Teaching Brown in Tuscaloosa

Learning about their community's civil rights history inspires students to action

By Alison Schmitke

Illustrator: World Wide Photo

Photo: World Wide Photo
Alabama Gov. George Wallace stands at the entrance of Foster Auditorum in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1963. Wallace vowed to prevent integration of the campus.

I teach social studies to ninth through 12th grade students at Paul W. Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., just a few miles from where Gov. Wallace made his infamous stand at the schoolhouse doors at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. We’re also just an hour away from Birmingham, where Police Chief “Bull” Connor turned water cannons on young civil rights protesters.

Usually the challenge of a government/economics teacher is to make historical material seem relevant to students’ lives. But that’s not the case when I teach civil rights; in fact, some of that history is so close to home that my students’ emotions can sometimes overwhelm the point of my lessons. When I show pictures or videos of the scenes from 1960s civil rights struggles, occasionally my African-American students recognize relatives in the pictures. Once a white student told me he spotted an uncle in one of the counter-protests.

My challenge is to help my students learn how to talk about these emotionally charged issues and to help them understand the connections between Tuscaloosa’s present and the freedom fighting past in Alabama and the South.

The History of Our School

The Brown decision originally came to Tuscaloosa in September 1979, when the federal courts ruled that the district had not sufficiently eliminated a segregated school system. That year, Druid High (the all-black school) merged with Tuscaloosa High (the all-white school). The new school was renamed Central High, and after significant white flight to county and private schools, the school settled into a 30 percent white/70 percent black demographic. This arrangement lasted 20 years. Many of my students’ parents were in the first classes attending Central.

In 1999, a federal court lifted the desegregation order. The school board immediately proposed plans to restructure Central High, sparking a debate about whether the district should retain a mega school (one large high school of approximately 1800 students) or build three neighborhood schools (each consisting of approximately 800 students). Proponents of neighborhood schools argued that students would attend schools closer to their homes and white flight would be thwarted. Supporters of the mega school called the three-school plan an attempt to resegregate the high school. Several polls revealed that citizens, students, and teachers preferred the mega school plan.

The school board ignored these polls and allocated funds for the construction of three new high schools: Northridge, Bryant, and Central. Northridge High School and Bryant High School were zoned as integrated, middle-class suburban schools with roughly 50 percent African-American and 50 percent white students. But Central High’s population was 100 percent African-American, with high concentrations of low-income and low-performing students.

To complicate matters, in the fall of 2003 students attending Bryant and Northridge entered new buildings. After the old Central High was demolished, the black students were relocated to the building that had housed Druid High School 25 years ago — the site of the last segregated all-black high school. That school will be demolished in fall 2006.

It’s important to understand this in a national context. Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, is the director of the Civil Rights Project. He authored a report released in January 2004 titled “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?” Orfield points out major increases in segregation where court-ordered desegregation has ended and vastly unequal resources for intensely segregated schools with a majority of low-income students of color. I believe the restructuring in Tuscaloosa reflects an alarming resegregation drift — most significantly in the South “where the court decisions and civil rights laws had produced the most integrated schools in the nation for three decades,” according to Orfield.

Lessons for Today

My teaching unit on Brown v. Board of Education with my students at Bryant unfolded against this backdrop, and emotions ran high. When talking about the new school arrangement, students said they were feeling angry, frustrated, and sad; one student said he felt “like everyone at Central got steamrolled.” I wanted to help students move from being generally upset about the schools’ resegregation to understanding how the new organization of our schools was related to Brown and how the arguments surrounding school segregation remained acute.

Each day as students entered the classroom, they began our daily ritual of writing responses to two or three questions I posted via the overhead. The 12th-grade government/economics class consisted of 32 students (14 African-American students and 18 white students). Students could concentrate on one question or they could respond to all three. During our Brown unit, I posted the following questions:Why did it take so long to fully integrate the city high school?Was integration and equal education achieved when Central High School was formed in 1979?What school policies maintained racial and social class segregation even after the two schools were unified?How are those policies enacted today?With the restructuring of the high schools, are we returning to segregation?What happened to the voice of the student body during the decision- making process? Who was ignored? Who was heard?Who benefits from three schools? Three schools — but are we equal?Will the student bodies and community eventually forget what happened?

Responses to the questions helped us begin our study of Brown by providing a transition to teach students the background and details of the court case and the Civil Rights Movement. Students volunteered to read their responses to the class and we discussed the viewpoints after all volunteers shared. I read student writing weekly and returned papers with comments and responses to their answers. This provided an ongoing personal dialogue with all of the students and a means of observing the students’ developing knowledge of Brown and the Civil Rights Movement. In discussions with the class and my written comments on papers, I shared my own viewpoints and perspective.

When asked about restructuring and the resegregation of the high schools, one student wrote the following:

When the board decided to make three neighborhood high schools, they made segregated schools again. To know how hard people fought for us to be together should have led to a different decision. Doesn’t anyone care that whatever accomplishments that came from Brown are being dissolved?

This led to a discussion about what really was accomplished with the Brown decision. Some students argued that before the recent restructuring, segregation was evident at Central High School — on the sports teams, in the cafeteria, in the parking lot, and in tracked classrooms. Other students focused on the school board’s decision-making power. The student response below refers to a survey the school board gave to Central students, teachers, and parents where they indicated they’d prefer to retain a mega school.

The board is always talking about doing what is best for the students and who else would know better than the students themselves? I, along with the other students and teachers voted — I remember voting. And we voted for one school. They didn’t listen.

Learning about Brown fueled students’ frustration and they voiced concerns that creating three schools reversed the intentions of Brown. They believed the community was returning to a separate and unequal school system. Although I did not raise it with the students, I feared that the black community’s ability to resist had been eroded by two decades of integration. During those 20 years, wealthy white families had dominated parental involvement in the schools. This disenfranchising of the black community was made clear by attendance at the first PTA meetings for the new Central High School: No one attended. Based on conversations with community members and parents, my sense was students and parents were generally accustomed to being treated as objects by a school board managed by white decision makers.

Challenging Cynicism

I sought to challenge the students’ feelings of cynicism and resignation by focusing on the courage and commitment of the young and adult participants in the Civil Rights Movement. By concentrating on activism, I hoped that students could use their frustration and anger in proactive ways.

To begin, I turned to the countless stories of local courage. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (www. bcri.org/index.html) offers an Online Resource Gallery featuring the stories of local Civil Rights Movement participants. Together we listened to Carrie Hamilton Lock tell her story about her first day as the only black student to attend Birmingham’s West End High School in 1964. We listened to Jesse Champion’s story about being a high school teacher during the Birmingham protests. And we heard Carolyn Cunningham talk about the struggles of being a teacher and whether or not to choose to participate in local civil rights demonstrations. In the discussion following the stories, students connected the speakers’ struggles with the community dialogue surrounding the restructuring of their own school. One student stated:

We always talk about civil rights as if it is in the past. It is something you visit in the museums or the historical sites — you feel like it is history. But now I realize civil rights has never really ended. What we heard today is a lot like what people have been talking about in Tuscaloosa the last year. Brown is alive — Brown is here.

I arranged for Cathelean Steele to come share her own story with the class. (Steele is married to former state senator Charles Steele, who is now vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.) Steele shared her story of being one of the first African-American students to integrate Montgomery schools. She described sitting in the same class with Gov. George Wallace’s daughter and how the teacher never acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation. She recounted what it was like to find the strength and courage to walk to school and how black and white community members supported her. She remembered feeling lonely, but appreciated small but profound gestures from classmates.

The day after our speaker’s visit, I wanted students to consider how the everyday acts of others seemed almost heroic in her recollection. I opened class by asking the students to think about the word hero. What is a hero? What makes a hero different from an everyday person? Do you know a hero? Why do you think this person is a hero? One student responded. “It’s just someone who is trying to make the world better for others. It doesn’t have to be a big deal — just a lot of little things that add up over time.” Another student added, “Anyone can be a hero — it’s when you are making a difference.”

I assigned each student to interview an adult who was attending school when local schools were first being integrated. I helped the class brainstorm questions to ask, such as: What was family/school life like when you were growing up? What is a memory you have of growing up during integration? What is a lesson you learned? From your experiences, what advice do you have for teenagers today?

At first, students thought it would be difficult to find someone to interview. They discovered a number of people they could interview (family, friends, church members, teachers at our school) and when asked, people willingly shared their life experiences.

Photo: AP World Wide Photo/Bill Hudson
Police dogs attack a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator in Birmingham, Ala., 1963.

A week after I assigned the interviews, students shared the results with the class. I anticipated the possibility that students would feel discomfort in sharing the interviews, so I reminded students of the courage and heroic gestures of the act of telling a story that we had witnessed from the oral histories of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and our meeting with Cathelean Steele. I addressed the nervousness in the room by prompting students to listen with the care they extended to Steele when she visited our class and to draw from the sense of community the class had developed during our time together. I asked students to write a list of common themes as they listened, and to prepare to share these themes after we heard the interviews.

First, students selected passages to be shared with a partner. After that, students volunteered to share their interviews with the class. The following passage is excerpted from an interview an African-American student conducted with her mom who integrated an elementary school at the beginning of fourth grade in 1966.

Although her parents knew that she would face racism and discrimination at the integrated school, they made her go so that she would get a better education. The black school that she attended had outdoor bathrooms, no gym, and no cafeteria. However, the white school had indoor restrooms, water fountains, and a nice cafeteria and gym. My mom’s most memorable experience during integration was the first day of school in the fourth grade. This was the second year of integration in her hometown, Greene County, Ala. “My parents had gotten me all excited about attending a new school and meeting new friends. Little did I know what awaited me,” she says. . . . My mom was the first person to load the bus that day and she remembered being so excited and hopeful someone her age would sit beside her. As other students loaded the bus, they all passed by her and gave her strange looks. She recalled hearing lots of laughter behind her, but at the time she had no idea they were laughing at her, the lone black child on the bus. After several stops, a little first-grade white girl loaded the bus and sat next to my mom. “I thought, finally, someone to talk to,” my mom says. The whole bus started screaming when the little white girl sat next to my mom, “Get her off that seat!” The bus driver stopped the bus and told the little girl to find another seat. That was the first time my mom realized the commotion was about her. From that point on, she heard shouts of “Nigger, get off the bus!” all the way to school. She remembered looking back and seeing angry, twisted faces directed towards her. My mom pauses at the end of telling me this story and says, “It was quite a long ride to school that day.”

The second excerpt is from an interview with a white student’s grandfather. This passage elicited a discussion about what white community members faced when supporting the movement.

My grandfather’s family ran a grocery store in Selma during the time of the voting rights marches. He was young, but was expected to help his older siblings and parents in the store before and after school. My grandfather remembers, “I would come after school and start restocking or doing whatever I was told to do. There were no ‘white only’ signs posted, but there might has well have been. Our store only served white people and black people never shopped at our store.”

Grandfather paused and quietly told me a story I never knew about my family. “Everyone was talking of the events in town. Most of the customers were upset about all the folks coming in from out of town and how it was making Selma look bad. I remember my dad talking about it with them. We would close the store and go home for the day. But my dad and brothers would go back really late at night. When I got older, I learned they returned to the store to pack up groceries and deliver them to the protesters. They didn’t turn the lights on in the store because they didn’t want anyone to know.”

My family is from Selma and I had no idea my family was involved in the events that happened in Selma. I am proud of our story and was humbled by my grandfather’s account of the Selma events.

The students’ interviews captured a wide range of voices and experiences. After listening to the interviews, students shared their insights and we brainstormed a class list of common themes heard throughout the interviews. These included courage, hope, importance of education, determination, living true to what you believe, committing to change among those who resist change, and recognition of diversity.

Walkout at Central

In the midst of these lessons, one morning we heard that about 200 Central students walked out of school and marched a mile-and-a-half from the school to the central office. The motivation for this march was complicated. The restructuring had already taken place. Even former civil rights advocates like Charles Steele had initially supported lifting the desegregation order. When it became clear this would lead to partial resegregation of the district, there was no real organized resistance. But there was discontent, especially among students and it had focused on preserving the location of the original high school.

Whatever the case, here were some students doing what adults had not done: marching, protesting, making demands. Marching with signs reading, “Central students making history!” and “Give us our school,” students were expressing their demand for the school board and community to honor the commitment made to rebuild a new school for Central students. In the newspaper, a parent supporting the walkout said, “The children are tired, and I don’t blame them. It’s time for the board to make a move.”

The Central walkout spurred my students’ activist spirits. They strongly identified with Central students because of the bond they shared being a senior class that was split when restructuring was implemented. Continuing the week’s lesson plan was out of the question as students urgently wanted to support the efforts of the Central students and express their opinions.

I initiated a brainstorm: “Let’s list ways that you, as Bryant High School seniors, can support Central students.” The list included: organize a BHS walkout, send letters to the city paper, make signs supporting CHS, send letters to the school board, organize panels of students from all three high schools to talk to the school officials, contact news organizations. As the list developed, the students’ desire to respond led them to focus their efforts on immediate action. Many wanted to walk out, but others countered that a walkout did not make sense since BHS is 12 miles from the central office and 14 miles from CHS. I encouraged students to agree on a way to decide a course of action. They chose to vote for an activity they could begin working on that day.

The first effort was to write letters to the editor of the local newspaper. The next day, students brought their first drafts to class for peer editing. They sent final drafts to the Tuscaloosa News. Students wrote:

I 100 percent support the walkout from the students of Central. Those students took a stand for what they wanted. Nobody was really listening to them and all they wanted to do was be heard.

I am a young citizen of Tuscaloosa and hope that other young people will read this and stand up and speak out also. I have never written an editorial before, but decided to so I can say that I am not a person who sits and complains but takes some type of action, big or small; every bit counts.

The students below, beyond, and including 2004 are the future regardless of what people want to believe. Our opinions should be valued especially when it comes to us because long after the decision makers are gone we will still be here possibly dealing with the bad decisions that are made today.

Although the paper didn’t print our letters, the act of writing them boosted students’ confidence. After we talked about their letters not reaching publication, I reminded students that school board members (formerly appointed by the mayor) had recently become elected officials in Tuscaloosa. School board elections presented the possibility of changing who was making the decisions about their education; at age 18 they can vote and can run for the office.

A student immediately raised her hand. “You give us registration cards when we turn 18. Well, let’s get all the seniors at Bryant and Central registered.” By making a checklist on the board, I explained the steps the students would need to follow to obtain permission to organize a voter drive at both schools. Students signed up for tasks. The class decided each of us (32 students and I) would commit to registering 10 voters in addition to the seniors we would register at other high schools. Students wrote brief speeches they would deliver to classes at BHS and CHS about the project. One speech read:

Thank you for listening to us today. If you are 18 or you will be 18 before the end of the school year, we’re here to register you to vote. We all know how to vote — we did it last year when we voted to stay together as one school, but the school board ignored us. We’re guessing they forgot something really important: At 18 we can vote for them or run against them for their position on the school board. We have a new way of shouting out — that’s by showing up on election day and voting. Let’s get their attention! Let’s have a voice in the way we do school in Tuscaloosa!

The BHS voter drive started a week after I made the initial checklist. Three weeks later, we went to Central and registered 77 seniors. It was exciting to witness students understanding their power to vote and the possibility of making local changes through voting.

Soon, I will be teaching Brown v. Board of Education to the second senior class of Bryant High School. Lessons about Brown provide a way for students to make sense of what happened in Tuscaloosa as the story of school segregation, integration, and resegregation unfolds in public schools across the United States. We live in a time when civil rights advances made 30 years ago are being dismantled and there is an accelerating trend toward increased racial segregation in schools. Whatever happens next regarding racial equality in our schools, it will probably look different than the Brown decision and what followed. But the history of Brown demonstrates that organized resistance is necessary if the trend toward inequality is to be reversed. Teaching about the civil rights history of our own community helped my students understand the role they can play in making their schools and their society more just.


The Harvard Civil Rights Project

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center)

U.S. Dept. of the Interior,
National Park Service,
Brown v. Board of Education
National Historic Site


Alison Schmitke (alisonschmitke@comcast.net) teaches at Paul W. Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala.