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Black Alabama students continue to face disproportionate access to education in state school districts 

In separate federal court cases dating back to 1963, two Alabama school systems reached agreements to expand opportunities and resources for Black students. But more than 700 school districts and charter schools nationwide are subject to similar cases and a recent study indicates progress varies.

LAFAYETTE, Ala. (CN) — The inequities between LaFayette High School and Valley High School, both in Chambers County, were evident when Dr. Travis C. Smith was a student there some 15 years ago.  

“My experience was great in high school,” Smith recalled. “It's a small school and it's a family oriented school. But going into Lafayette High, I always knew that there were certain things that Valley High students had access to that we didn't have access to and that's just the way it was. Once I went to college and saw the different opportunities that other students had in their own high schools, it dawned on me that we were missing out on a lot of opportunities.” 

In 2021, the enrollment of LaFayette High School was 85% Black. Comparatively, Valley High was only 37% Black. That same year, 60% of students at LaFayette were characterized as economically disadvantaged and the school’s graduation rate was 80%. But by state standards, only half of LaFayette graduates were considered college and career ready.  

On the other hand, 51% of students at Valley High were considered economically disadvantaged and 92% of seniors graduated. Two out of three were characterized as college and career ready.  

“Anybody in LaFayette will tell you the same thing, they know that Valley High has always been a high school that has had way more opportunities and resources and than LaFayette and the same goes for other schools in the district,” Smith said, noting Valley has provided math, science, technology, arts and athletic programs beyond what is offered at LaFayette.  

Smith went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Alabama State University and a doctorate in educational leadership from Clemson. He returned to LaFayette High for a brief teaching stint and then launched a nonprofit organization, Unite Inc., to help disenfranchised students at LaFayette and elsewhere prepare for college. Unite’s two-year program, introduced in 2011, has a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college matriculation rate. Its students have been awarded nearly $45 million in scholarships. 

More recently, the Chambers County School Board hired Smith as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, tasked with helping craft a settlement agreement in a federal desegregation case dating back six decades. He’s also on the faculty of the University of Florida College of Education. 

As the school year begins Aug. 8, the first implications of the agreement will materialize. Last month,  U.S. District Court Judge W. Keith Watkins ordered the immediate closing of three primary schools in the district, along with the introduction of a STEAM academy and conversion of another elementary school to a magnet program for students in grades K-8. Chambers County will also establish a Desegregation Advisory Committee as a result of the order, which will monitor the agreement and begin the process of consolidating the two high schools.  

The agreement remained contentious, Watkins noted, and the parties were faced with "the unenviable and impossible task of trying to please everyone.” 

“But someone has to make a decision,” he wrote. “Or else this sixty-year-old case would last for another sixty years.” 

Further up state, the Department of Justice reached a separate agreement in July with the Madison County School Board to provide equal educational opportunities for Black students there, while also prompting the board to fulfill the obligations of its own longstanding school desegregation case.

In Madison County, the DOJ determined Black students were disproportionately provided access to advanced course study, were disciplined more often and more severely than white students for conduct infractions and "the district’s recruitment and hiring processes left several schools without a single Black faculty member.” 


According to a 2020 study by The Century Foundation, 43 school districts or charter schools in Alabama are among the 772 nationwide subject to some form of legal desegregation order or voluntary agreement. TCF Fellow Michelle Burris, who co-authored the study, said more concerning is that nearly 40% of Black and Latino students still attend “hypersegregated” schools — where more than 90% of students are non-white — and often, there is no system of oversight for federal desegregation cases.  

In Anniston, for example, the study found that while “the community overall is roughly split between Black and White residents, its public schools are roughly 90 percent Black.” Anniston has been under a desegregation order dating back to 1963, but “there are no discernable plans for desegregation or integration in the district’s policy manual, and the community’s schools continue to have high levels of segregation.” 

Officials in the Anniston indicated they had no desire to seek unitary status under the desegregation order, meaning the case will be free from judicial oversight, but neither the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division nor the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights have required any further action from the district. 

“I think we're still talking about desegregation because we have not eliminated the sources of segregation that were outlined in Brown v. Board in 1954,” Burris said. “The Supreme Court decision said school districts must desegregate and that they must also eliminate the vestiges of segregation. This includes teacher segregation, segregation of students by races, we see the segregation of resources, segregation of curriculum and even in 2022, we still are fighting this battle.” 

Burris also pointed to ongoing housing segregation as a particularly significant barrier, adding other attempts at desegregation have actually compounded problems. Particularly, when Black faculty and administrators are fired because Black schools are closed.  

"We need to look back at the implementation of Brown v. Board and figure out where did some things go wrong,” Burris suggested. “That’s not the integration the Supreme Court wanted, and certainly not the integration that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted, so we really have to revisit our housing policies and the sources of segregation to thoughtfully eliminate those vestiges.” 

The Chambers County case was one of at least five filed on behalf of Anthony T. Lee and other students in Macon County who were refused admission to white schools for as much as seven years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board. The law firm of Tuskegee-based Civil Rights attorney Fred Gray, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden July 1, has continually represented the plaintiffs throughout.  

Representatives of the firm did not return requests for comment on the Chambers County desegregation plan, but Gray did speak publicly about the lawsuits in 2013, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the integration of Tuskegee High School.

Gray explained that in 1963, in response to state and local governments dragging their feet or actively preventing desegregation, he filed a flurry of lawsuits targeting local school boards, state agencies and elected officials. In the process, Black students were harassed and intimidated, while white students or parents went so far as to burn down their own schools to prevent integration. 

But in the end, Gray secured orders integrating most Alabama public schools that were not already subject to separate court orders, as well as all of the colleges under the State Board of Education. Those included Troy University, the University of West Alabama, the University of North Alabama and Jacksonville State University. Gray’s orders also merged the African American and white athletic associations, desegregated all trade schools and junior colleges, and protected rights for existing teachers.

“[These cases] are still alive and there are still permanent injunctions outstanding against each of these school systems,” Gray said in 2013. “So if I have reason to believe we have serious problems across this state, at least there is a basic document enjoining these school board to do what they are supposed to do.” 

In LaFayette, Smith said he believes the case in Chambers County has persisted for more than half a century largely out of apathy.  

“I think people just didn't want to do it to be completely honest,” he said. “But lately, the biggest thing is we put the leadership in place and then received the buy-in from the community. I think the current superintendent and the board have made it a priority to settle this particular case.” 

In recent meetings and publications, school officials in Chambers County have largely pitched the desegregation plan as an opportunity to modernize facilities and instructional opportunities. Judge Watkins’ order noted conditions at the three closed primary schools were often described as “deplorable.” 

Smith said in Chambers County, the results of the agreement will be monitored. He is also introducing efforts to increase minority faculty ratios by focusing recruitment efforts on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  

“I think this case will finally address some of those problems,” he said. “In a perfect world, you want to keep your historic neighborhood school open, but you also have to be a good steward of financing and making sure all students have access to equal opportunities and resources. So I think this is the best route for us to come into compliance with the federal mandate, while also providing the best opportunities for those students who have been disenfranchised for decades. And I think the magnet program is going to play a major role in a restorative justice approach.” 

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