Monday, July 07, 2008

Rocky Road

Rocky Branch, Louisiana, is officially part of the parish seat of Farmerville. But the area very much has its own history. Black residents of Union Parish know it as a sundown town. My parents have always cautioned me that if I had to travel to or from Monroe after dark, take I-20 through Ruston. Do not, they drilled into me, take the "shortcut" through Rocky Branch.

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.'
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.
And so Union Parish, among others, finally learned what all deliberate speed would be.


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 James

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
I'll keep you updated.
*“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.


Giftie Etcetera said...

My friend Anissa (who is black) is a very brave social worker. She walks into homes that are dangerous to take children out of them or to counsel abused women, all the time. But she won't step foot in St. Amant, another small Louisiana town. She's the bravest person I know, yet she's too scared.

I wish it wasn't still like this, but I'm afraid it is. My parents told me about the three day strike the kids at their high school (including my parents, on their parents' orders) participated in when the school was integrated. My dad and mom graduated in 1971 and 1972, respectively, so it would have been around that time. My parents tell the story very matter-of-factly, but I feel intense shame when I think of my own parents - the ones who did not allow the "n" word in our home, welcomed all of my friends (whatever their backgrounds) into our home, and sent me to Louisiana School in part to experience relationships with people of backgrounds unlike mine - boycotting school because it integrated. I know, in my mind, that it's not my fault. I didn't even exist. And I'm a big believer that you shouldn't feel guilt for something you didn't do. But, still, I undeniably feel some shame.

My child will NEVER be in a position to feel that shame over my actions. And I will never live in St. Amant.

Occasional Blog Reader said...

I think you should re-visit your feelings on charter schools.

Yes, the racist shenanigans of the throwbacks in your county are transparent and shameful; however, the superiority of charter schools in general is simply not in question.

In general they spend less money and produce better results than traditional schools.

I think you might be buying old-school leftist propaganda by default. Not everything is black and white (in a sense).

On this topic, I think the evidence is overwhelming (See Green Dot for example). Charter schools are a benefit, and nit-picking about "special ed" is truly grasping for straws.

What is truly sad, though, is that these parents don't see the irony with sending their kids to a "Christian School" with those sorts of racist outlooks. Maybe they just did so because the schools were private?
I wonder if with the younger generation, racist attitudes like that will begin to be outnumbered? (Note I am not asking if racism will disappear in the future. I am only wondering if attitudes like that in rural Louisiana will begin to be isolated more and more. Look at the increase in interracial relationships and adoptions for example...)

From here, anyways, Louisiana seems to be a cesspool of character flaws. The whites there (some)are backwards like no other, and the urban centers are troubled like no other (not comparing).

elle said...


I'm always glad when you comment here, because we've seen so many of the same things from different places. I don't think many people outside the state (to be fair, maybe it's outside the South) know her very real and very much still-right-now some issues are.

Just read the post,

I understand what charter schools "could" be and how they could work. And I know many of our current school systems are failing abysmally. That's why I have mixed feelings.

Julie said...

Thanks for the great post. I don't know a lot about Louisiana, so I really enjoy these little "lessons" you put in your blog. It's amazing to me that this is 2008 and some of these issues still exist! I'll be interested to read your updates...

elle said...

re-reading comments and i'm a bit more bothered. first, bringing up charter schools' struggles in serving children with special needs, given that many claim to serve "at-risk" populations, is not nit picking.

and i've never claimed everything is black and white, but many things are black and white and increasingly, brown, in the rural South.

Julie thanks, as always, for stopping by. i challenged you to a meme a little while ago, if u ever have a free moment. ;-)

RageyOne said...

Great post, as always, Elle. Though I am a LA native, I'm not familiar with that story about Rocky Branch, Bernice HS, and the segregation/desegregation history in Union Parish.

Such an intriguing conundrum happening up there. I look forward to hearing the updates.

I, too, have mixed feelings about charter schools.

Anonymous said...

thanks for writing about this. it is very interesting, and the sort of thing that people don't realize still goes on. so many people, if they've heard of sundown towns, would say they no longer exist. gonna use this example with students, so thanks!

mrs. o said...

Being a teacher in Union Parish I experience firsthand the racial inequalities that occur in this poor parish of mine. You have no idea the feelings of helplessness and anger that I have to control when a white parent(s) informs me that they are "not prejudice," they just want better for their child. So although I am corresponding classes through LSU to make sure your child graduates, staying after school working with them on homework, counseling them about college, helping them feel out applications, listening to their problems and counseling them, taking them on field trips to broaden their horizons, spending hours upon hours outside of school assisiting them in whatever their child needs to learn in order to survive, all out of the goodness of my heart only to be told that you want BETTER for your child offends me in a way that the average person can not imagine. I am a very good teacher to ALL OF MY STUDENTS regardless of their race. I put my heart and soul into teaching and the thanks I get? Nine white parents removed their children from my school last year-although we a very safe school- and sent their children to schools that have a higher violence rate, but their school makeup includes a majority white or entirely white student body. My school is now 85% African American, 10% Hispanic American and 5% European American. So of course it is not safe-there are just to many African Americans. Prayer is my constant friend.

msladyDeborah said...

I learned a lot just reading this post.

As a parent of children who were forced into busing for intergration purposes, I have some very definite feelings on this whole process.

One of the things that became obvious after busing began~was the myth regarding white schools being better than the all black ones.

I graduated from an all black city high school in 1971. The staff had more teachers with Masters than any other city school. Not one of the all white schools could boast about this fact.

One of the best schools operating in my hometown is a charter school. The children who attend there are receiving a dynamic education. Meanwhile, our city district is no less than a hot mess!

I am one of those people who believe that children need to attend schools near home at least until middle school. Why? Access for parents and the support of the community.
Which is something that we had going for us because education was so important to our elders and emphasized all through our community.

I was not very popular with the local NAACP because I was anti-busing. Years later, what I believed to be true then was proven. Our children were not achieving as well as before. Many of those coveted schools were in worse physical condition than ours. The teachers were in many cases too nonchalant about achievement for their black students.

Reading this about sundown towns reminded me that there are places like that in Ohio.

I enjoyed reading this. I learned a lot.


Hello there!

I am new at this blog and I am so happy to have stumbled upon this issue!

I agree with MsLadyDeborah about the disadvantages of bussing black students to white neighborhoods...usually the black students who ARE being bussed are not from the same socioeconomic class as the white students...

As a former public school teacher, I can tell you that the black students who were in all-black environments were in for a very harsh reality when entering an all-white environment...they looked visibly uncomfortable...their clothing was different...their mannerisms...their dialect...and for MANY it seemed that it was the very first time that they were ANYWHERE in the minority...they were never aware (it seemed) that there were differences until they showed up at an all-white school and saw that the entire student body looked different (skin color), dressed entirely different, and had a different "teen slang" that they used with each other...

I saw that many black students were not doing well academically because they were completely uncomfortable in the setting. The teachers seemed to show favoritism towards the students who they were most familiar with...the students whose older siblings they had taught...the students whose parents they knew about...the white kids.

I am COMPLETELY against bussing black students outside of their own does not result in stronger academic performance for the majority of black students.

Thank you for blowing the trumpet!

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Please feel welcome to drop by my blog and share as often as you'd like! My door is always open! There's always something interesting cooking!

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