Hughes, Arkansas, the second-largest town in St. Francis County, has by all accounts been a resilient town. It was the home or birthplace of many great blues musicians, including Johnny Shines. It survived the Flood of 1937, an event so severe that it sticks in the memory of the area, and it has survived fires and the decline of agriculture. But it could not survive the decision of the Arkansas State Department of Education last summer to dissolve its school district and forcibly consolidate it with West Memphis, over 26 miles away on poor, two-lane highways. Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students. The law makes no provisions for the wishes of the town’s residents or the students, either with regard to keeping the local school district open, nor with what district they would prefer to attend if their district must be closed. Nor does the law require the receiving district to keep local schools open, even when students would otherwise have to travel long distances, such as the 50-mile roundtrip per day that Hughes students now face, unless their parents decide to relocate to West Memphis, which is why this law is a town-killer. Hughes has lost an estimated 400 residents since 2010, and doubtless are losing many more by the day, largely because of the school situation. The local shopping center, which contained the town’s only food store, is now completely abandoned. Downtown looks even worse, with many old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Hughes High School is abandoned, including the football field that was renamed for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn with such fanfare just two years ago. And even more shocking is the ruins of Mildred Jackson Elementary School, the campus of what was once the Black high school in Hughes. Not only is it abandoned, but in ruins, as part of the building has collapsed, likely from fire after it was abandoned. It is clear that the building has been vandalized and broken into. Not that the school situation is the cause of everything that has happened in Hughes. There is little industry there, and St. Francis County is not a rich county. Agriculture is not what is was, opportunity is limited, and close proximity to West Memphis and Memphis has encouraged many young people to move away. But the close proximity to Memphis could have been an asset rather than a curse. With proper planning, a better road link to Memphis, and a local school system, Hughes could conceivably have become a bedroom community for those who work in Memphis. It has many historic buildings and homes. But first, the draconian law that caused this kind of destruction needs to be repealed. Local communities that want to retain their own school districts should be allowed to do so. And in areas like many counties in Eastern Arkansas, where declining populations are wreaking havoc on local school districts, the state ought to consider the formation of county-based school systems, such as those in Tennessee and Mississippi, which would allow local high school like the one in Hughes to remain open. Without schools, no town can ever be renewed.
When the United States Department of Education complained about the location of Memphis’ all-Black Kortrecht High School in the middle of a noisy, smokey rail yard in South Memphis, the city finally decided to build the new comprehensive Black high school that the Black community had been asking for. The community considered it a victory, until they learned it was to be called the Memphis Negro Industrial High School. Outrage over the name led to one of the first sustained Black protests in Memphis, and though the community did not get their wish of a school named for its principal, Green Polonius Hamilton, they did get the name changed to Booker T. Washington, and the new school opened in 1927. Memphis folklore has it that the school board gave it green and gold colors and the mascot “Warriors” so that worn and used jerseys and jackets from the white Memphis High School (now Central) could be used at BTW. Over the years, Booker T. Washington furthered the hopes and dreams of generations of Black Memphians. It has produced great musicians like the Bar-Kays, and great athletes. A few years ago, it was visited by President Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, schools’ fates are largely determined by the neighborhood around them, and BTW’s future seems threatened, to say the least. Enrollment took a plunge when open enrollment and transfer allowed people in the district to attend high school elsewhere, and then the city began its program of demolition of the projects including Cleaborn Homes, where many BTW students resided. Now Memphis has received a 30 million dollar grant to demolish and replace Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis, where a lot of current BTW students live. With it being replaced by upscale housing for the wealthy, it is unclear whether BTW will retain enough enrollment to avoid state takeover or closure. But for now, fans and alumni still take pride in their team and band, turning out on Friday nights for the weekly games at historic Washington Stadium.
Last summer I railed against the construction and zoning of Shelby County’s all-Black Southwind High School, which the county school board seemed to be using to “whiten” Germantown, Houston and Collierville High Schools. Now the Metropolitan School District in Nashville is undergoing a similar crisis in which Black parents are objecting to a district rezoning that sends almost all of the district’s Black students to all-Black schools. Letters written by white people to the Nashville Scene reveal that many of them applaud the rezoning, and for distinctly racial reasons. One woman asked rhetorically why the “liberals” don’t want white people to be able to preserve their “white heritage”, while another stated that going to school with white people won’t fix what’s wrong with inner city Black youngsters. The tragic truth is that school boards are using neighborhood zoning to resegregate public schools, and they’re getting away with it. At a time when the courts should be more vigilant than ever, they are removing school districts from court supervision, and those districts are then proceeding to resegregate, presumably because most school boards are elected, and this is the politically-expedient thing to do, a popular move with white parents in many districts. Conservatives often argue that Black children don’t have to be in the same classroom with white children to learn- and if we’re talking about learning facts (times tables, history, the law of thermodynamics, etc.) that’s true. But learning also occurs when children interact with other children, especially those from a different background, and that learning is crucial. It is this learning that is lost when parents homeschool, or when children attend one-race schools. The current reality in the tragic situation is highlighted in situations like that of Southwind near Memphis, where the frehsman enrollment this year is down 200 students from projection. Evidently, many Black parents sold their homes and moved rather than subject their children to the indignities of a segregated, overcrowded school. It is a tragedy when people have to sell their homes and move to exercise a right to integrated schools that the constitution supposedly already gave them. If we insist on continuing to separate white and Black children in schools, we will reap a terrible harvest of hate from it in the future.