Fifty years ago, Baton Rouge made its first real attempt to integrate its schools. The school system today is nothing like what was envisioned.
In fall 1970, following a judge’s order, East Baton Rouge Parish erased school boundary lines that had largely kept Black children and White children from attending classes together. New “unified” lines produced many racially mixed “neighborhood schools,” or at least as mixed as various parts of the city could produce.
That’s all a distant memory now. Very few schools of any kind in East Baton Rouge have a racially mixed student body. The urban public schools are almost all Black or minority, while private and suburban public schools are mostly White.
“The school system is predominantly one race, and I find that to be a tragedy,” said Gary Mathews, who served as schools superintendent from 1995 to 2001.
Kirk Green, a social studies teacher at Westdale Middle School, says Baton Rouge is "a divided community" along racial, economic and cultural lines.
“It’s not all of it, but it’s large enough that you can look and see the divide,” he said.
As the 1960s came to a close, just 13% of the parish’s Black children were enrolled at schools with White children. In the 1970-71 school year, 86% of the parish’s Black children were enrolled with White children. Of the 102 schools in the public system then, just 19 remained all Black or White, half the number of the year before.
Children, however, soon began re-sorting themselves on their campuses, and some families moved elsewhere in the parish, and later into neighboring parishes, in an effort to preserve their personal status quo.
“Neighborhood school desegregation plans just as a general rule don’t work,” said Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University. “They can’t work because the neighborhoods themselves are segregated.”
In 1970, the racial makeup of East Baton Rouge Parish was about two-thirds White, as was its schools. The hope at the time was an increasing number of public schools would, before long, achieve a similar mix. In his order, one of many similar federal court orders that went into effect at this time across the South, U.S. District Judge E. Gordon West called for school faculty at all schools to have the same racial balance of the parish as a whole.
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Having lost in the courts, many of integration’s fiercest opponents decided to start their own schools instead. Dozens of private schools popped up all over Louisiana, enrolling tens of thousands of White children. They were especially popular in parishes with large Black populations. Pointe Coupee Parish, for instance, saw at least nine such schools open in 1969 when it was forced to integrate.
The state of Louisiana took a stand, too, and it stood with the separatist schools. It set aside $10 million to help pay the salaries of teachers at these new segregationist academies. Some schools ended up closing, though, after a 1975 court ruling said Louisiana could not accredit private schools that wouldn’t accept students of all races.
Advances and Retreats
Prior to integration, Black high schools had been pillars in their communities. Afterward, many buildings were converted to junior highs, but some were demolished altogether. Many of their best teachers were transferred to White schools to help the parish achieve its court-mandated 2-to-1 mix.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, all-Black Northwestern High was converted to a middle school, while previously all-White Zachary High became the area’s sole high school.
Jerry Boudreaux, Zachary High’s new principal, met with residents for months ahead of fall 1970 to prepare the community. The school system became a source of local pride that carried over beyond 2003, when it broke away from the East Baton Rouge district. It emerged as the top school district in the state and remains so to this day. Enrollment now is roughly half White and half Black.
The rest of the parish hasn’t fared so well.
With White flight into surrounding parishes or into private schools, several predominantly White Baton Rouge schools quickly shifted to predominantly Black schools during the 1970s. In the 1980s, a new, and even more controversial, court order required crosstown busing. White flight accelerated, especially the outmigration of families to neighboring parishes.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system, formerly fast-growing, saw enrollment growth slow in the early 1970s, peaking in 1976 at almost 70,000 students. Since then, the district’s enrollment has dropped 40%; that includes losses to separate school districts in Baker, Central and Zachary. During that time, the population of the parish has grown by 34%, but the ranks of school-age children has declined by 11%.
White vs. Black school population in East Baton Rouge Parish, 1970-2019
Voters in the southeastern corner of the parish have voted to create a new city of St. George, a potential step toward carving out another separate district.
In the East Baton Rouge district now, White students make up 11% of the enrollment, and last year, for the first time, Hispanic students outnumbered White ones.
What was done, what can be done
Professor Samuels said desegregation had its best chance to succeed in the 1950s when the Brown v. Board of Education case was still fresh and Baton Rouge was a smaller, less sprawling place. By the time U.S. District Judge John Parker issued his 1981 busing order, it was too late, he said.
“Baton Rouge was really a full 10 years behind the rest of the country in terms of implementing a mandatory busing order,” Samuels said.
Mathews said Judge Parker’s order relied too heavily on force and should have focused more on voluntary student transfers, magnet programs and other more popular desegregation tools.
“It really alienated Black and White parents alike and didn’t fix the problem it set out to remedy,” Mathews said.
To begin to reverse that outmigration, the district would need to affix across-the-board quality as its North Star.
“Is it possible to arrive at such a place? Yes, but ultimately it comes down to having high quality instruction and teachers no matter what schools you attend in East Baton Rouge,” he said.
Press Robinson, who spent 22 years on the parish School Board, blames the failure of desegregation on White leaders of the time who failed to find a way forward.
The most promising way to integrate any school, he said, is to offer something special. As an example, he noted the law school at Southern University, where White students make up about half the enrollment.
“When there are programs that people will want, (people) will go to the programs where they are,” Robinson said.
Westdale Middle, where Green teaches, has among the broadest mix of offerings in the parish, including gifted, foreign language immersion and extensive special education services. By Baton Rouge public school norms, it’s diverse, but still only about 10% of the students are White.
Green said Westdale’s diversity attracts some families, but scares others. The school alone cannot break down barriers.
“The family is the first teacher of the child, not me,” he said. “I can teach you diversity until I’m blue in the face, but if you go home and your parents are rabid racists I’m not going to make a dent in that."
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Baton Rouge High was one of the first schools to experience significant White flight.
For much of its history, the high school educated only White children, though there are Black neighborhoods adjacent to the school. The first Black students enrolled in 1963, a group of 27 racial pioneers who voluntarily transferred from Black high schools. By 1969, the year before full integration, only 122 students at Baton Rouge High were Black, or about 8%.
In fall 1970, Black enrollment at the high school nearly quadrupled, with Black students making up 31% of the students.
Five months into the school year, as many as 250 students left class and wouldn’t return, protesting the school’s unwillingness to lower the school flag to half-staff to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated three years earlier. White families soon began to leave.
Tara High School, which opened in fall 1970, took in many from BRHS. Already predominantly White, Tara added more than 400 White students in its second year in operation.
At a September 1971 School Board meeting, Ted Mann, a parent of a Baton Rouge High student, said the high school was deteriorating and that it would soon “lose the last nucleus of those who give a damn about the school.” Baton Rouge High was two-thirds Black in 1975 and the next year the school board converted it into a selective magnet school. White enrollment shot back up to more than 80%.
‘Resist, delay and dilute’
Douglas Raymond Davis, now an education professor at Ole Miss, wrote his 1999 doctoral dissertation on the challenges faced by Baton Rouge teachers in 1970 who were “crossing over” to schools of the opposite race.
Joyce Robinson, a teacher at all-Black Harding Elementary, told Davis that many of the new White teachers who came to her school that year struggled to communicate with the new pupils.
“There were racial slurs on the parts of both,” Robinson recalled. “There were times when students made some of these slurs as well as, believe you me, there were teachers who made comments that were inappropriate.”
The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education prompted nearly universal opposition from White Southerners and unprecedented obstruction from White Southern leaders. In his dissertation, Davis describes the next 16 years in Baton Rouge as a time of “resist, delay and dilute.”
On Sept. 3, 1954, just three months after the landmark ruling, 39 Black children walked to the doors of all-White Gilmer Wright Elementary in Baton Rouge and attempted to enroll, but were turned away. In early 1956, Black families in Baton Rouge filed a lawsuit to desegregate the schools, a lawsuit that took 51 years to resolve.
The first successful school integration in Louisiana was in November 1960, when four federal marshals escorted 6-year-old Ruby Bridges through a jeering crowd of White protestors into an all-White elementary school in New Orleans.
It would take the rest of the following decade before Louisiana children, Black and White, attended school together in notable numbers. That integration process saw Black children endure ridicule and threats to enroll in White schools. White children almost never voluntarily enrolled in Black schools.
“They didn’t receive us with welcome arms,” recalled Tommie Gipson. “The whole system, everybody.”
Gipson was among just a handful of Black students at the formerly all-White Westdale Junior High — now where Green teaches. He recalled White students standing 6 feet away from him in the lunch line, and after lunch was even worse.
"They would make a big circle around us, call us monkeys and throw things at us,” Gipson recalled
Now a pastor at Donaldson Chapel Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Gipson was the oldest of three children in a military family. He had attended an integrated school in New Mexico with White and Hispanic students, but his parents — mom from Baton Rouge, dad from East Feliciana Parish — decided to come home.
“My parents told me, ‘You’re going back to the South. It’s different.’”
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Instead of integrated schools, Gipson spent fourth through seventh grade in all-Black Mayfair Elementary and Valley Park Junior High. Baton Rouge at the time, the 1960s, was attempting to integrate schools one grade at a time. Seniors went first in 1963, but under the district schedule, kindergartners wouldn't have integrated until 1975.
This approach, known as “freedom of choice,” was popular in many Southern school districts that wanted to slow walk school integration. Federal courts ordered districts to move faster.
In an interview with Davis in 1997, then-East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Robert Aertker defended the freedom of choice plan, saying it minimized racial unrest.
“The fact that we had very little incidents of that nature indicates that the plan we had, while it was slow, was at least effective and was working,” he said.
In fall 1967, freedom of choice in Baton Rouge reached eighth grade, the grade Gipson was entering. His parents decided to transfer Tommie, a self-described "nerd," from Valley Park to Westdale Junior High, which was stronger academically.
“I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I told you there wasn’t a difference,” Gipson said.
But the ostracization and isolation at Westdale took its toll. He and others who transferred were on track to be school leaders, but at White schools they were held back.
“You were put in a situation where you were made to feel like less than nothing and that you should be glad just to be there,” he said. On the positive side, he made lasting friendships. “You become close friends in that situation.”
In 1970, his junior year, Gipson entered the newly built Tara High. He was one of 170 Black students that first year, most of them new to all-White schools. He and his Black classmates took advantage of their greater numbers to fight back and, in some cases, became the aggressors, he said. Incidents of White students preying upon Black students dropped.
“You don’t say the N-word when you get hit in the mouth,” Gipson said.
Gipson and others pressed, among other things, to have Black students on the all-White homecoming court and to start a Black studies course. Their activism culminated in a Jan. 13, 1972, incident where he and almost all the Black students at Tara left the school in protest, which made the local news.
Once he graduated from Tara, Gipson exclusively attended historically Black colleges, earning three degrees along the way. He said that requiring the desegregation could only go so far.
“We legislated integration, but these folks didn’t change," he said.