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3/18/2019 "The Black Economy 50 Years After The March On Washington"

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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Desegregation Seen As Bad For Black Businesses by Deangelo McDaniel

Suraya Wynn Cannon walked to the commons area of Eastwood Elementary School, leaned her head back and looked to the sky for the right words.

The question was straightforward. How did school desegregation affect the black community in Decatur?

The exposure for some of the students was good, she said. It carried them from an environment that they rarely left.

But desegregation displaced other students and took them away from the community that gave security.

Cannon said there was comfort in numbers, and seeing a majority like you made the students feel safe.

"I know that desegregation was good, but it came with a big price for the black community," she said.

Cannon, now a teacher's aide at Eastwood, said she has mixed feelings about desegregation because of its cost to the black community.

Some called it progress. She doesn't disagree.

Bad for business

"But integration killed the black business community," she said. "Before the schools integrated, we had everything in our community. There were grocery stores, restaurants, insurance companies and a fish market. We had everything.

"Teachers and preachers lived in the community," Cannon continued. "We had role models. Teachers who lived here went to parents when their kids were having problems in school. They didn't wait until they had failed the class. We lost this when the board transferred black teachers to white schools."

By the start of the 1965-66 academic year, the Decatur City System had a desegregation plan approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Johnny Smither served on the board that submitted the plan.

"I can't recall everything, but we were doing what they (the federal government) told us to do," Smither, 83, said.

He remembers that it was difficult to please black and white communities and government lawyers.

"We kept good minutes," he said to the next question.

The late Julian Harris was attorney for the city system. The minutes show that the board entrusted him and the superintendent to handle desegregation issues.

Decatur's dealings with the federal government were routine until the board met with Gov. George Wallace in the spring of 1966.

Wallace and then state Superintendent Ernest Stone convinced the school board that the federal mandates about student ratios and faculty desegregation were illegal.

Withdrew agreement

"To the extent that such regulations may be contrary to law, we withdraw any agreement to comply with them," the board recorded following a May 26, 1966, meeting.

An apparently harmonious relationship between Decatur and the federal government soured.

During the next two years, the mandates from the federal government carried a threatening tone. The government replaced thank-you messages with threats to withhold federal monies.

In 1968, government lawyers accused Decatur of still operating a "dual school" system because the curriculums at previously all-white Decatur and Austin high schools were different from Lakeside, the black high school.

Major challenge

The toughest hurdle for Decatur was faculty integration because there was resistance from both black and white communities.

About 125 people, consisting mostly of white teachers and parents, met with the board Nov. 21, 1968, to voice dissatisfaction with the court-ordered transfer of teachers.

The board members conceded that they had no choice but to follow the court order. On Dec. 2, 1968, school leaders told 29 teachers at white and black schools they had been reassigned.

Four of the teachers were from all-black Lakeside where Cannon was a student. One year later, the board realigned the grades at Lakeside and Cannon, the oldest of five children, enrolled at Decatur Junior High.

"I was called the 'N' word just about every day," she said.

Cannon said she had it easier than some of the black students because she lived on the integrated section of Church Street.

"I had played with white kids and had baby-sat white kids," she said.

She also attended community church meetings where pastors and community leaders told the school-age children that change was coming.

'Positive attitude'

"We went to the white schools with a positive attitude," Cannon remembered.

"They had prepared us at school and at the church meetings. They told us we would be called names and that we were to ignore them."

Integration worked in Decatur, in part, because of discipline that existed in the black schools and the black community, Cannon said.

"We were taught at the black schools that everything you did was a reflection of your family and your community," she said. "We were treated differently, but we never wanted to embarrass our community."

Many black students lost their place of belonging and dropped out, but Brown vs. Board of Education was good, Cannon said.

"It made a lot of wrongs right," she said.

"A lot of progress was made on some fronts. We continue to deal with desegregation issues because we have never resolved issues from the 1960s. The court rulings are good, because they serve as a reminder of where we have been and where we should go."

Deangelo McDaniel is a writer for The Decatur

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

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