“Bring Back The White Kids”: A Fight To Integrate In Rural Mississippi

Mar 19, 2013

Tate County, Mississippi.
Credit Map via Wikipedia.

Stacey Hagg is outraged. She pours on her kitchen table years of research: enrollment numbers, meeting minutes and test scores.

“Three inch binder full of papers, letters, emails, petitions, news articles,” says Hagg.

The Haggs are one of the few white families still sending its children to almost all black Coldwater Attendance Center in rural Tate County, Mississppi.

“I would like to see a bigger mix in the race. My kids are the minority in school,” says Hagg. “They are okay with that, so I’m okay with that.”

But she’s not okay with the quality of the school suffering as it becomes majority black.

Her fight started after the Tate County School District in rural northern Mississippi built a brand new high school 15 miles away from the old high school. Attendance lines were redrawn and what was once a diverse single school became two: brand new Strayhorn--almost 90 percent white--and old Coldwater--nearly 90 percent black.

Angela Merritt traces her finger over a map of the segregating school lines. Nearly half a century ago, a school bus took Merritt down these same roads to a state segregated school. She’s one of several black parents that have joined Hagg to fight.

“I don’t think we’ve come nowhere,” says Merritt. “I think that the people whose mindsets have changed by the desegregation of schools have moved away from here!”

Right now the Coldwater’s test scores are a full letter grade lower than Strayhorn’s. For her part, Merritt says she doubts “separate but equal” status is even possible.

“Bring back the white kids,” says Merritt. “Because if you don’t bring back the white kids we aren’t going to get an education here.”

Angela Merritt (Left) with daughters Gabby and Larasha.
Credit Photo by Kristian Weatherspoon.

Research may be on Merritt’s side. Rick Kahlenberg is a Senior Fellow with the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

“The social science research on this question is really pretty settled: economically and racially segregated schools are bad for students,” says Kahlenberg.

So, Kahlenberg says, if Tate County- or more broadly the rest of Mississippi and the rest of the country – is serious about improving outcomes, there has to be strong action to re-integrate.

Superintendent James Malone took over Tate County Schools after it became racially divided. He says he is working hard to improve the quality of both schools. And he says, there is already an option for addressing re-segregation: an active 1970s court order allows residentially segregated students to self integrate.

“What we call a majority to minority transfer. In other words, a black student in Coldwater could transfer to Strayhorn, if they so desired,” says Malone. “A white student in Strayhorn could transfer to Coldwater, if they so desired.”

Larasha Mallard, a college student who graduated from Coldwater, does not think there is enough political will for optional integration.

“I think people are just so tired of the fight,” says Mallard. “They are like this is the way it’s always was."

So, she says, there is a final option – file a complaint with the US Department of Justice. A letter has since been sent, and they expect a response by the end of the school year. Mallard says in the late 1960s, federal intervention got results. More than 40 years later, she says, that may still be what it takes.

An interactive map of the racial divide of the two school zones, and more from the Southern Education Desk's Resegregation Series is available here.