A public charter school in the rural town of Livingston, Alabama, opened its doors on Monday and made history: It was Sumter County’s first integrated school, AL.com reported. How—almost 65 years after the Brown v. Board Supreme Court case—was that possible?
Partly because of an old tactic used to thwart federal civil rights mandates. There have been other, more widespread systemic roadblocks to integration, such as racist political scheming and redlining, that have made unofficial segregation resilient (and in some cases resurgent) across the country. But in the South, the legacy of “segregation academies” has stymied educational equality throughout the region.
Sumter County, Alabama, is part of the Black Belt, a rural region named after its dark, rich soil and known also for its mostly black population, a legacy of its plantation slavery days. The county’s population is about 76 percent black, yet its public schools are more than 99 percent black. In fact, all but 11 of the 1,500 students in Sumter County public schools in the last school year were black, according to AL.com.
The white students in the county went to the other available educational institution: Sumter Academy. Those familiar with the Southern educational landscape might recognize the school’s original purpose from its name and founding date: 1970, just one year after the Supreme Court ordered Alabama schools to immediately desegregate (though 15 years after the Brown v. Board ruling, as the state was skilled at delaying the implementation of federal civil rights decisions). Sumter Academy opened as a workaround to forced integration, and it’s just one of many former “segregation academies” across the South.
As Southern states found they could no longer put off public school integration, white parents in the late ’60s and early ’70s fled the system by enrolling their children in a network of whites-only private schools that suddenly cropped up. Whites-only private schools were not, of course, a new phenomenon: They had long existed around the country for the children of wealthy to be set apart. The difference was that these segregation academies were designed as a direct response to the broadening of civil rights.
These schools have since integrated, at least officially, and some have actively pushed to diversify, for reasons both moral—as new generations took over the leadership of the schools—and practical—as some needed to diversify to qualify for some types of funding, for example. But many remain overwhelmingly white and feed into a system of education inequality that persists to this day.
In Sumter County, the education system continued to feature all-black public schools and an all-white private school. Over the years, the private school’s attendance declined. Some attributed it to white families moving from the area to seek other job opportunities or to put their children in other school districts. At the end of the 2016–17 school year, Sumter Academy closed, with some claiming that the coming charter school had finished it off. Supporters of the public charter school have praised it for bringing white and black students together for the first time. Critics have said it is another way for white families to avoid the other public schools. This year’s inaugural class has slightly more black students than white.
Explainer thanks Hilary Green, Philo Hutcheson, John Giggie, and Vincent Willis of the University of Alabama and R. Volney Riser of the University of West Alabama.