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Trailblazers of integration: African Americans in area remember trials, triumphs of tumultuous process

 

Starkville resident John Moore taught building and construction technology at Henderson High School, the all-black high school in Starkville, in the late 1960s at the beginning of racial integration in public schools. He later taught at Starkville High School, starting in 1972, just two years after city schools became fully integrated.

Starkville resident John Moore taught building and construction technology at Henderson High School, the all-black high school in Starkville, in the late 1960s at the beginning of racial integration in public schools. He later taught at Starkville High School, starting in 1972, just two years after city schools became fully integrated. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Isabelle Altman

 

The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.

 

Before Henry Ashford started his senior year of high school in 1966, his father sat him down and asked him if he wanted to be one of the first black students to attend Starkville High School. 

 

"He wanted me to do it," Ashford said. "So I did it -- mostly for him." 

 

Ashford was one of five black seniors to graduate from SHS in 1967 -- the first year black students attended what had previously been an all-white high school. They weren't alone -- black students in Columbus and other parts of Mississippi began attending all white high schools by choice in the late '60s before the state began court-ordered integration in the '70s. 

 

Ashford's father, Wilson Ashford, was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and wanted one of his children to be part of integration efforts. 

 

"He said, 'Would you be willing to go?'" Ashford recalled. "... I said, 'Things have got to change some time.'" 

 

 

 

Embracing the risk 

 

In 1966, it had been more than 10 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case that public school systems couldn't discriminate against students on the basis of race. But Mississippi still had segregated schools.  

 

"The African Americans had to petition ... school boards and things and basically they had no power," said Jim Adams, professor of education at Mississippi State University. 

 

Black parents who tried to enroll their children in the "white" schools found themselves targets of members of organizations that opposed racial integration, such as the Citizens Council and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. The organizations, Adams said, posted the names of parents of those children on store windows and in other public places, and they could lose their jobs or worse. 

 

"No matter how you look at it, whites didn't want blacks in their schools," Adams said. "...The ramifications for African Americans doing this were severe." 

 

So, it was a risk for students from the all-black Henderson High School in Starkville to switch schools in the late '60s. But there was also a feeling of hope at the forward momentum. 

 

"It was an exciting time," said John Moore, a construction technology teacher at Henderson in the '60s who taught at SHS in the '70s. "I think everybody was ready for it because the resources at the high school were better. ... All the facilities were better, even the football field." 

 

The situation was the same across the river in Columbus, where students at the all-black Hunt High School had to make do with fewer activities and sub-par facilities compared to the all-white Lee High School, said former students Mary Moore and Sammie Williams. 

 

"Textbooks were hand-me-down," Mary Moore said. "All the equipment was hand-me-down." 

 

 

 

Enduring the challenges 

 

Ashford thinks Starkville handled integration better than most places in Mississippi -- he doesn't remember riots or fights. For the most part, he got along with his white classmates. 

 

That doesn't mean there weren't problems for him and the other black students though -- particularly from an English teacher. 

 

"He failed us intentionally so we couldn't graduate with the white class at graduation time," Ashford said. "He failed us on purpose. We had to go to summer school that summer, and we passed English that summer." 

 

The teacher apologized about five or six years later, he said, after becoming friends with Ashford's father. But in class, Ashford recalled the teacher ignored black students who raised hands to ask questions in class. Students who were failing academically weren't allowed to be involved in social or extracurricular activities, he added, meaning he and the other black students couldn't do a lot of things high school students would normally do, like go to prom. 

 

The biggest change for Hunt students, Mary Moore said, was going from a place where black students were the total population to a place where they were the minority -- from a school where every member of the homecoming court was black to one where every member was white, where white students didn't necessarily speak to their black peers in public if they were with their parents and where parents had to throw private proms to their kids after Lee administrators decided not to hold a school-wide prom. 

 

 

 

Moving toward full integration 

 

After Ashford graduated, more black students continued attending SHS until 1970 when Starkville ended racial segregation in the school district. The same scenario played out in Columbus that year, with black students from Hunt heading to previously white high schools. 

 

The movement had happened all over the state. In 1969, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans handed down a decision in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education. 

 

"In Mississippi, it ordered 33 school districts to desegregate immediately," Adams said. 

 

Now faced with the loss of federal funds if they didn't comply, schools boards across the South began to desegregate the school systems. 

 

Mary Moore was part of the 1971 graduating class at Lee High, the first to be totally racially integrated. 

 

"We knew that someone would have to make that initial move, but no one wanted to be that class," she said. 

 

 

 

Resistance and resolution 

 

Williams remembers a few fights at Lee High, but he doesn't remember much that was overtly threatening, especially from students. If anyone was a problem, he said, it was white parents, who began taking their students out of the public schools and sending them to private schools. 

 

"A lot of the white kids transferred and went to Heritage," he said. "... A lot of students didn't want to be with us." 

 

That was a typical move all over the state, according to Adams. 

 

"In spring of 1970, you'll find private schools," he said. "They were abounding." 

 

Still, the majority of Mississippi's school children attended public schools -- and for the Starkville students, SHS was better than Henderson, with more opportunities, from extra-curriculars to more advanced textbooks, John Moore said. 

 

"The student body was larger, and you had more of a racial mix-up," he said. "... It had new facilities, new equipment, textbooks. It was nice." 

 

John Moore began teaching at SHS in 1972. By then, he said, black teachers had the support of administrators. There were still occasional "scuffles" between black and white students and he imagines plenty of white teachers grumbled under their breath. But for the most part, things had improved for black students and teachers. 

 

Mary Moore and Williams also said that while not all the teachers at Lee were as dedicated to students -- particularly the black students -- facilities and resources were superior at Lee. 

 

"We just wanted to be equal," Williams said. "We wanted to have the same opportunities."

 

 

 

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