CLEVELAND, Miss. — As 76 seniors from East Side High School’s Class of 2016 made their way across the modest stage one by one, each drew rambunctious applause, the most forceful cheers coming from four dozen members of the school’s Class of 1966.
Fifty years after their own commencement, they returned to this small town near the Mississippi River to celebrate the students from a poor and working-class neighborhood anchored to the high school bearing its name. Like them, the newest graduates were in an all-black class, in an all-black school, in a place the federal government insists is as segregated as it ever has been.
But change could be coming to Cleveland.
The city has been ordered by a federal judge to desegregate its schools after five decades of litigation, and these black families, boasting generations of East Side graduates, might soon be sending their sons and daughters to the town’s other high school, the historically white one, a mile away. Citing East Side as the proof, Judge Debra M. Brown wrote that the town has failed to confront its segregated past, that it has been violating children’s civil rights, and that it is the school district’s duty “to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.”
Racial desegregation in the United States has never been simple, and Cleveland is no exception. Yes, a set of old railroad tracks once served as a dividing line, but that’s not entirely true anymore. Cleveland High, formerly for whites only, is now evenly split between white and black; East Side has seen academic improvement and instills great loyalty in its graduates. Many people here believe that in trying to uphold an abstract ideal of integration, crafted many years ago by Supreme Court justices in faraway Washington, the federal government risks destroying the delicate progress that schools here have managed to make.
Others disagree, seeing logic in the argument that Cleveland’s schools are still separate and still not equal. The debate, which has spanned generations and has pitted tradition against notions of progress, has not broken cleanly along racial lines and draws no consensus here.
“We’ve been talking about combining these schools forever,” said Ruth Hardrict, 66, an East Side alumna and lifelong Cleveland resident, as she sat on a porch covered in sunflower-seed shells last week. “It hasn’t happened yet, and no matter what they say, I don’t think it ever will.”
When the Class of 1966 graduated, East Side was the only high school the students were allowed to attend, and they were the first class to graduate after dozens of black families first went to court to press for racial integration.
Now, more than six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregated schools in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, students here choose where they go to school, and many black children travel west to attend Cleveland High, which has in recent years become one of the most integrated schools in the Mississippi Delta. But East Side remains as it was.
The decision reverberated nationally with education officials, civil rights activists and black Americans, who counted a victory in the ongoing fight for school integration.
Cleveland’s population has declined over the decades, and both high schools are now too small for each to offer a full array of classes and extracurricular activities, according to proponents of consolidation, who say a single school could offer more opportunities to students. That practical concern has emerged as one of the most widely embraced arguments in favor of the merger.
“You could open the kids’ minds to things they’ve never seen,” Keith White, the father of an East Side student, said in court last year. “You could actually have a science club that matters, math club that is proficient. You could also get other things like chess; maybe you could get a wrestling team, maybe you could get ballet.”
But to many Cleveland families, black and white, consolidation is synonymous with loss.
Hardrict’s home sits within spitting distance of East Side. From the stoop, she points to the trees that line the front of the campus, which she and her friends — all members of the Class of 1970 — helped plant.
Her older sister was among the first black children to attend Cleveland High. Hardrict’s son also went there; her two daughters chose East Side.
“If the kids here want to go to Cleveland High, let ’em go,” Hardrict said, as two of her grandsons rolled around in the front-yard dirt with their 8-week-old chihuahua mix. “And if the kids from across town want to come over here to East Side, let them come. But don’t force us to give up our school.”
The racial integration of U.S. schools peaked in the 1980s, but segregation has been creeping back since: From 2001 to 2014, the number of schools with populations of more than 75 percent low-income and more than 75 percent black and Hispanic students climbed from 9 percent to 16 percent of U.S. schools, according to federal data. The number of schools with low-income students and students of color making up 90 percent or more of the student body more than doubled during that period.
But in this town of 12,000 — a rare community in the Mississippi Delta that still has a sizeable white population — some schools have not integrated at all and some have become more racially mixed.
Locals consider their home, a two-hour drive south of Memphis, a jewel. In a region long identified with crippling poverty, Cleveland’s largest employers include Baxter Inc., a medical-device manufacturer, and Delta State University. A branch of the Grammy Museum is here, as are three major hotel chains and a smattering of restaurants, from a college dance bar to a barbecue spot with a dining room that features a restored 1927 Ford Model T Huckster.
In 1965, when Cleveland’s schools weren’t integrating as required, 131 black children and their families went to court to force the district’s hand. Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Penn State University, said the Cleveland case highlights weaknesses in the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling that contributed to the slow pace of desegregation across the South.
“It shows that the Brown decision, for all of its eloquence, didn’t say anything about how do you actually accomplish this,” she said.
Cleveland schools remained legally segregated until a federal judge issued a desegregation order in 1969. But instead of integrating the schools, he drew new attendance zones around the town’s segregated neighborhoods. Two more decades passed before the Justice Department intervened, and the school district, under renewed legal pressure, introduced magnet programs that helped to integrate its six elementary schools.
The district also began allowing students to transfer to schools where they would be in the racial minority. Many black students moved, but white students didn’t, leaving two schools — a middle school and East Side High — entirely black. (State data for East Side show that 368 out of 369 students there this school year are black.)
An academic turnaround at East Side has been gaining steam. According to 2014-2015 statewide data, about three quarters of the student body at each Cleveland high school graduated on time, just below the state average. East Side’s stronger overall test scores in the 2013-2014 school year earned it a better state rating: It got a “B,” and Cleveland a “C.”
In 2011, the Obama administration asked a federal judge to force Cleveland to desegregate. In a 3,700-student district that is 30 percent white, Justice Department lawyers said, there shouldn’t be schools that are 99 percent black.
A judge agreed, but his plan to adopt an open-enrollment system drew federal opposition and didn’t pass muster with the appeals court. The case was reassigned to Brown, who heard testimony from both sides in May 2015. Several parents said consolidating the secondary schools would make financial sense and could heal racial divisions.
Leroy Byars, a former East Side principal and football coach, said that he always had trouble getting resources for his students, and that the students felt they weren’t treated as well as those on the other side of town.
Byars, whose name adorns the East Side football field, said that the black community’s deep loyalty to the school does not outweigh the benefits of putting all Cleveland’s students under one roof.
“You know, the pride for East Side High School will always be within the hearts of East Side graduates,” Byars testified.
Cleveland’s school district — whose superintendent is black, as are two of five board members — argued that it is more racially balanced than some Southern school districts that have been released from court-ordered desegregation plans.
Gary Gainspoletti, a Cleveland alderman who testified at the 2015 hearing, believes that consolidation threatens to destabilize the foundation of the town’s economic well-being, because the school system is a draw for businesses.
Parents of both races in Cleveland are nervous, he said in an interview this week, because they know how forced integration played out across much of the South: Whites fled to private schools, leaving all-black public school systems behind.
“They’ve seen what’s happened there, and their reaction is: How much longer before it happens here?” he said.
It could be a long time before anything changes in Cleveland, if it changes at all.
Brown, who took a year to issue her ruling, has not established a timeline for consolidation. The school district has said that it is considering an appeal, saying in a statement that “the undeniable truth is that the Cleveland School District’s population is integrated and has been for decades.”
East Side Principal Randy Grierson, who is white, wouldn’t comment on the school’s future, citing the pending lawsuit. Just inside the door to his office hangs a framed letter from Carey Wright, the state schools superintendent, congratulating him on East Side’s academic turnaround.
“At East Side High School you have demonstrated what happens when teachers and school leaders demand more from students and provide them with the support to reach higher expectations,” Wright wrote in the November 2014 letter.
Some East Side parents and teachers say they finally have a quality school, and they don’t want a court to steal that away.
“I don’t understand why people are so concerned by our corner of the world. It works for us here, so what the hell do ya’ll care?” said Skip Golden, 59, a white special-education teacher at East Side.
There are worries that consolidation will lead to a loss of teaching jobs, federal grant dollars and slots on sports teams.
“I think a lot of it is in the athletics,” said Kandy Michell, 44, a Cleveland High School alumna whose twin sons graduated from her alma mater last week.
A town with only one high school would have half as many spots on its football, baseball and basketball teams, Michell said. When white families discuss leaving the district if the schools are consolidated, they are often most concerned about sports, she said.
“I really don’t think a lot of the cases have been a black-white issue,” said Michell, who is white and has lived in Cleveland since she was 2. “I think it’s more that their kids can excel at a sport that they’re good at if they leave and go to a smaller private school, so a lot of families will be considering it.”
She said she doesn’t believe the school system is racist or discriminatory, but she also doesn’t oppose consolidation. Her main concern, she said, is losing the school’s name and mascot.
“People that went to East Side bleed Trojan, and we bleed Wildcat,” she said.
There are plenty of people here who say they would welcome the change.
Some East Side seniors questioned why a town their size needs two high schools, including Angela Jackson, 18, East Side’s valedictorian, who said one school would give everyone the same opportunities. Others said the opposition to consolidation is fueled by adults too tied up in tradition.
“Right now we’re separated by those train tracks,” said Brianna D. Jones, 18, who sang in the East Side choir and plans to start classes in the fall at Coahoma Community College, in Clarksdale, Miss. “If they combine the schools, it will be a great act of unity for our community.”
Members of the East Side High Class of 1966 said it is time for a resolution.
J.C. Foster, 68, the starting shortstop for East Side’s baseball team 50 years ago, returned to Cleveland for commencement last week. Now a truck driver in Minnesota, he said he remembers the excitement of taking on the crosstown rivals in the 1960s, but he says he doesn’t have any concerns about a merger.
“It’s always been a proud school,” Foster said of East Side, but it’s not 1966 anymore. “The schools need to be combined. We need change. Change is good.”
Brown reported from Washington. Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.