On a typically steamy Alabama summer day in 1970, a three-judge federal panel that had convened in Montgomery reluctantly ordered rural Sumter County, a farming community some 133 miles west in the Black Belt, to desegregate its schools immediately.
“Each member of this court is acutely aware of the customs and traditions of the people of this section of our country,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Rives, and U.S. District Judges Frank M. Johnson Jr. and H.H. Grooms wrote in their ruling, according to a United Press International wire service report. “We enter this order in this case with the full realization that [ . . .] the student body in the Sumter County school system will, in all probability, be composed of only Negro students.”
Total desegregation — not a process of gradual integration that would keep open some all-black schools, as Sumter County had proposed — was the only way to comply with the Department of Justice’s mandates, the judges wrote. But, they warned, it would only lead to white flight.
“Of course, this is not good for either race,” the panel wrote. “We have searched for a solution and found none.”
For nearly five decades, their prediction held true. Finally, on Monday morning, University Charter School, Sumter County’s first integrated school, opened its doors.
The date was Aug. 13, 2018.
“More than half of the school’s 300-plus students are black, while just under half are white,” AL.com’s Trisha Powell Crain reported. “While not fully representative of the county’s split — 76 percent black, 24 percent white, no public school in the county has come close to reaching the percentage at UCS, according to historical enrollment documents.”
That’s because when a new school year started in the fall of 1970, Sumter County’s response to forced integration went exactly how the federal judges who ordered it had feared. Rather than enroll their children in schools whose student body reflected the county’s majority-black population, white parents simply sent them to Sumter Academy, a newly opened private school, instead.
Nicknamed “segregation academies,” similar all-white private schools cropped up across the South in the years after the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. An unknown number remain open — in 2012, the Hechinger Report identified more than 35 in Mississippi alone.
The result was that public schools, though technically no longer segregated, were almost entirely black. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights would later note that in 1968, before the court order, Sumter County had three predominantly white public schools that only a handful of black students attended. In 1970, one counted only four white students in attendance, while another had no white students at all. The third had closed down.
“Although Sumter County government officials maintain that the private academies have no race restrictions for students, they admit that no blacks attend them,” the Commission on Civil Rights pointed out in a 1983 report. That year, whites made up roughly 30 percent of the population in the county, yet only 2 percent of students enrolled in public schools were white.
In 1987, the Montgomery Advertiser reported Sumter County was one of several Alabama communities where integration had plainly failed. In the Black Belt, which gets its name both from the dark topsoil found in the region and the fact that the majority of residents are African American, the few white students enrolled in public schools were only there because their parents couldn’t afford $1,000 a year for private school tuition, the paper found.
“I know one white man who sent his child into our system,” David Jones, the black superintendent of the Sumter County Board of Education, told the Advertiser. “It lasted a year. The pressure on him was unreal.”
White parents — some of whom taught at public schools themselves — were largely unwilling to explain why they sent their children to all-white private schools. “That’s nobody’s business but mine,” one man told the paper, insisting that he remain anonymous. “It’s my choice to make, and I don’t have to answer to anybody for it.”
The racial breakdown didn’t look much different 20 years later. During the 2015-2016 school year, Sumter Academy reported having 170 students, none of whom were black. By contrast, 1,562 of the 1,593 students enrolled in Sumter County public schools were black, according to statistics from the Alabama State Department of Education.
“We shop in the same place. We eat at the same restaurant,” Julene Delaine, a member of the school board, told WBHM in 2016. “So why can’t our kids go to school together?”
Then, in June 2017, Sumter Academy closed for good, citing the area’s population decline. Enrollment had gradually been shrinking, and only 50 students had been signed up for the following school year, the Tuscaloosa News reported.
“The sad part about it is there’s always been a need for this school in Sumter County,” headmaster Glenn Sanders told WTOK. “And now, it’s not here and quite honestly, it’s almost like someone died.”
University Charter School, which became the county’s first integrated public school when it opened this week, may have also played a role. “It all got started back when they said they would have a charter school,” Joe Nettles, Sumter Academy’s head football coach, told the Tuscaloosa News in 2017. “I think people could see the end in sight with this.”
Although charter schools are frequently accused of furthering racial segregation, the exact opposite seems to have happened in Sumter County. The K-8 school has no admission requirements, according to AL.com, and 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, suggesting that the school community is economically as well as racially diverse.
One parent, Markeitha Tolliver, told AL.com that the school “will work wonders for the community.”
“Change is good,” she said. “It’s been a slow process, but it’s happening,”