A chapter in history was closed this year when a federal judge lifted a 40-year-old court order that forced the desegregation of the Richmond County school system and spurred the racial equality in classrooms today.
The case began in 1964 when a group of activists led by 17-year-old Robert Acree sued the system for blatantly ignoring the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which declared separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional.
By 1972, Richmond County schools remained segregated, and U.S. District Judge Alexander A. Lawrence issued a desegregation order specifying a plan for clustering schools and busing white and black children to learn together.
Over the next few decades, the school system worked to balance the ratios of students, educators, administrators and non-teaching staff such as custodians and school nutrition specialists. The order remained, even as the demographics of the district flipped from majority white to 75 percent black and more blacks took leadership roles as principals and superintendents.
On June 26, U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. ruled that the system had achieved “unitary status” and should be released from the order.
The courts look at six factors established through a landmark 1968 case when determining whether a system is desegregated: student assignment, faculty assignment, staff assignment, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.
In a hearing in federal court June 17 – the 49th anniversary of Acree’s lawsuit – board attorney Pete Fletcher, who has been involved in the case since the 1970s, and Benjamin Allen, who began representing the plaintiffs in 1986, presented evidence showing those six factors had been fulfilled.
In addition to the change in racial ratios of students, millions of dollars in upgrades have been invested in schools across the district and improvements in transportation continue.
Without debating the advances made, some Board of Education members, including Barbara Pulliam, said the order served as a safeguard and oversight to make sure progress didn’t backtrack. In a city with undeniable racial tensions, Pulliam said, there was no harm in keeping the order on the books just in case.
“In Augusta, people deal too much in color,” Pulliam said in June. “The trust isn’t there. Both sides see everything in white and black. A white judge, a black judge. A white sheriff, a black sheriff. It’s like living in the ’60s. So I don’t think either side is ready to be without it.”
Board member Frank Dolan often said he felt the order was a mark on the city’s image and discouraged industry from coming.
After the order was lifted, nothing changed immediately except on paper. The school system has non-discriminatory employment practices and will continue with them, officials said.
Because the order allowed the district’s magnet schools to use race as a factor in the admissions process, Superintendent Frank Roberson said at the time that his staff would have to re-examine policies to prepare for the 2014-15 class.
Allen said there have been no formal meetings since the order was lifted, and he’s comfortable moving forward without the oversight. He said the school system now has a diverse leadership that is responsible for maintaining equality.
“The main thing I want the school system to focus on is educating children, that’s it,” he said. “Irregardless of color, ethnicity, what have you … I think if you continue to have the balance that we have on the board and the community continues to push for educating children, we’re going to be OK.”