Originally created 05/16/04

Equal but separate

Shelita Wright isn't bothered by the lack of racial diversity at Lucy C. Laney High School.

She has noticed that only a handful of white students walk the hallways where her son Jamar is a senior. But Ms. Wright, who is black, cares simply about the quality of her son's education.

"It might make a difference to some people, but it doesn't make a difference to me," she said, "as long as they get into the books and they pass their classes. If they get their education, it shouldn't matter what school they go to, as long as they get their education."

It's been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional in its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. But the goal to create interaction between black and white pupils seems to have stalled in Richmond County.

Though most district schools have both black and white pupils, 35 of the 55 schools have at least 60 percent black enrollment. Of those, 22 have percentages higher than 80.

Nearly one-third of the schools remain at least 90 percent black, including Laney, with 95 percent black enrollment. One school, W.S. Hornsby Elementary, reported a pupil body last year that was 100 percent black.

But some experts say integration wasn't the goal of the Brown ruling. They say the justices simply wanted to desegregate public schools and ensure that white and black children had equal access to a quality education.

Augusta attorney Ben Allen says schools in Richmond County are "on the doorstep" of achieving that goal. He represents the plaintiffs in the 1964 class-action suit Acree v. Richmond County Board of Education, which followed Brown and brought about court-ordered desegregation and supervision of district schools by the 1970s.

"I contend that it has never been about integration. It was desegregation and quality education," he said. "I would prefer that there be some diversity. But I am not going to sit here and tell you that quality education cannot go on simply because a school is one race."

Schools have not been as racially unbalanced since 1968, the start of a series of Supreme Court decisions, including Acree, that put muscle into court rulings on desegregation, said researcher Gary Orfield, a co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Desegregation reached a high point in the late 1980s but has since eroded, his research shows. Most white, black and Hispanic pupils still go to a school where they are in the racial or ethnic majority.

"The ultimate irony is that a lot of people in 2004 are talking about everything else but desegregation, and the country has resegregated many of its public schools," said Theodore Shaw, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which argued the Brown case in court.

Urban researcher John Logan says the lost progress since Brown has been overstated. Desegregation efforts have faltered since the early 1990s, and racial imbalance remains significant.

But the gains of the 1960s and '70s have not been broadly reversed, said Mr. Logan, the director of the Lewis Mumford Center at the University at Albany in New York.

Throughout the United States, the step away from desegregation has resulted largely from court orders mandating that school systems end busing and other attendance policies based on race.

NO ONE WOULD argue that the Richmond County school district is not substantially desegregated, said school board attorney Pete Fletcher. Black and white pupils walk the halls together, take tests together and play sports together, he said.

But, Mr. Fletcher added, the use of pupil ratio quotas, accomplished through controversial busing in the 1970s, was the starting point and not the ultimate goal of desegregation.

"The districts are not required to rearrange attendance each year to ensure that any particular student racial percentage is maintained," he said. "Obviously, the school district will inevitably encounter circumstances that will affect student assignment that is not within its control."

The pupil population of Richmond County was desegregated on an elementary level in January 1972 by a U.S. District Court order that authorized busing. Junior high and high schools accomplished desegregation using "dual purpose zones," which paired school boundaries that overlapped and required black pupils in the overlapping zone to attend the former white school and vice versa.

Since 1972, pupil assignments have been changed only with the approval of the court. A court order in 2001 effectively ended busing.

If there are racially identifiable schools, the court will approve them as long as the district demonstrates that the link between past discrimination and current racial makeup has been broken and is not the cause of the current racial makeup, Mr. Fletcher said.

"Since 1972, the focus in Richmond County is to provide the same education for all students," he said. "The focus in Richmond County for the past 10 years, and particularly since the institution of the America's Choice, Voyager and other research-based programs of the late '90s, has been to improve effective education for all children."

MR. ALLEN, THE plaintiffs' attorney in Acree, frequently tours the schools to make sure the district is following every aspect of the law.

On a recent week, he walked down the hallway of majority-black Terrace Manor Elementary School and listened to Principal Sherbie Parnell point out the cracks in the lunchroom floor, old-looking skylights and lack of storage space.

"I'm going to mention them," Mr. Allen promised her.

He said he will discuss the problems with Superintendent Charles Larke and Mr. Fletcher. And when he does, Mr. Allen said, he will have their undivided attention.

"They will listen," he said.

Mr. Allen remains one of the most visible signs in the fight for equal education. Forty years after the Acree suit was filed, he continues the battle because the district remains under court supervision.

He also gets paid for his efforts. By court order, the school system pays Mr. Allen $200 an hour in attorney fees for his work in monitoring progress. Last year, the district paid Mr. Allen $8,800 for 41 hours of work, including school visits, community meetings on rezoning and office research. In 2001, he earned $8,580 for 42 hours of work.

Under the Acree suit, the board is required to satisfy six areas - pupil assignment, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities - before court supervision can end.

In 1994, Mr. Fletcher was quoted in The Augusta Chronicle as saying "we're close" to asking for an end to court supervision. A decade later, there has been little movement, and he said the school board has not taken the necessary action.

It's generally accepted that Richmond County has met four of six categories, all but staff and facilities:

l Staff: Clerical, custodial and school nutrition staff must be diverse at each school and reflect statistics for the entire school district.

The county has a pupil enrollment of 70 percent black, 25 percent white, 2 percent Hispanic, 2 percent multiracial and 1 percent Asian. District-wide, minorities represent 68 percent of the employees in those jobs, but the court requires individual schools to have a similar ratio.

l Facilities: All schools must be equal, with repairs and updates performed on a consistent basis for each.

Current construction plays a large role in satisfying the facilities requirement, Mr. Allen said.

"One of the agreements we had was once we got to a certain point with the construction projects, we take an honest look at closure. That's basically where we are," he said. "In past history, when you talk about construction, for whatever reason, most of your tax dollars were always spent in those areas that were serving white population.

"Now, that was years past. I don't think you can make a blanket argument about that anymore. If you look at construction now, the school board has done a good job of dividing money across the county."

Though the courts allow systems to come out of lawsuits incrementally, the board has not asked Mr. Fletcher to pursue that. Some school board members admit they are reluctant to end the court's oversight because of strong feelings in the black community.

Mr. Allen said court oversight will end when the school board and the community have a real discussion.

"All of us need to sit down and honestly talk about the lawsuit and move toward reaching a conclusion," he said. "The court has asked us to honestly look at concluding the case. I think we are moving in that direction. Those things that we list as concerns several years ago, we moved toward resolving those.

"I think here in Richmond County, students who attend public schools are receiving a quality education. ... I'm not saying they are receiving a perfect education because I don't know what a perfect education is. But I believe the students are receiving a quality education."

HEPHZIBAH HIGH School senior Lea Nicole Ross, who is black, has her own ideas about quality education and integration. She was surprised by the school's diversity when she enrolled there four years ago. Hephzibah High School has a good mix: 55 percent black and 40 percent white.

Census figures from 2000 show Richmond County is 50 percent black and 46 percent white.

"When I first came here in ninth grade, I thought it would be all black or all white," Lea said. "The first day of school was like, 'Whoa! There is everybody here.' "

But her thoughts on a quality education are not so positive. Her books leave a lot to be desired. Some math books are torn, their covers worn from years of use.

"I have a literature book that has been there forever. Literally, it has been there forever," she said. "It has been through six or seven students. They say we are supposed to get new books next year. But they said that last year."

Lea, 17, said she saw the impact of the Brown decision throughout Richmond County schools. When her grandmother was a teacher at the majority-black Lucy C. Laney High School, she got another perspective.

"I think the education in all of Richmond County is the same," she said. "It is how the students and the teachers take it. We all take things differently. That is the only difference. Some want to learn and some don't."

She only wishes Laney had the diversity of Hephzibah, where she has classmates from all cultures.

"I have friends that are black, white, Filipino, Puerto Rican. You learn things from other cultures," she said. "That is one of the experiences that everybody should have."

Laney senior Ashley Williamson said she doesn't have much of a cultural mix.

She identified herself as one of five remaining whites in a pupil population of 700. In 1972, the school had 85 white pupils.

Now, Ashley knows each of the remaining white pupils by name and classification.

Two seniors. One sophomore. Two freshmen.

Ashley said more whites are zoned for the school, but they use other people's addresses so they don't have to attend.

That explains the reaction she gets when people see her race and notice from her class ring what school she attends.

"It's a look of disgust," she said. "Probably just old-school racism, hatred."

Ashley, 17, said Laney's education would compare to schools with a large white population.

"Some people think Laney, as far as academics, is a bad school. But it's not," she said. "It's what you make it. Some people won't pay attention. There is always goof-offs. But at Laney, there is always a demanding workload."

Fifty years after segregation was banned, Ashley said many of the same feelings remain.

"It's good that schools are desegregated, but at the same time the areas we are in, there is still a lot of that old racism left," she said. "The generation coming up doesn't care about it, but there is still a lot of the old generation, and people have passed it down from generation to generation. People still have that segregated mentality."

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.


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