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Integration was supposed to level the playing field in public schools. Fifty years later, is new de facto resegregation so bad?
This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
“Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.”
—From “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, August 16, 1967
Mary McMullen Francis doesn’t remember many details of August 30, 1961: the dress she wore or what her mother said before she walked out the door or the names of her teachers. But she remembers how eerily empty the street was of cars and people. She had half-expected—or at least worried—that some angry white folks would show up with tomatoes or baseball bats or just a mouthful of spit. No one was there.
The city’s leaders had decreed that Atlanta’s schools would be desegregated peacefully. So when Mary McMullen and Lawrence Jefferson, both seniors, became the first black students to enter Grady High School, arriving in class ten minutes late as planned by organizers of Atlanta’s heavily publicized school integration, they gazed straight ahead. No one said a word.
In fact, even at the end of the remarkably quiet day, even at a press conference with such national broadcasting greats as Chet Huntley, even when she came home to her own neighborhood in the old Grady Homes housing project, no one asked, “How was your day?”
“Even in my own community, it was as if it never happened,” recalls Mary, sixty-three, now a Spanish teacher in the DeKalb County school system. “It’s something that’s going on, but we never talked about it. The city made it known that nobody wanted you to talk about it.”
After the final bell, a handful of students make their way to Lee Pope’s U.S. history class. “Social Diversity Club Meets Here,” reads a handwritten sign posted on the door. Inside, founding fathers gaze somberly from the walls as about a dozen kids gather to talk about race. This is a touchy subject, one most people strive to overlook, as if acknowledging race is itself racist. But this classroom is a rare place where whites and blacks speak without fear of offending each other.
Taylor Fulton, sixteen, a junior, raises a point of contention: the segregation of the lunch period. Although black and white students mingle at Grady more readily than at most schools, the terraces above the courtyard are mostly “white” and the cafeteria is mostly “black.” Recently, a literature class and a U.S. history class held a Thanksgiving lunch in the cafeteria. A teacher noticed that all the white kids sat at one table and the black kids sat at another. She threatened to forbid them to eat their lunch until the group mixed it up. No one wanted to move. “Is this intentional? Is this something that just sort of happens?” asks Taylor, who is black. “Is it something that makes people feel excluded? Is it something that makes people feel comfortable?”
“Anybody of a different color can sit at our table. It’s just that we don’t like sitting outside,” replies Kourtney Outlaw, fourteen, a ninth-grader.
Confronting race is brave and personal, and this room has the instant intimacy of a support group. “I didn’t see my first white person until I came to Grady,” says Taylor, with a touch of overstatement. She went to Centennial Place Elementary, a nearly all-black school near Georgia Tech, and had no white friends until she went to Inman Middle School, the Virginia-Highland/Morningside middle school that is one of the feeder schools for Grady. The “never again” button she wears on her lapel shows how deeply she is affected by the people she meets. She got the button at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on a trip sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, which also supports the Grady High School Social Diversity Club. Taylor wears the button as a reminder of the dangers of extreme racism.
Kourtney moved to Atlanta from Fayetteville. At Inman, she says, “they called me ‘the white girl’ because I have an enhanced vocabulary and I talk correctly.”
There are only two white kids in this room, and Chris Cruz, sixteen, is one of them. A junior who has one Hispanic parent and one Anglo parent, he says he only knew white people until he came to Inman, which is 38 percent white and 62 percent students of color. “I think Inman taught me to be friends with people of other races,” he says. “I see personality, I see soul. I don’t look at people and assume things about them.” He adds, “I think blacks are pressured more than whites are. In a way, they’re pressured not to be friends with white people.”
The kids go on to vent about the way race subtly affects the cliques and social dynamics of high school, about the barriers black students face and those they create for themselves. The honesty in the room is palpable and fresh. It is almost shocking.
Forty-six years after Atlanta’s desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race can’t be a consideration in schools, even in the name of creating diversity. Education is meant to be race-neutral. And by extension, so should we. But here are teenagers who see their world as it is, confront the subtler realities of race relations—and refuse to accept that they cannot be changed.
“Separate but equal” was the watchword of the segregationists back when Mary McMullen Francis integrated Grady High School. Today, Atlanta’s schools are still marked by separateness and inequality, the imbalance that comes from stereotypes or socioeconomic class or other forces beyond the school. But if King returned today and walked these halls, he would find glimmers of hope. The Social Diversity Club is one of them.
The students brainstorm about what to do about the lingering racial separation at Grady. They want to wake up the high school world of jocks and geeks and goths and blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians.
One idea: holding a “Politically Incorrect Day” in which Social Diversity Club members post signs that say “Whites Only” or “Blacks Only” or even a racially offensive statement. “We just want people to understand that racism hurts, to offend people who offend others,” explains Chris.
Their teacher, Lee Pope, who is white, isn’t so sure about that idea. “That freaks me out,” he says, perhaps imagining the world outside this room isn’t quite ready for that kind of confrontation. “We’ll have to talk about it some more.”
As the students leave, they agree to bring three friends to the next meeting to boost attendance. “I’m going to try to bring a black, a white, and a Hispanic,” Kourtney pledges.
Across town, Beverly Hall, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, isn’t worried about race. Most APS schools are virtually all black. A few schools in north Atlanta are about 80 percent white. You could call it “resegregation,” but the APS superintendent isn’t trying to integrate the city’s schools. There doesn’t seem to be much point, given the district’s overall demographics.
Grady High School is an oasis of diversity in APS, a school that is 68 percent black in a system that is 86 percent black. Across town on the westside, Booker T. Washington High School, the first African American public school in Georgia and Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater, is 99 percent black. It has never been integrated. Neither have dozens of other Atlanta schools that are nearly all black.
Yet Hall chooses to target the devastating effects of urban poverty, which became an overwhelming force after white flight. Whites left the city in the sixties and seventies, followed by middle-class blacks, a pattern as much a part of American life as the westward expansion of an earlier century. In 1958, there were 115,000 students in Atlanta schools, 70 percent of them white. Each year, thousands departed. Children would return from the weekend and find their friends gone, their teams missing players, their schools in danger of closing because of lost enrollment.
“If, after all this twelve years of turmoil, we wind up with a segregated city, what will we have achieved?” then-superintendent John Letson asked at the district’s centennial in 1972. Yet whites and affluent blacks continued to leave. Today, thousands of people have moved back to the city and fueled a boom of intown lofts, condos, and infill development, but most of them are young professionals, empty nesters, or couples without children. The Atlanta Public Schools enrollment stands at 49,773.
The urban poverty that persists is a world of lowered expectations, a place where dreams die before they are born and where civil rights battles seem as meaningful as the Battle of Hastings.
Hall wants to be one of the highest performing urban school districts despite high poverty levels. “We’re consistently improving,” she says. “We’re digging out of a deep hole, but if we continue to improve at the rate at which we’re improving, we’re going to get out of there.”
The walls of the eighth-floor conference room at APS’s Downtown headquarters are adorned with bar charts. Some charts show stunning progress—schools filled with children of poverty that boast 100 percent passing rates on state achievement tests. Some show old struggles—schools with SAT scores still among the lowest in the state.
“No one can convince me, as long as I’m alive, that just because you have a concentration of poor kids you can’t have a high performance. It’s not true,” says Hall, who points out that she proved that long ago when she was a principal in New York City.
If the APS kids cannot have the same advantages of their suburban counterparts—college-educated parents, computers and books and museum memberships and summer camps—then they get a different kind of equity. They have small class sizes and special tutoring and social workers who will call every morning to make sure they’re up and ready for the bus or will even drive by their houses and take them to school. It’s exhausting and expensive. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $10.5 million to help redesign the high schools, and General Electric Foundation announced last October a grant of $22 million, which will be used to boost math and science instruction. And the children have proven they can make good on the investment. Atlanta is the only one out of eleven urban school districts to mark four years of continual improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures math, reading, and science. Last year, all of its elementary schools made “adequate yearly progress” as measured by the No Child Left Behind Act.
If Hall can prove that poor kids can succeed—throughout an entire school district—her feat will resonate throughout the South, where a majority of public school children come from low-income families, according to an analysis by the Southern Education Foundation. Poverty is now even more concentrated than it was during King’s time. It is creeping into the suburbs; 31 percent of Gwinnett’s students, for example, are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
“It portends ill for the region,” Lynn Huntley, president of the Southern Education Foundation, says of the rising poverty. “It means we will have increasing numbers of poor people lacking the skills to participate in the workforce—the misery of people who have no bright future ahead of them but are living only in the moment on the margins of life. That’s what at stake.”
Mary knew she had to do well in this white school. Whatever she did would seem to represent all black people. She couldn’t fail. Not even Latin.
Every day, the teacher gave a quiz at the beginning of class. And it seemed no matter how hard Mary studied, she still failed those quizzes. Then, one day, the police escort stopped picking up Mary ten minutes before school ended. There had been no incidents due to desegregation, and the precaution was no longer necessary.
Suddenly, Mary understood. During those last ten minutes, the teacher told the class what would be on the quiz the next day. From then on, Mary made 100s on the quizzes. “After that first 100, she looked at me and I looked at her,” she recalls. Not a word was spoken. But Mary got the message.
“Come to school and do your best. Students, don’t drop out, because it’s going to make your life more hard,” reads LaTonya Moss, seventeen, a sophomore. Her braids, some dyed red, are swept up into a ponytail.
“Harder.” Michael Kaeding, her mentor, gently corrects her.
“Harder. Make something of yourself, like I did. You can do it.” LaTonya wrote an essay imagining what a principal would say to students to encourage them to stay in school. It is as if she is writing this to herself, from a grown-up vantage point. “If you want to make something of yourself, school is the place to be,” she reads.
That isn’t exactly how LaTonya felt when she first entered Washington. It isn’t a very common way of thinking for kids who have never ventured beyond their neighborhood, never traveled even a few miles to the glass towers of Downtown, never imagined a job as anything more than a way to make a few bucks. But now LaTonya is a Freedom Writer. A soft-spoken girl, she doesn’t resemble the angry kids of the original Freedom Writers of movie fame in Long Beach, California, who were guided by an idealistic English teacher to write their stories of living amid ghetto gang wars. Here at Washington High, the Freedom Writers have journals, but they also have seventy-seven mentors from the Kilpatrick Stockton law firm, which sponsors the program. Every Wednesday, the lawyers take off their ties and turn off their BlackBerries and coax students into wanting something better in life.
The name Freedom Writer intentionally evokes the Freedom Riders of 1961, an interracial group that faced mob violence and arrest just because blacks and whites were sitting together on buses traveling through the South. For these kids, the violence is in their homes and streets, the impediments in their attitudes and expectations.
“Dr. King’s crusade was to empower people to create their own freedom. That’s pretty much what this program is all about,” explains Michael Tyler, a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton. He was the chairman of the firm’s Attorney Diversity Team when he realized that not a single one of the firm’s lawyers had come from a place like Washington High School.
LaTonya grew up in University Homes, a sprawling housing project that was built in 1937 to eradicate slums. Instead, it became one. She lived across the street from the Atlanta University Center, but college seemed as far away as a foreign land. Life is looking up, though. She and her family moved out to an apartment with subsidized rent. University Homes is being torn down and rebuilt into a mixed-income development.
After going over the last draft of her paper, Kaeding, a senior associate at the law firm, takes a look at LaTonya’s grades. She has mostly Bs, just one C. She’s missed a lot of days, though. “I don’t come when my asthma is messed up,” she tells Kaeding. He asks about her medication, then firmly but softly says, “You owe to yourself just what you said here.” He taps her paper. “You owe it to yourself to fix whatever problems come up. You get all Bs, and then you can start working to get some As. You do good work. You’ve just got to do it,” says Kaeding. Then, with a half-smile, he adds, “Same conversation I had with my daughter last night. Same conversation my parents had with me.”
Across the room, writing coach Donald Washington Jr., twenty-five, looks up from a student’s paper and calls to a teenager wearing oversized jeans that threaten to sag down his butt. “Julio, what up with your belt, man? You forget it?” The teenager glances over and yanks his pants up. “It broke yesterday,” Julio says sullenly.
“Well, you keep your pants up.” Washington himself is wearing a navy blazer, as if he already works for a law firm. He sports wire-rimmed glasses and a goatee and has the air of a man with a destiny. He could have been as listless as these kids. He spent part of his high school years living in homeless shelters in the Washington, D.C., area but went on to graduate from Morehouse College. He is working with the Freedom Writers for a year and applying to law school. “Many of the students don’t feel motivated to succeed. There are different reasons for that. Some don’t even care if they pass,” he says.
He blames not just poverty but a dumbing down of popular culture and a deficit of leadership in the community. “The truth is, a lot of these kids have to step up and accept responsibility for decades of neglect,” he says. “That’s a lot for you to expect of them right now—to take the whole responsibility of the race on their shoulders and carry it into the twenty-first century.”
Washington High is a majestic school designed with tiers of Byzantine arches and towering columns at its entrance. On a statue in the front plaza, Booker T. Washington perpetually lifts the veil of ignorance from a former slave. In the 1940s, while the world was at war, Martin Luther King Jr. rode a streetcar past white schools, stood in the back in the colored section, and came to the city’s only black public high school. Textbooks often had pages ripped out; they got only the discards from the white schools. “Oftentimes, the teachers would tell us changes were going to come and we had to prepare for it,” recalls Raymond “Tweet” Williams, eighty-one, a retired principal and former classmate of King.
The day of change is long past. Today’s students are unencumbered by blatant, lawful discrimination. They stride past Booker T. Washington, up the stairs and under the archways, past the cases filled with mementos of glory days and photos of alumni greats: King, Lena Horne, and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan. They are generally not impressed.
“They come to school because they have to. They’re not here to carry on the great legend this school represents,” says Lalita Todd-Washington, a 1986 graduate and founder of the Booker T. Washington Alumni Association, which meets once a month in the school’s media center.
The alumni work tirelessly to help the students grow into their legacy. In the past year, they raised funds to renovate the home of the mother whose only child was shot as he walked home from a MARTA station. He was a star football player being recruited by top universities. They bought a new piano for the school’s music program, raised money for band uniforms, gave turkeys and hams to needy families for Thanksgiving and Christmas, paid college application fees, and took students on a college tour. “We understand the children have so many challenges,” says Todd-Washington. “We’re here to help.”
History resonates with principal Carter Coleman, who graduated from Washington High in 1972, voted one of the “most likely to succeed.” In his yearbook picture, he sports a big ’fro and a look of determination. One yearbook photo shows a sign of the times: “You better not compromise yourself. It’s all you got! Can you dig it?”
Today, Coleman lives across the street from the house where he grew up, just a few blocks from the school. He counsels kids whose saggy pants signify nothing but a kind of sloppy indifference. He tells them to yank up their pants and tuck in their shirts and have a little self-respect. Every afternoon, he walks with students to the nearby Ashby MARTA station, keeping a fatherly eye out as they pass houses in sore need of repair and street corners that court folks looking for trouble.
He has seen his school make gains, many of them through Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), which promises students $4,000 college scholarships if they meet attendance and academic goals. The graduation rate has soared from a dismal 58 percent in 2002 to 87 percent last year. Local colleges such as Emory, Oglethorpe, and Morehouse host the students for summer programs. Last year, 140 Project GRAD students went on to college; eleven of them received full scholarships to such elite schools as Middlebury, Amherst, and Colgate.
Yet Washington still struggles. Last year, for example, 63 percent of the students failed the end-of-course test for algebra. Forty-four percent of the juniors failed the Georgia High School Graduation Test in science. A third of the students had missed ten or more days of school. The average SAT score was 1204 out of 2400; the national average was 1495.
“I am a complete optimist,” says Coleman. “I am not a quitter. I do believe, as true as I have blood running through my veins, this is going to change. If I can have everybody walking behind that drumbeat, that these kids are going to achieve, it’s going to work.”
Truth be told, Mary never thought she’d be the lone black girl desegregating Grady High School. An honor roll student and popular cheerleader at David T. Howard High School, she thought she’d be going with a group of girlfriends. They all applied, as did a total of 123 students at all-black schools.
By the time they finished testing and interviewing, the school authorities had selected just ten students to desegregate four all-white high schools. One girl decided not to go, but Mary didn’t consider pulling out. “It wasn’t about me,” she says. “It was about all of us doing what we had to do.”
The first day was tense. Mary sat alone at a table in the cafeteria. She hadn’t brought her lunch, but she was afraid to go through the lunch line. She thought it might stir up trouble.
A girl came over. “I just want you to know, I think it’s a good thing you’re doing,” she said. Then she was gone. Mary didn’t even know her name.
“I wasn’t looking for niceness or kindness. I had no expectations,” she says. “I just wanted to get through the day.”
Over time, some girls befriended her. One called her when she was sick, to see how she was. Another sat by her on the bus, when she no longer needed a special escort. Some girls began to sit with her at lunch. They seemed not to care about her race. Outside of school, she saw a few of them individually, but they never spoke to each other.
Mary Nettles is scooping spaghetti sauce behind the metal steam trays in the Toomer Elementary cafeteria. This is the first Spaghetti Night dinner to raise money for the school, and there’s a continuous line. In fact, they’re about to run out of meat sauce. In the cafeteria, pig-tailed cheerleaders clad in bright yellow T-shirts are chanting their welcome: “Thank you for coming to the Spaghetti! Dinner! Enjoy your time!”
There’s a raffle and a silent auction and a roomful of white families and black families—neighbors sharing tables. “We have a long way to go, but this is a start,” says Nettles, a longtime Kirkwood resident who has seen a lifetime of changes. She’s a blunt woman, not one to sugarcoat things but not one to bad-mouth them, either, so she searches for the right way to talk about Kirkwood’s lingering racial divide. “You have to change the hearts and minds of people, black and white.”
Kirkwood is a prime example of everything that went wrong in desegregation. It was a working-class neighborhood of Craftsman-style bungalows and grander Victorians, an easy streetcar ride to Downtown. But beginning in the mid-fifties, after the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling and the overall suburbanization of America, whites began to move out of the neighborhood. The struggles in Kirkwood are chronicled by historian Kevin Kruse in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. For instance, the West Side Mutual Development Committee (WSMDC) organized community resistance to “Negro infiltrators,” while Eastland Atlanta was formed to buy up homes so blacks couldn’t. In a few cases, houses bought by blacks were burned before the families could move in.
In 1965, the red-brick Kirkwood Elementary School was still all white. On the eve of desegregation, Superintendent John Letson sent a letter to white parents informing them they “could transfer elsewhere if they wished” to a school of their choice. On Monday, when 500 black students entered Kirkwood, all but six white students had left. So had the white teachers. The transformation of the neighborhood was almost as swift. By 1970, Kirkwood was 97 percent black.
The idea that the neighborhood immediately went into decline when blacks moved in is a decidedly white opinion, Nettles says. The new residents of Kirkwood may not have had a lot of money, but they weren’t desperately poor, either. They cared about each other and their neighborhood. Black businesses thrived in Kirkwood’s small “downtown.”
As the years went by, people aged and struggled to keep up with repairs. Some houses rotted and sagged and lawns sprouted weeds. The easy money and quick high of crack cocaine brought a dangerous element into the neighborhood. Kirkwood Elementary closed, and the new Toomer Elementary landed on a list of the ninety-four worst schools in Georgia.
Yet there were greater forces that would bear on Kirkwood. With suburban Atlanta choking on traffic, it was inevitable that Kirkwood would be “discovered.” Wedged between East Atlanta and Decatur, it’s a jewel of gentrification. Whites and wealthier blacks have moved in and renovated the bungalows. Kirkwood Elementary was converted to Kirkwood Lofts. In the little retail area, you can now sip wine at Vinocity or smoothies at Arden’s Garden or you can detox at Jazmin Spa. It is a pattern repeated, in some fashion, throughout the city—from the new houses facing Washington Park, near Washington High School, to lofts in Midtown. Last year, APS added 600 white children to its rolls—not a large number, but a sign of change.
From the outside, Toomer Elementary, built in the 1980s, looks like an enormous railroad car painted white. But painted panda prints on the pavement lead to the entrance and a school filled with murals, children’s art, and computer stations.
The student body hasn’t changed significantly—it’s still largely poor and black—but test scores have. A dynamic principal, dedicated teachers, and tiny classes enabled the school to reach scores on state tests that rival those of its rich northside counterparts. There are Chinese characters painted on the wall in the cafeteria; the school offers Mandarin as a foreign language. Last year, white and black parents lined up to enroll their children in pre-kindergarten classes. Students here will ultimately attend Grady High School.
Principal Tonya Saunders remembers when she interviewed for the position and Hall mentioned the changes in the neighborhood. “How are you going to bring both sets of parents together?” Hall asked.
Saunders answered: “I can get the parents to come together for the betterment of the children.”
In the neighborhood, that sense of a shared future has been much harder to build. In 1998, a local black minister distributed fliers urging residents to “save our neighborhood” from a white and “homosexual and lesbian takeover.”
Now it was time to hold back the forces of a different wave of desegregation. The city held a forum to quell the “mounting tension” in Kirkwood and revived the Atlanta Community Relations Commission, first formed in 1966. The neighbors met and talked and vowed to coexist, but this was the reality: Kirkwood was changing. Blacks were wary about whites moving in, taking control of the neighborhood and school, and ultimately transforming it into a version of Virginia-Highland. Living in a hot, trendy neighborhood means skyrocketing property values—and taxes.
White neighborhood leaders say they are committed to doing what they can to keep the unique diversity of their neighborhood. Sara Jane Klingaman, thirty-eight, a California native who has a daughter in the pre-K program, was one of a core group of new neighbors who began working with the school even before they had school-age children. “We have to be really careful. The goal isn’t to change the color of the school,” she says. “The point is to have the school reflect the community and have a good quality school that everybody looks at as an option.”
Can we talk about race? Can we address it, with our fears and our differences and our stereotypes and our flaws? For adults, the subject is like a minefield. Years after desegregation, when we know we are supposed to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, many white parents still can’t get comfortable sending their children to a school in which they are in the minority.
It takes a kind of bravery to withstand the white-flight mentality. Joe Martin, who served on the Atlanta Board of Education for twenty years, can remember holding meetings in his home to urge other parents to send their children to Morningside Elementary, which was desegregated through mandatory busing in a pairing with the all-black C.W. Hill Elementary. Martin’s children were in the racial minority every year of their schooling, including their years at Grady High School.
“People would say to me, ‘Well, I’m not going to sacrifice my children to send them to a certain school.’ I used to really wrestle with that,” says Martin. “Of course, the implication is, ‘Why did you sacrifice your children? Are you just committed to a cause and you let your kids suffer the consequences?’”
Martin’s son and daughter both graduated from Vanderbilt University. They are both working on doctorate degrees. They are entirely comfortable with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and have black and white friends. So much for consequences.
Is it any easier today to bring children together in diverse schools? “This generation of children is very different from my generation and generations that preceded me. The young people coming of age in 2007 [represent] a generation that is the most ethnically and racially diverse in American history,” says Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of two books on racial dialogue: Can We Talk About Race? and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
“Those young people will need to know how to engage with one another across lines of difference,” says Tatum. “Any school should be thinking about how to foster that capacity in our students.”
A group of Grady students recently gathered in a conference room to talk about race. They are all students in the school’s vaunted communications magnet, a program that is majority white in a majority-black school. At one end of the table sat Jessie Andrews, eighteen, a senior from Ansley Park who admits that her parents probably wouldn’t have sent her to Grady if she hadn’t gotten into the magnet program. At the other end is Jasmine Tillman, also a senior, who grew up in the Adamsville neighborhood on the southside. Her mother considered sending her to private school but couldn’t afford it.
There are only two black kids in Jasmine’s AP Latin class. In fact, most of her friends don’t even take Advanced Placement classes. “I get called a nerd a lot,” she says. “Some of my friends are just taking the classes they’re supposed to take to graduate.”
Put a group of white and black parents in this room and talk about race and AP classes and the magnet program, and you’ll touch a raw nerve. Do teachers have the same expectations for black students, particularly black males? Are they influenced, even unconsciously, by negative stereotypes? Some black parents think they are.
The school has been recruiting black students into AP classes, and their numbers are rising, says principal Vincent Murray. Students are selected for the magnet program based on a blind selection process “so everyone has an equal chance,” he says. Meanwhile, Grady is creating small “academies” as a part of Hall’s “high school transformation.” The idea is that everyone would attend a specialized program of their choice. The overriding lesson, perhaps, is that integration is not an ending, but a beginning.
“What happened yesterday influences what happens today,” says Tatum, an expert on the psychology of race. “Despite the fact that we would like to ignore the past, we still have to deal with the legacy of the past. We don’t have to live in the past, but we have to think about how the present is shaped by what came before.”
One day after graduation, Mary was standing at a corner of Five Points, waiting for the light to change so she could cross the street. She looked at the opposite corner and saw one of the girls she had befriended at Grady. Their eyes met briefly, but the girl’s expression was blank.
When the light changed, they walked right past each other, close enough to touch, as if they were complete strangers. “It’s as if you have a friend, and you go somewhere, and they don’t know you,” she says. Even today, forty-five years later, tears well up in her eyes as she remembers that moment. She had opened her heart just a little bit during that year, a time she tried to think of going to Grady as just a job she had to do for the benefit of her race. She knew in the outer world, beyond the protected hallways of Grady High School, black girls and white girls weren’t supposed to be friends. She knew it was hard for her friend to break with convention. But still . . .
“I know I thought more of her,” she says. “We didn’t have to embrace. All it would have taken was a smile.”
One day, about ten years ago, some students came to Murray and told him they wanted to paint over the mural in the cafeteria. Painted in the 1950s, the mural celebrated the merger of Boys High and Girls High into the new Henry W. Grady High School. It depicted boys and girls frolicking in Piedmont Park with the high school, in its neoclassical, red-brick grandeur, in the background. All of the children in the mural were white; by law, Grady was an all-white high school.
“This mural no longer represents Grady High School,” the students said. “It’s racist.”
“You can’t paint over it,” Murray told them. “It’s the history of the school, and the history can’t be destroyed.”
Instead, Murray encouraged the students to paint a new mural. It is on the wall of the first landing of the main stairwell, a painting seen by Grady students repeatedly throughout the day as they travel from one class to another. It celebrates the civil rights movement. There are images from segregation days—a “whites only” sign and demagogue Tom Watson with a raised fist. There are signs of protest and iconic leaders: King, John Lewis, Julian Bond, and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. Once again, Grady High School is in the background.
Ironically, in a recent major renovation of the school, the old cafeteria was demolished, and along with it went the idyllic, whites-only mural. All that remains is this panorama of struggle and triumph, a portrayal of racial pride and progress. A perpetual reminder of how far the world has come, and of the dream it will always seek to fulfill.