Desegregation fight continues

Gladys Acree says she is disappointed.

Forty-four years after she and others sued the Richmond County school system to force desegregation, she says local schools remain segregated.

"We've been segregated all my life, and we still are," Ms. Acree, 89, said Thursday, citing schools such as Lucy C. Laney and Josey high schools, where the student populations are almost entirely black.

Since 1972, Richmond County has operated under a federal court order resulting from the Acree v. Board of Education lawsuit. In recent months, some school board members have said it's time for the order to be lifted.

Other people, including Ms. Acree, don't agree.

"I don't think it's time for them to drop it until all schools are integrated," she said in an interview with The Chronicle .

Progress has been made, but not nearly enough to warrant ending the desegregation lawsuit, she said.

She's not alone. Eugene Hunt, a 1966 Laney graduate, said it takes time to reverse years of injustices.

"Regardless of why it is segregated, it is still segregated," Mr. Hunt said, hopeful a renewed effort by the school board will right wrongs. "The proof is in the pudding."

First step

In November, board members informally agreed to hire a consultant to audit the school system and determine what needs to be done to meet the requirements of the court order.

Board member Marion Barnes called the effort the most significant step taken in years to resolve the desegregation case.

The challenge will be changing the hearts and minds of those in the community, many say. Decades after the civil rights movement, feelings of bitterness and distrust remain strong.

"It's a trust issue because we haven't fixed it," Mr. Barnes said to explain the feelings among some in the black community. "If you haven't done it in 40 years, we don't trust you to do it in the next five."

Schools weren't equal back then, admits school board member Alex Howard.

"I think as a board we recognize we're going to move forward," he said. "If there are concerns we're not meeting, we're going to address them."

The school system has become majority minority: Its board is half black and half white, and the system is being led by its second black superintendent. But Mr. Barnes, a former school board president, said the desegregation order is still relevant.

"The point is that the courts said you will have this done and we haven't done it," he said.

Mr. Barnes is careful to point out that he doesn't support resolving the court case just to do so.

"I am not ready as an individual board member for us to come from out of this court order until this board does what it is supposed to do," he said.

Demographics

Board attorney Pete Fletcher is looking for someone to audit the school system. Mr. Fletcher said he and Ben Allen, the attorney for the plaintiffs, agree that only two issues remain: Ensuring equitable facilities for all students and making sure the demographics of nonteaching staff reflect the community. He said the same thing in 1999.

The school board is in the third phase of a building program funded by a special purpose local option sales tax. The program was begun to replace deteriorating facilities and ensure equitable schools for all children, Mr. Barnes said.

"I believe after this SPLOST we should be very, very, very close," he said. "I think we're about there with that."

Despite the progress made through the building program, perception remains a stumbling block.

"You can walk into a school and identify a school as white or black based on the people you see when you walk in," Mr. Barnes said. "That's just the way it's perceived."

Nonteaching personnel aren't racially representative of the community, which is what it will take to satisfy the courts.

Board member Frank Dolan is pushing for the case to be resolved, calling it a cloud hanging over Augusta that affects the city's ability to attract businesses.

One of his company's sister companies considered Augusta but passed on it because of the school system, Mr. Dolan said. Aiken County, which was never sued over desegregation, has several large industries.

"We should be drawing companies like no tomorrow," Mr. Dolan said.

The school board is being proactive for a change, Mr. Howard said, and everyone will benefit.

"It hurts everybody when jobs don't come to Augusta," he said. "The growth of Augusta depends on the economy, and the economy depends on big companies coming to Augusta."

Elsewhere

Columbia County also operates under a federal court order. Unlike Richmond County, which was sued by an individual plaintiff, Columbia County is among a group of school systems sued by the Justice Department.

Sandra Carraway, Columbia County's deputy superintendent of student support, said a Justice Department attorney contacted the school system this fall to request information and create movement toward resolving its case.

That information has been compiled and the county could be making headway to resolve its court order, Dr. Carraway said. There is also talk of all the Georgia school systems sued by the Justice Department jointly requesting to have their court orders lifted.

The department contacted Jefferson County, and it was granted "unitary status" in July. This means the school system met the requirements of the court order.

"I think we were working toward a common goal," Jefferson County school board attorney Franklin Edenfield said. "They were interested in closing out a lot of these cases that were not really active."

Reaching unitary status in Richmond County will prove much more difficult because of the size of the school system, Mr. Edenfield said.

"I wouldn't envy Pete (Fletcher) in any way because of the number of schools you're dealing with," he said.

Lift with caution

Among some, there is a fear that Richmond County schools will backslide if the court order is lifted.

Those fears, however, aren't supported by a 2007 report by the Georgia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The committee conducted a statistical analysis of the state's 180 school systems and found no significant movement toward resegregating schools after court orders are resolved.

The report, however, comes with words of caution.

"Given the long and sad history of racial segregation in this state, readers of this report should not necessarily conclude that it is time to quickly eliminate all remaining vestiges of court jurisdiction in this matter without careful and prudent deliberation," it states.

Mr. Barnes said he is confident Richmond County can meet the requirements of the court order.

"Until people accept each other as human beings, we're going to have this, but it's getting there," he said. "We're going to get there."

'Strangest place'

Board member Venus Cain recalled growing up in California and watching the racial tensions of the South play out on TV with bewilderment.

She played with children of different races; why couldn't children in the South?

Mrs. Cain joined the Army and was eventually stationed at Fort Gordon.

"I have traveled all over the world, lived in other countries, other states, and Augusta is the strangest place in the world," she said. "It's like we're stuck in a time warp."

Racism and racial bickering are holding back the school system and the community, Mrs. Cain said.

"I'm going to do what I have to do to move the city forward," she said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

ABOUT THE CASE

WHAT: Acree v. The County Board of Education of Richmond County

WHEN: The lawsuit was filed in 1964. Eight years later, in 1972, the U.S. District Court forced the school system to integrate.

WHO: The lead plaintiff was Robert Acree, whose father, Willie Acree Sr., allowed his son's name to be used on the legal action with about 15 other black community groups as a means to force integration. Willie Acree Sr. died in 1965, never getting to see the how the lawsuit changed the racial landscape of the Richmond County school system.