During the 1960’s, the new interstate highways began to bypass the old US highways and the towns along them, and gradually these towns began to fade into obscurity. But a trip along the old highways can be extremely rewarding, revealing ghost towns and historic buildings. On last Friday, August 1, I decided to make my trip to Jackson along Highway 51 from Batesville, and found some interesting and intriguing places. The tiny town of Pope, Mississippi in Panola County, aside from residences, was mainly one street along the railroad with a couple of old historic buildings, one of which had been turned into a restaurant called The Place, that looks as if it might warrant further investigation. But I was especially impressed with the town of Enid, from which Enid Lake draws its name although the lake and the town are in different counties. The town, in Tallahatchie County, seems barely above ghost town status these days, but its only remaining downtown building is now a performance space known as the Enid Music Hall, which features live music on weekends, often blues. On the other side of the railroad tracks was a very old wooden church, which certainly appears to be historic, although there is no historic marker. A sign on the building is rusted, but I could still make out that the building had been the Bethany Baptist Church. A nearby building looks as if it had been a one-room school, or perhaps an education building for the church. Down the road just below the city of Oakland, Mississippi, I came upon a large, abandoned school complex along Highway 51. With no signage there, I had no way of knowing what school it was, but I never fail to see these abandoned schools in Mississippi and Louisiana without being depressed. After all, these are poor states with great educational needs, and to see these taxpayer-funded investments rotting away in the Mississippi sun is not a good look at all.
On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I had to play with a jazz group for a wedding in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and once it was over, I headed out for New Orleans for the holiday. As I was heading down Highway 15, I came to a town called Reform, Mississippi, or I should perhaps say a former town. Like most ghost towns in Mississippi, this place was still inhabited, but its community institutions, a church and school were rather spectacular ruins. Unfortunately the building that appeared to have been a church was fenced in and inaccessible for closer investigation, but I was able to get some decent photos of the school. The sheer number of abandoned schools one passes in Mississippi is truly disturbing. In the course of my drive on that afternoon, I passed an abandoned high school in Maben, an abandoned college in Mathiston, this abandoned school in Reform, and another abandoned college campus in Newton that has been turned into an institution for the mentally ill.
After seeing an abandoned high school in Montpelier, the first thing I saw upon arriving in West Point was an abandoned college campus. Mary Holmes College had been a two-year school, supported by the Presbyterian church, and historically Black. Strict “No Trespassing” signs kept me from exploring the campus, but it seems a sad and forlorn place. It especially annoys me that at a time when more educational opportunities are needed, particularly for young Black men, colleges are being closed rather than new ones opening. But there’s always money for a new prison, or a war.
When I was young, I remember riding down to Starkville with my parents, and we went a route that took us through a small Clay County town called Montpelier, and I had remembered falling in love with it. It had the look of a very old town, and its buildings seemed to be historic, so I was looking forward to seeing it again for the first time since that day when I was little. Unfortunately, I was in for something of a shock, because Montpelier today has been decimated, and there is really very little trace of the charming village I recall from years ago. The building that I remembered as a store and post office is now abandoned, and the gas station next door to it is also abandoned. One tin-roofed seemingly historic house sits across the road, but it is overgrown with trees and weeds, and is behind a locked gate in the middle of a farm field and cannot be accessed. There are far fewer buildings than I recall from that childhood visit too, which suggests that a lot has just been torn down. Although when I checked in on my phone, the location read Montpelier Historic District, that truly seemed a cruel joke, since there was really nothing historic left. I headed on toward West Point in a rather depressed frame of mind, but the worst was yet to come. A complex of buildings on the road a few miles from the town proved to be an abandoned school. A still-visible sign on the gymnasium building told me that this school had been West Clay High School, but it was now sitting and rotting in the sun. I frequently come across abandoned schools in my travels, particularly in the South, and I never like to see them. Although I know that other provisions have been made for the kids involved, something about school buildings abandoned just seems wrong,as if we failed in our commitment to our young people. One wonders if the school was abandoned because Montpelier had been, or if Montpelier was abandoned because there was no longer a school.
The judge’s decision has been rendered in the contentious “stop-and-frisk” case in New York City, but a quote from Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s decision in the case raised my eyebrows, because, taken at face value, it could possibly have a bearing on whether municipal schools can open next year in Shelby County. Here is the quote:
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to every
person the equal protection of the laws. It prohibits intentional discrimination based on race.
Intentional discrimination can be proved in several ways, two of which are relevant here. A
plaintiff can show: (1) that a facially neutral law or policy has been applied in an intentionally
discriminatory manner; or (2) that a law or policy expressly classifies persons on the basis of
race, and that the classification does not survive strict scrutiny. Because there is rarely direct
proof of discriminatory intent, circumstantial evidence of such intent is permitted. “The impact
of the official action — whether it bears more heavily on one race than another — may provide
an important starting point.”
In other words, if I read Judge Scheindlin right, when a “facially neutral” law or policy has been applied in an intentionally discriminatory manner, it is illegal and unconstitutional. And the only proof needed of discriminatory intent is that the “impact” of the official action bears more heavily on one race than another. So the “facially neutral” municipal schools law in Tennessee may be found to have been applied in a biased way if it results in Black students being isolated in an all-Black school district. And the plaintiffs would need prove only that the municipal district adversely impacted Black students in Shelby County more than whites.
Does the formation of municipal schools in Shelby County violate Federal court orders pertaining to the rights of Black children to attend integrated schools? It certainly seems to, based on this quote from the Supreme Court’s holding in Cooper vs. Aaron (1958): In short, the constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color declared by this Court in the Brown case can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted “ingeniously or ingenuously.” Smith v. Texas, 311 U. S. 128, 311 U. S. 132.
Now it is obvious that the formation of municipal school districts is not a DIRECT attempt at nullifying Brown vs. Board of Education. But it is the second phrase that is more concerning- “nor nullified INDIRECTLY by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted “ingeniously or ingenuously.” In other words, in the light of Cooper vs. Aaron, actions that would ordinarily be perfectly lawful and constitutional are not if they result in school segregation. And the courts in my opinion cannot merely look at how diverse the new municipal districts would be. By that standard, Millington, Bartlett and Germantown would likely pass constitutional muster, although I still am not sure how many of those communities’ current Black students actually reside in those towns. Arlington, Lakeland and Collierville will likely run into problems on the diversity issue within their own districts.
But courts in the past have also looked at the effect the new districts would have on the district that is being left behind, namely the Shelby County Schools. And nobody has denied that the net effect of the new districts will be to leave SCS almost entirely Black and Hispanic, which is a clear violation of those children’s rights under Brown vs. Board and related cases, including Northcross vs. Memphis Board of Education. The municipal district supporters claim their motives have nothing to do with race, and if that indeed is the case, they should be prepared to prove it in court, not only by agreeing to allow all students who currently attend suburban schools to continue to do so, but also by agreeing to allow a certain number of inner city Memphis children into the new districts. Both would greatly increase the likelihood of Federal court approval for the municipal districts. But I doubt that suburban residents will support either, particularly when a certain Arlington municipal booster is making threats to limit enrollment to Arlington residents only unless their district is given the school buildings for free.
Round 1 of the battle between Bellevue Middle School drumline and the Star Steppers drumline in Memphis after the Liberty Bowl parade, 12/30/12