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Integration Still a Challenge in Fort Worth

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: The story of Fort Worth's school desegregation begins 45 years ago and 20 miles away in the city of Mansfield.

[Audio clip: Civil rights workers begin to sing "No more segregation"]

Sprague: Mansfield was the first Texas school district ordered by a federal court to open its all-white high school to African Americans. Public opinion, however, was strongly opposed to the plan. Clifford Davis, at the time a lawyer for the NAACP, remembers the first day of school in 1956.

Clifford Davis, former NAACP attorney: When the day of integration came, a mob gathered at the school to prevent it and the incidents originated after that.

Sprague: Angry white residents hung three black students in effigy and beat up several outside observers. President Eisenhower, in the midst of a re-election campaign, declined to intervene. Mansfield became the first place where a federal desegregation order went unenforced, as black students returned to a segregated high school in Fort Worth.

[Civil rights music fades out]

Robert Starr, Former Teacher: Some of us were so segregated we really didn't know how the other part of the city, the other part of the nation lived.

Sprague: Robert Starr taught in Fort Worth's segregated schools.

Starr: For example, when I was a fifth grade teacher, in order for me to determine whether we were teaching the same thing as the other schools, as the white schools, I would have friends of mine who were custodians or maids who worked in the white schools, to bring me papers from their wastebasket or from their bulletin boards.

Sprague: This frustration with segregation reached a boiling point in 1959, when two black families sued Fort Worth ISD. Clifford Davis was their attorney.

Davis: I think there was the interest on the part of the general public that we not have the experience Mansfield had, and there must have been some good people, because it did not explode as it did in Mansfield.

Sprague: Still, a federal court had to order the Fort Worth schools to desegregate in 1962. The school board then voted unanimously to integrate one grade per year. And in 1963, 20 black students entered the first grade in previously all-white schools without incident. Later, the government stepped in again, telling Fort Worth to speed up its timetable. So by 1969, legal segregation was history. But the debate over the education of minority students was far from over.

Reverend Michael Bell, Spokesman, Local Organizing Committee: So when you talk about desegregation, it never really occurred in reality like it did on paper. And that continues to be a problem.

Sprague: Reverend Michael Bell is the spokesman for the Local Organizing Committee in Fort Worth. His group has called for better educational opportunities for black students since the federal court lifted its oversight of Fort Worth ISD in 1994. Bell says, in some ways, desegregation has been a curse because white administrators and teachers have not been sensitive to the interests of black students.

Bell: There was no adjustment in curriculum to reflect diversity. African American contributions to history were not adequately recorded and taught.

Sprague: Bell has also targeted magnet schools, academically superior programs that drew white students into mostly black schools.

Bell: The magnet schools were supposed to desegregate the schools. What it ended up being was a program where under one roof you had two schools. That's why a magnet is called a school within a school. You really had a private school and public expense. There was no real rubbing of elbows.

Sprague: And black students continued to lag behind their white counterparts. Bell advocated strong neighborhood schools - even if housing patterns would lead to de facto segregation. But he was largely ignored until 1997, when Reverend Bell began protesting at the mostly white and wealthy Tanglewood Elementary School. Community leaders saw their relatively smooth pattern of desegregation begin to unravel, and soon Bell was meeting regularly with school and city officials.

Hardy Murphy, Mediator and former Fort Worth Desegregation Monitor: Everyone around the table was there for the same purpose.

Sprague: Hardy Murphy was Fort Worth's desegregation monitor for seven years. He mediated the disputes between Bell and officials even after he moved to Illinois to be a superintendent in 1999.

Murphy: I think what everyone understood was that in order for the Fort Worth community to thrive, the Fort Worth Independent School District had to thrive. And if all of the children in the Fort Worth ISD weren't succeeding, then we did not have a district that was moving forward progressively.

Sprague: So Fort Worth dismantled its magnet schools. It developed a pre-kindergarten curriculum for day care programs. And it launched reading and math programs in the elementary schools. But it hasn't been an easy chapter for the Fort Worth ISD to write.

Gary Manny, President, Fort Worth School Board: To some extent, not being able to operate under that court order is harder than operating under that court order.

Sprague: Gary Manny has been the president of the Fort Worth School Board since 1988.

Manny: You could under the court order, do many of the things, in terms of providing additional opportunities, integrating the system, that you cannot do in this new age of neutrality.

Sprague: Such as affirmative action programs to help hire minority teachers.

Gary Manny: Try as we would like to go out and promote and hire and employ minority teachers, we cannot go out and advertise that as an open aim and purpose.

Sprague: The percentage of black teachers in Fort Worth schools has declined slightly since the desegregation order was lifted. Reverend Michael Bell is continuing to push the district on this issue. But just last month, Bell announced he would no longer picket the public schools because a recent report from Hardy Murphy indicates Fort Worth is getting better at educating minority children.

Murphy: I think that one thing that has to be acknowledged is that the schools are doing well with respect to the state accountability system. And I said that in the report.

Sprague: In 1994, Fort Worth didn't have any schools rated "exemplary" by the Texas Education Agency. Today, it has 10. And this year, Trimble Tech became the district's first high school to earn the label "recognized" from the state.

[Ambient sound of teacher talking to class: So what's the number? 24? There you go. Now, put it in.]

Sprague: It's a significant accomplishment for Trimble Tech, which is comprised mostly of black and Hispanic students. But Vice Principal Margaret Humphries says race is not the important issue. She says unabashed preparation for the state's TAAS test should be the focus.

Margaret Humpries, Vice Principal, Trimble Tech: We provide the help. Whatever it takes. Whether it's during lunch or after school, hiring someone to come in and work with them or someone to come in to substitute while one of the teachers takes them for a week.

Sprague: The focus at Trimble Tech is on student performance, which is practically a mantra for the school district these days. Again, Board President Gary Manny.

Manny: You have got to make the public schools competitive with and able to vie with the private schools for the level of education that's being delivered. We're trying to do that. We're trying to make the public school system at least as good as if not better than the private education system.

Sprague: Manny says Fort Worth schools are as diverse as housing patterns will allow. But does that meet the original challenge of America's public school system - to educate all students together? Reverend Michael Bell is wary of the phrase "separate but equal," but he does believe schools where one race dominates can work. And he warns it is not yet time to close the book on the story of school desegregation in Fort Worth.

Bell: This is not the end, and we're going to be as unrelenting in the rest of the journey as we have been with what we've dealt with so far.

Sprague: For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.