The Commercial Appeal
CONFLICT PENS MCS EPITAPH
Born and burnished by segregation, yellow fever and upheaval, city schools turn page on history
Memphis City Schools was born in a set of rented rooms in 1848. The system grew to become the city’s second largest employer over the course of its colorful and controversial history, undergoing radical change during a tumultuous desegregation crisis in the early 1970s and becoming ground zero for education reform in its senior years.
Monday it leaves the local education landscape, trailing memories that will not soon be forgotten.
MCS, which at last count served just under 105,000 students in 165 schools, not counting charters, career and technical centers, special education centers and alternative schools, employs almost 16,000 people, including more than 6,500 teachers, and circulates a $636 million payroll through the local economy, not counting what it spends on benefits, professional services, contracts and charters. It is one of the largest, poorest and most troubled school districts in the country.
Its former governing body — the popularly elected Memphis Board of Education — finally gave up the battle it had waged with funding bodies throughout the district’s history and in late 2010 initiated a process that would eventually bring about its merger with the smaller, more successful Shelby County Schools.
The urban district may eventually return in some form or another, perhaps as soon as a year from now if suburban municipalities successfully secede from the consolidated system and form their own municipal school districts.
But it will never be the same after Monday’s official conclusion of the unification process, a moment that is sure to resurrect memories bitter and sweet. MCS is, after all, as much a fabric of Memphis as the Mississippi River. It is one of the city’s primary economic engines and an institution that has helped shape the lives and careers of
The merger has never been about desegregation. But the fact that busing has played a role in the emotions that have played out in (consolidation) speaks to how powerful that moment was in our history...”
Daniel Kiel, University of Memphis law professor
countless Memphians, those who have left and those who have stayed, some to become pillars of the community.
It is all of that. But ask a typical MCS alum what he or she remembers most about Memphis City Schools, and the answer is often the teachers.
Memphis Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb (Booker T. Washington High class of 1967) remembers a school that embraced a “little tattered kid” from Crystal Spring, Miss., with its supportive environment, dressed him in green and gold loyalty and instilled in him words to live by: “We lead and others follow.”
He remembers “principal Springer, Ms. Todd, Ms. Evans, Ms. Nichols — all these great teachers, very stern, very tough, no nonsense. I was happy where I was.”
Memphis artist Lonnie Robinson still stays in touch with the legendary teacher, principal, administrator and school board member Sara Lewis, who put a Lauderdale third-grader on a path that eventually led to the Overton High School optional schools program, a scholarship at the Chicago Art Institute and a successful career.
“I’d draw pictures on the walls of the school and disappear before teachers saw them,” he recalls. “I didn’t know at the time that Sara, who was my principal, had an APB out on me. She said, ‘I want to know who’s doing this.’
“So I finally got caught, and was taken to the office, and I really thought I was in for some punishment. But when I got there she took me to the hardware store, bought paint and brushes and had me do murals around the school.”
‘WHITE AND COLORED’
Earlier times at MCS were chronicled in “The Development of Public Education in Memphis, Tennessee, 18481945,” David Moss Hilliard’s 1945 doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.
Hilliard documents how Memphis, challenged by municipal mismanagement, military invasion, yellow fever epidemics, a revenue deficiency, and other factors, struggled to establish and maintain public education.
There was one free school in each of four wards — oneteacher, single-classroom setups in Spartan rental quarters over Downtown stores and other establishments — at the birth of public education in Memphis. The system had been mandated by a city ordinance calling for the education of “all the white children” of the city.
In 1856, Memphis City Schools was incorporated by an act of the legislature. In 1869, a new charter called for separate schools to be maintained for “white and colored, both systems of schools to be under the supervision of the board of education and its officers.”
From the beginning, however, the school board has had no taxing authority, which has to this day bedeviled educators in their efforts to build the school system they’ve imagined.
It wasn’t until 1872 that the system could afford its first brick school. By 1900, despite enormous problems brought on by yellow fever epidemics and the city’s financial collapse, nine permanent school buildings had arisen. Ten more arose in the following five years, including a few Memphians will recognize, like Klondike, Idlewild, Cummings and Carnes.
Between 1905 and 1910, the system got Bruce, A.B. Hill, Peabody, Lenox, Snowden, Maury and Pope. Central High School opened in 1911, fulfilling “the dream of a central school of sixty years previous.”
South Side and Humes followed a few years later, then BTW, Manassas and others. By 1949, the system had 47,000 pupils, 1,300 teachers, more than 50 modern buildings, real estate and equipment valued at $20 million and an operating budget of $6 million a year.
Despite the historic Brown v. Board of Education rulings of 1954 and 1955, the second of which mandated desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” MCS’s adherence to socially mandated segregation did not begin to crack until 1960 with the filing of what would eventually become the deciding Memphis desegregation case, Northcross v. Board of Education, which was quickly dismissed by U.S. Dist. Judge Marion Speed Boyd but restored by the Court of Appeals a year later.
On Oct. 13 of that year the “Memphis 13” — 13 AfricanAmerican first-graders — were enrolled in all-white Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle and Springdale elementary schools.
The decision to break the ice with first-graders was a deliberate attempt to achieve integration without the violence that had put Little Rock on the front pages of every newspaper in the country a few years earlier, said Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, whose daughter, Dwania, was one of the Memphis 13.
The integration of a few neighborhood schools was not enough to satisfy the constitutional prohibition against maintaining separate school systems for black and white children. East High School had been built for white students in 1948, testimony in the case would reveal, and nearby Lester High had been built specifically for black students in 1955 — after Brown 1 had declared schools that separated students by race were unconstitutional.
In 1966, Boyd retired, to be replaced by Robert M. McRae Jr., and indications grew that a desegregation plan adopted by the board, with new attendance zones and free transfer privileges, would not pass constitutional muster either. A 1968 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that included the case of Monroe v. Board of Commissioners of Jackson, Tenn., made it clear that simply allowing children to transfer was not enough, and in 1970 McRae ruled that MCS was not a “unitary” — that is, constitutionally compliant — system. In the 1969-70 school On March 22, 1972, Citizens Against Busing cluster around a battered, but freshly repainted orange school bus at 2150 James Road. The group buried it about 16 feet deep, then dug it up to dramatize their opposition to school busing on the basis of race. year, the district had 55 allblack schools, 18 that were all white, 25 that were predominately black and 68 that were predominately white.
On April 20, 1971, the high court’s ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education made student transportation appropriate when necessary to achieve desegregation, which prompted the Court of Appeals to send the Northcross case back to district court. On Dec. 10, McRae issued what he would later describe as “The Decision,” essentially telling the school board that it was going to have to do better.
In 1972, the fear of a possible busing order produced antibusing protests by students at White Station, Overton and elsewhere. Testimony in the Northcross case revealed that since school opened in the fall with 78,231 black students and 67,714 whites in the fold MCS had lost 1,100 white students and 23 African-Americans.
O. Z. Stephens, the MCS director of research and planning who would later be praised lavishly by McRae for his objectivity and cooperative spirit, was not an advocate of the busing remedy. “In a noble effort to guarantee freedom,” he testified, “we have come almost full circle in the past few years to the point that we are virtually denying freedom. If it is unconstitutional for a child to be assigned by a school board to a school solely because of his race, then logic tells me it is just as unconstitutional for a court to assign a child on the basis of race.”
McRae interrupted him: “I’ve still got to go by what the Supreme Court says.”
The statement foreshadowed McRae’s April 20 desegregation order, which set the stage for busing and produced at least two telephoned death threats. On April 21, guards armed with carbines were posted at the door of the judge’s federal building office. That night two U. S. deputy marshals were stationed at his home.
Plan A, the district’s response, was based on the pairing and clustering of elementary schools with contiguous boundaries. The pairing of a black school with a white school under the plan meant that all of the children in grades 1-3 would be assigned to one of the schools and all of the children in grades 4- 6 would be assigned to the other. Clustering simply was the combination of three schools, each of which would house two grades from the entire cluster. Transferred students would get to their assigned schools by bus.
The city administration, which had been providing gasoline for the buses, fought back by cutting off supplies,