Today, I asked my dad if he knew specific examples of why Rocky Branch was considered a sundown town. "No," he said, "My parents taught me the same thing. So when I thought I would be there after dark, I took my pistol."
Thirty-one miles northwest of Rocky Branch lies another Union Parish town named Bernice. The black students who comprised part of the class of 1970 at Bernice High School (BHS, also in Union Parish) call themselves the "lost class." I heard the story the first time at Mrs. O's mother's wake. Many of her classmates shared stories of their time together. Invariably, they alluded to the "lost class" story. Sometimes, they laughed about it. Other times, they sounded bitterly hurt. (continued under the fold)
The lost class story centers, in a literal sense, around a picture. Each senior class at BHS has a collage class portrait in the hallway of the building that houses the administrative office. BHS integrated, finally, during the 1969/1970 school year. One Friday, the black children at the segregated Westside High were told that they would not return there. Monday morning, they reported to BHS. The white senior class had already taken its portraits. The school refused to re-do it. Thus the first integrated class at BHS is represented by an all-white portrait.
Union Parish had resisted integration quite successfully. In 1960 the school board resolved that it would refute any efforts at "race mixing," reassuring white parents that it stood for complete segregation.* Parish residents sent a letter to Governor Jimmie Davis, urging him to "use every power at your command, including the Legislature, interposition, or any other means to retain segregation."** Both The Gazette, Farmerville's newspaper, and the Bernice News-Journal posted an essay, above their headers, about the "Tragedy of New Orleans" school desegregation.
As late as 1969, judges included Union Parish in the following description:
Fifteen years after Brown, school boards in the Western District of Louisiana are still unwilling to face up to the prerequisites to effective desegregation. These prerequisites are the transitionary short steps which must be taken now and the planning for the long steps that must be taken to effect lock-stock-and-barrel desegregation. More than two years after Jefferson this Court is still not able to get the message through to these school boards that the standard for determining the effectiveness of a desegregation plan is an objective one: Does it work?The answer, in Union Parish, was no.
Union Parish had a "freedom of choice plan" which allowed students to choose which school to attend. During the 1968-69 school year, only .4% of black children in the parish attended formerly "white" schools. In May of 1969, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit noted:
We do not abdicate our judicial role to statistics. But when figures speak we must listen. It is abundantly clear that freedom of choice, as presently constituted and operating in the Western District school districts before us, does not offer the 'real prospect' contemplated by Green, and 'cannot be accepted as a sufficient step to 'effectuate a transition' to a unitary system.'And so Union Parish, among others, finally learned what all deliberate speed would be.
We are urged by appellants to order on a plenary basis for all these school districts that the district court must reject freedom of choice as an acceptable ingredient of any desegregation plan. Unquestionably as now constituted, administered and operating in these districts freedom of choice is not effectual.
But the issue of school desegregation was not decided in 1969 for Union Parish. By 2004, BHS was overwhelmingly black. And Rocky Branch Elementary, a K-8 school, had 2 Latin@ students. The rest of the 160+ students were white.
Segregated schools were not the only problems faced in Union Parish. The school district is quite poor--I often tell the story of how, when I taught there in the late 90s/early 00s, we were still using purple, ditto copies. There was never enough of anything--the playground had no equipment. Our textbooks were outdated. We were underpaid. Saving money was always priority.
But how do you save what there is so little of?
And so, the school board proposed another solution. Union Parish, in terms of land area, is the second largest parish in Louisiana. Transporting students to so many locations was expensive. But full consolidation meant that many students would spend hours a day on a bus. The compromise was to close three schools. Rocky Branch Elementary was one of the three.
Our first reaction was, "Please. They are not going to let their kids go to school with ours."
And many Rocky Branch parents didn't. They relied on the old standby in this area, the private Cedar Creek School. Some sent their kids across parish lines to Ouachita Christian, the legality of which is questionable. They swelled the enrollment at Union Christian Academy.***
But most significantly, they began to press for a charter school, D'Arbonne Woods. Insistently.
Initially, they were turned down as Union Parish residents spoke out about "Rocky Branch and its history as it relates to race." The Union Parish School Board refused to sponsor them as did the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
The D'Arbonne Woods board kept pressing. So much so that the UPSB's new superintendent briefly considered re-opening Rocky Branch Elementary. The tide began to turn for the charter school board. In 2007, the Louisiana legislature issued resolutions supporting the creation of the charter school. Finally, last December, BESE approved their request with contingencies.
And one of those contingencies is the reason I began this post with the two stories I did. On July 11, D'Arbonne Woods Charter School must demonstrate to a federal court that they comply "with the same federal desegregation order by which most districts in Louisiana still operate under." The board has been careful to portray the school as a public charter school open to anyone. The board's executive director, Corie Williams, claims that
We have gone above and beyond in our efforts toward minority recruitment. We have a board level minority committee that is charged with that very thing, to make sure that we are doing more than everyone else in actively recruiting minorities.I have no doubt that they've done what will look good on paper. But as my sister asked when we were discussing this, given the not-so-distant history of Rocky Branch, who among us will be willing to let our children go?
I should note two things here. First, I have mixed feelings about charter schools, especially in economically poor areas. I've already noted that funding for public education in Union Parish is atrocious. ****Update below**** Union Parish could lose approximately $453,000 to D'Arbonne Woods. They would want to use the Parish's bus system and would occupy, for this first year, the property owned by the school board. Also, D'Arbonne Woods has a stated mission of serving at-risk students, a group which includes children with special needs. But Louisiana charter schools haven't been too successful at meeting these children's needs.
Second, Union Parish is a struggling school district. Louisiana gives schools a ranking from one to five stars. Six out of seven Union Parish schools earned one star for the 2006-07 school year. Test scores are overwhelmingly below state average. Intervention and alternatives are definitely needed.
But I would note that the people of Rocky Branch had no problem being part of Union Parish School District as long as their children were allowed to remain in their 99% white school.
There is a petition circulating in the parish, the text of which is below.
The Honorable Judge Robbie JamesI'll keep you updated.
As residents of Union Parish, we, the undersigned, are deeply concerned about the adverse affect D'Arbonne Woods Charter School will have on Union Parish public schools and the future of our children and communities.
Given that the school would be free from many laws and regulations governing public schools and has a not-so-clear admission policy, and the known history of Rocky Branch's racial disparity in education--Eric Cleveland v. Union Parish School Board--we strongly feel D'Arbonne Woods Charter School, located in Rocky Branch, would undo all efforts put forth by BESE to guarantee racial balance in our schools and academic equality for all students.
We furthermore feel those precious dollars taken from existing schools to support D'Arbonne Woods Charter School would cause additional financial hemorrhaging to those already suffering schools and communities.
We believe a quality education is every child's inheritance, but that it does not have to come at such a large cost to children and communities.
We are encouraged you will rule on what is just, true and fair for a secure future for our children and their future.
Union Parish Residents, Parents, Educators, Students, and Community Leaders
*“Board Reaffirms Stand on Segregation,” The Gazette, 15 December 1960.
** “Local Citizens Back Governor in Segregation Fight,” The Gazette, 10 November 1960.
***Buses for Cedar Creek and UCA come to our town, too. They pick up children in the parking lot of this church, as Mrs. O noted, that has segregated gym nights.
****Update**** That is, if local school boards are required to fund a portion of Type II charter schools.