHN T. BLEDSOE FOR USN&WR The problem of school segregation is rearing its ugly head yet again.

Sixty-seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court ended state-enforced segregated schools, Alabama’s public schools in the Black Belt have not reaped the benefit of school integration.

A recent study found Alabama’s public schools in the Black Belt, with few exceptions, are slightly more segregated than they were in 1990, prompting the authors to question whether Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 promise of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” was ultimately kept.

“If that was the goal, even if it wasn’t done through policy, then sadly, that was something that was achieved,” University of Kansas professor Bryan Mann told AL.com about the study’s findings. “If you look at it through that lens, I think it’s shocking.”

Many believe school desegregation was achieved after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down on May 17, 1954, Mann said, but that isn’t the case.

Alabama and other southern states put up massive resistance to desegregating schools. New laws were created, successfully thwarting the court’s order until the federal government forced the state to integrate in the late 1960s, nearly 15 years after the original legal decision.

The new study’s findings show Black students in Alabama’s Black Belt counties attend public schools that are increasingly racially isolated: They attend schools with overwhelmingly majority-Black student populations, indicating efforts to desegregate schools largely have been unsuccessful in the region.

Mann said he wanted to specifically focus on Alabama’s 17 Black Belt counties — using the traditional designation based on the region’s fertile soil — because of the area’s contribution to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. He began the research while a professor of education policy at University of Alabama.

The study considered enrollment in schools in the counties from 1990 through 2018.

Using a racial isolation index, which measures the percentage of Black students who go to school exclusively with other Black students, the authors found that in the Black Belt counties, Black students are more likely to attend school with other Black students, and fewer students of other races over that 30-year period.

In 1990, a Black student in the Black Belt, on average, attended school where 78% of students were also Black. That percentage rose to 82.9% in 2000, ticked up to 83.1% in 2010, and then declined to 80% in 2017-18, still at a higher level than in 1990.

The increasing isolation has a number of causes, the study claims, including fewer school-aged white children living in the area and white families continuing to choose private schools over public schools for their children.

Still, while the white population in the area is declining, the authors say the term segregation is appropriate because local and state policy choices have influenced public school enrollment in the region.

Through no fault of the students, those racially isolated schools recently have performed poorly on state standards.

Thirty of the state’s 76 “failing” public schools in 2019 — a designation placed on schools whose achievement levels are in the bottom 6% statewide — were located in the Black Belt, the study points out, highlighting the struggles and unequal educational opportunities students have there.

The most recent list, released in November 2019, shows 31 of the state’s “failing” public schools are located in Black Belt counties.

That failure has consequences for students and for society, Mann said. He and co-author Annah Rogers, a graduate student at the University of Alabama, cite multiple benefits of school integration, backed by scholarly research, in the study.

“Scholars have found that contact, especially in a school setting, can be more beneficial than contact down the road,” Rogers said. “It has been shown to help students not form so many stereotypes, create better relationships, create better friendships, and really bond with people and learn how to work with people who may look different than them.”

Societal benefits of integration are backed by research, too, Mann said.

“If children go to school together from different backgrounds, then we’re more likely to have a society where we have less tension.”

Beyond isolation of Black schoolchildren, the area is one of the poorest in the country.

Given the serious economic challenges facing Black Belt counties, along with a declining population overall, it will take more than government intervention to mitigate the impact of and reduce racial isolation for Black students there, Mann said.

The authors recommended state investments to not only bring new employers to the area, but also to improve infrastructure such as broadband, sewers and wastewater.

Creating regional school enrollment policies, beyond current school district boundaries, and adding magnet programs and targeted school choice policies could reduce isolation, too.

Families make choices about where to live based in part on the quality of the schools, he said. “If you’re moving and you think a school is not good enough for your kid, then why is it good enough for someone else’s kid, right?”

But, Mann cautions, “Any policy recommendation wouldn’t be successful unless it’s weighing those the voices of people in the process.”

Rogers, a native of Greene County, knows about the challenges in the Black Belt and hopes that their research, along with the recommendations on how to begin addressing those challenges will help people in the area. This study and future research is important to her, she said.

“I want people to know that we can’t just forget Black Belt, that it’s still here,” she said. “It needs our help, and we can’t just forget about it, and leave it to continue to decline.”