Six Words: 'Segregation Should Not Determine Our Future'
The investigative journalism group ProPublica, with reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, has just completed a yearlong project, Segregation Now, exploring the re-segregation of schools in the U.S., with a particular look at Tuscaloosa, Ala.
In partnership with ProPublica, The Race Card Project went to Tuscaloosa to collect resident's six-word stories about changes in the racial makeup of their city.
NPR Special Correspondent Michele Norris, curator of The Race Card Project, joined Morning Edition host David Greene to share what she and NPR producer Walter Ray Watson learned in Tuscaloosa.
Sixty years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated American schools, Brown v. Board of Education, a yearlong ProPublica investigation found that many schools across the country are back where they were under Jim Crow segregation: racially isolated and under-resourced.
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., the story of the Dent family underscores what's happened to schools in that city over the past three generations.
James Dent, a 64-year-old African-American, described watching the roller coaster of integration in his city — from segregation to integration and now back to segregation, Norris says.
His six words for The Race Card Project: "We went to all-black schools."
Dent and his wife were part of a generation that saw promise in school integration. And for a time, the local high school, Central High, was a model for integration. Central produced National Merit scholars and winning baseball, football and basketball teams. The school dominated the math championships. Dent's daughter went there and had a great experience.
But, as ProPublica found, it was hard to maintain that level of integration. First, white families started to peel away. Then, over time, something else happened: "bright flight." Middle-class black families also peeled away from the neighborhood, leaving it not just racially isolated but economically isolated as well.
'A Lot Happens Over Here'
Those shifts had a tremendous impact on Tuscaloosa. Today, schools in the Dents' neighborhood, like Central High, have a white population of less than 1 percent.
"You see Central getting smaller and smaller," James Dent says. "I don't know why. Central High School is getting smaller and smaller."
Dent's wife, Beverly, has some opinions as to why. "A lot happens over here, for one thing," she says. "You know, like shootings, robbery and stuff like that — that happens over here. Now, it might happen on [the white] side too, but I think it happens over here a lot more than it does over there. And the whites are scared."
There are other schools in the city with more resources than Central. Those schools, like Bryant High, have relatively large white populations. And the larger community views the schools differently, Beverly Dent says.
"I think Central is not — what's the word I'm looking for? They look at Central lower than they do Bryant," Beverly says. Once upon a time, she says, "when you went out in the world and said you were from Central, people would say, 'Wow, that's a good school.' ... You got a lot of good people coming out of there, going to college and stuff."
But James Dent's granddaughter, D'Leisha Dent, has had a different experience. She's about to graduate from Central High, and has her own six words for The Race Card Project: "Segregation should not determine our future."
The 17-year-old is very proud of her school, with its large brick building just a stone's throw from the University of Alabama.
But as the neighborhood changed, the school changed. D'Leisha says she's especially aware of that when she hears her mother, Melissa Dent, talk about Central High's heyday — during that brief period when it was integrated. Melissa had friends of all races, including people she still keeps in touch with today.
But things are different for D'Leisha.
'I'm Gonna Stay On It'
"Me and my friends always talk about how we wish the schools were not segregated. And, like, we wish we could interact with more Caucasian people, 'cause they seem fun," D'Leisha says. "I don't really know how they are outside of school, but I wish we could have interacted with more people."
And the community, D'Leisha says, doesn't "expect much" from Central students. "They have low expectations from us. ... It's just some people — they expect low. They don't expect anything from Central High School."
But D'Leisha has her own inner compass, Norris says. And like so many other high school kids right now, D'Leisha runs to the mailbox every day looking for a college admission letter.
"I do what I have to do," D'Leisha says. "I'm in honors class, AP — advanced placement — and don't settle for less. So when it comes down to my work, I'm gonna stay on it."
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene, good morning.
It is time now for another installment from The Race Card Project where NPR's Michele Norris collects Six-Word Stories on Race and Cultural Identity. Six word thoughts like this from a high school student in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
D'LEISHA DENT: My name is D'Leisha Dent. I am 17 years old. I am a senior at Central High School. My six words are: Segregation Should Not Determine Our Future.
GREENE: Segregation Should Not Determine Our Future, those were D'Leisha Dent's six words. But the 17-year-old student might as well have said re-segregation should not determine our future. Sixty years after the Brown versus Board of Education landmark Supreme Court desegregation case, some schools are as they were under Jim Crow - racially isolated and under-resourced.
Those are the findings of a yearlong investigation by ProPublica. To understand how and why schools are slipping back into segregation, ProPublica examined the city of Tuscaloosa and partnered with The Race Card Project to collect stories on what people thought of those changes.
NPR's Michele Norris runs The Race Card Project and she joins us now. Michele, welcome back.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Good to be here.
GREENE: So first, just a recap on this partnership with ProPublica and what you heard from residents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
NORRIS: Well, David, as our listeners heard yesterday in your conversation with ProPublica reporter Nickole Hannah-Jones, she did some fantastic reporting on the political, social and demographic changes that have lead to the re-segregation of schools in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere. And ProPublica wanted to hear people's thoughts on what they thought of those changes. And so they asked us to collect some Six-Word Stories.
GREENE: And focusing on one family, the Dent family - tell us about the family.
NORRIS: Well, producer - NPR producer Walter Ray Watson and I traveled to Tuscaloosa to spend time with the Dent family, because their story really underscores what happened in Tuscaloosa. And remember D'Leisha Dent's six words...
NORRIS: ...Segregation Should Not Determine Our Future? Well, to understand the irony of that statement we should reach back further in the family to hear from her grandfather. He's 64-year-old. He spends his days mixing concrete. And he also attended segregated schools because that was the law many years ago.
JAMES DENT: My name is James Dent and my six words is: We Went To All Black Schools.
NORRIS: We Went To All Black Schools. And if you hear a little weariness in his voice, David, it's because James Dent watched the rollercoaster of integration in his city - segregation to integration, now back to re-segregation - and he was part of that generation. He and his wife were both part of that generation that thought integrating the schools would be the answer.
GREENE: Well, remind us how that effort worked out.
NORRIS: Well, it worked for a time. Central High School was a model of integration. They produced Merit Scholars. They produced top football, baseball, basketball teams. They dominated the math championships. Her mother went to that school and had a great experience. But the ProPublica investigation found that it was very hard to maintain that level of integration, that white families started to peel away.
And then, over time, it was not just white flight but something else happened - bright flight. Middle-class black families also peeled away from the neighborhood. So the neighborhood was not just racially isolated, it was also economically isolated. And that had a tremendous impact on Central.
DENT: Most of the students, they just feel Central is getting smaller and smaller. And I don't know why Central High School is getting smaller and smaller.
BEVERLY DENT: I'll tell you one thing, it is.
NORRIS: David, by the way, that voice you just heard...
GREENE: Another voice said that.
NORRIS: Yes, that we were sitting on the porch when we talked to James Dent. It was a very nice spring day in Tuscaloosa. And his wife, Beverly, who was cooking corn in the kitchen, came out and joined us. And she had very strong opinions on why she thought the neighborhood and the school, Central High, had changed.
DENT: A lot happens over here, for one thing. You know, like shootings, robbery and stuff like that - that happens over here. Now, it might happen on their side, too. But I think it happens over here a lot more than it does over there. And the whites are scared.
GREENE: You mentioned the granddaughter, D'Leisha, her six words; the irony of her six words, the cruel irony that history is kind of repeating itself - the same history that her grandfather knows so well. And the ProPublica piece mentions - I mean they refer to schools today, like Central High in that Tuscaloosa neighborhood as apartheid schools; meaning their white population, as they define it, is less than 1 percent.
And I mean if we think about the Brown versus Board ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren said one of the important issues here is the psychological effects that segregation can have. What does this family say about that?
NORRIS: Well, people should really go back and read the Brown v Board ruling. Chief Justice Earl Warren said that segregated schools can create feelings of inferiority, and he said that that could affect the hearts an minds of young children in a way that's unlikely ever to be undone. Very strong word. And James and Beverly Dent directly address that in comparing their neighborhood high school, Central, to other schools around the city that have better resources and more white student schools like Bryant High School. Listen to what they say.
DENT: I think Central is not - what's the word I'm looking for? They look at Central lower than they do Bryant. Bryant High, don't the white kids go over there? They get a pow from Bryant. You don't get that pow from Central like it was when we were going. You don't get it.
NORRIS: So when you go out in the world and say you're from Central, you used to get a pow. People would say, wow.
DENT: Yeah, wow, that's a good school. Ya'll bad in sports. Ya'll do this, you know, got a lot of good people coming out of there going to college and stuff, you know. Yeah, you get that pow back then.
GREENE: Well, D'Leisha, the granddaughter, is about to graduate from Central. What did she have to say about the reputation of her school today and what it could mean in terms of achievement and also her heart and self-esteem?
NORRIS: Well, we should say from the outset, David, that D'Leisha is very proud of Central High and when you visit the school it's easy to see why. Central is in a beautiful building. They have fantastic sports facilities. It's a stone's throw from the University of Alabama. But as the neighborhood changed, as the middle class families peeled away, as white families peeled away, they lost a lot of support for the school. And D'Leisha knows that - she knows that she doesn't feel that pow that her grandmother described.
NORRIS: And especially when she hears her mother, Melissa Dent, the second generation in that family, talk about what school was like for her when she attended Central during the days of integration. She had lots of white friends, friendships that still continue to this day. D'Leisha knows that things are very different for her.
DENT: Me and my friends always talk about how we wish the schools were not segregated. And like we wish we could interact with more Caucasian people, 'cause they seem fine. Like I don't really know how they are outside of school, but I wish we could've interacted with more people.
NORRIS: How would that happen and why doesn't it happen?
DENT: I really don't know why. I feel that - I don't know. The people, they just don't expect much from us. They have low expectations from us.
DENT: The community. The - I want to say the Board of Education. I don't know. It's just some people, they expect low. They don't expect anything from Central High School.
NORRIS: How do you deal with that?
DENT: I do what I have to do. I'm in honors class, AP, advanced placement, and I - I don't settle for less. So when it comes down to my work, I'm gonna stay on it.
GREENE: Sounds like she stays on it as best she can.
NORRIS: She's got that inner compass, yes. As she said, she's an honors student. She plays basketball, volleyball, she does shot-put and Javelin and track and field, she's a star there. And like so many other high school kids right now, she runs to the mailbox every day looking for an admission letter, hoping that she'll get into a college soon.
And David, before we go, I just want to return to D'Leisha Dent's six words: Segregation should not determine our future. When she says it, it's like a declarative statement, but I wonder if it's really more of a question mark. I mean based on what ProPublica found in their investigation, as schools in Tuscaloosa and across the country slip back into segregation, will that segregation determine the future of so many kids based on opportunity and expectations and esteem.
GREENE: Michele, thanks for introducing us to this family and for coming in, as always.
NORRIS: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Michele Norris curates The Race Card Project. And you can hear more six word essays from Tuscaloosa at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.