Northsiders played key roles in Yazoo City

By JAY WIENER,

Although May 17, 1954, on which day Brown v. Board of Education was decided, was called “Black Monday,” it’s now been 50 years since Alexander v. Holmes County was decided, which affected Mississippi schoolchildren more. The United States Supreme Court, in Alexander, allowed that public school integration “with all deliberate speed,” mandated by Brown, meant “NOW!”

Alexander, filed in 1968, alleged that the freedom of choice plans were constitutionally defective, having maintained two public school systems since Brown. A separate but equal segregationist society continued in fact if not under law.

It is instructive to talk with students in school then, and their parents and teachers, to appreciate circumstances casting a long shadow. Seeking to learn more, I spoke with Harriet Decell Kuykendall — widow of Sen. Herman Decell — and JoAnne Prichard Morris — widow of writer Willie Morris — to hear about Yazoo City where they lived then — although Northsiders now.

Willie, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Magazine then, expanded his 1970 essay on court-ordered integration in his hometown into his 1971 book “Yazoo:  Integration in a Deep-Southern Town,” which provides indispensable insight into public school desegregation.

Harriet, raised in Cleveland, moved to Yazoo City following graduation from Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College. Harriet taught elementary school for one year before teaching mathematics at Yazoo City High School.

Harriet quit two years later and had three children before returning to academia after they began grade school. Harriet started teaching American History at Yazoo City High School in 1966, the year that JoAnne, raised in Indianola, moved to Yazoo City to teach American Literature at Yazoo City High School after graduation from Ole Miss.

In 1967, Harriet and JoAnne combined efforts. Instead of teaching separate American history and American literature classes, they taught humanities together for two hours in the morning with 50 students meeting in the cafeteria at Yazoo City High School.

Yazoo City’s public school system was strong. Administrators welcomed innovation. The Superintendent used the contingency fund for experimentation “as long as I do not hear about it at the Post Office.”

The humanities class was so successful that Harriet and JoAnne volunteered to teach it at N.D. Taylor High School, the historically African-American public high school, as their contribution to desegregation. They began teaching there, in the library during the second semester of the academic year. Harriet and JoAnne were the first — and only — Caucasian teachers at an African-American public school in Yazoo City at the time. The class was successful enough that an African-American instructor became the third member of their team during the 1968-69 academic year.

While African-American and Caucasian parents feared what might fail, Harriet and JoAnne never sensed the same in their children, who accepted integration as inevitable progress.

After Alexander was decided, a foundation existed to desegregate Yazoo City Public Schools. Yazoo City implemented integration more successfully than Jackson.

People wanted integration to succeed. A Friends of the Public Schools organization commenced. Community forums were held. An intention to integrate existed.

Mississippi Chemical, the dominant industry, supported integration.  Owen Cooper, its president (and father of longtime Northsider Nancy Cooper Gilbert), sent the message that integration would happen and efforts to subvert the rule of law would not be countenanced by civic leaders. Jim Yates, minister of the First Baptist Church, said that it was the Christian thing to do. Instead of roiling the waters as Gov. Ross Barnett did when Ole Miss integrated, city fathers stated that integration would happen. Their words were calming.

Sentiments had changed rapidly during the five years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Harriet and JoAnne believe that the Civil Rights Movement educated African-Americans and caucasians alike and people evolved. Efforts succeeded in keeping white parents and white students from abandoning public schools. Cohesion was paramount.

There was one public middle school and one public high school when the 1970-71 academic year commenced. Federal funds and anti-poverty programs — along with Mississippi Chemical — catalyzed integration. As funding diminished during the 1980s, caucasian enrollment in the public schools diminished. Efforts to keep white students in the public schools effectively ended in the early 1990s.

The irrelevant small private school, Manchester Academy, begun after Alexander became more popular. It is now nondiscriminatory in admitting students.  Not all schools started as “white flight academies” see that as their mission, 50 years later.

Challenges remain, some of them immense. The 50th anniversary of Alexander allows insight into progress and what remains to be done. People of conscience continue to pursue harmony.

Jay Wiener is a Northsider.

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