Sarah Kleiner / Center for Public Integrity


ABANDONED IN AMERICA

Race relations in Yazoo City, Mississippi: A brief history

Fist fights and threats of violence. Humiliation by teachers, principals and peers. Hate-filled essays turned in to English instructors who were trying but failing to foster a sense of togetherness.

This is the legacy white people left behind when they fled Yazoo City public schools for the surrounding county and private academies after the federal government forced integration of schools there in 1969.

Today, Yazoo City Municipal School District is 98 percent black and near the bottom of the list in almost every measure of academic performance in the state.

To understand how it got to where it is today, you have to look to a past scarred by centuries of abuses of one race against another.

Yazoo City is known as the gateway of the Mississippi Delta, the fertile strip of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. The city sits in the west-central part of the state, about 40 miles north of Jackson, the state capital.

White business owners brought slaves into Mississippi by the thousands starting in the 1700s, some on foot from the north, others by boat from New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Their free labor in fertile Delta fields made their white owners — and the region — extremely prosperous, said Anne Twitty, associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi.

“Most of that wealth was literally embodied in corporeal form in the bodies of black people,” Twitty said. When slaves were freed by the passage of the 13th Amendment, “that wealth disappeared overnight. Ever since then, Mississippi has been incredibly poor, exacerbating the racial inequality that has always been a key feature of the state.”

It was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, and Mississippi law made it difficult for owners to free their slaves, Twitty said. Freed black people had to receive special permission to remain in the state because white people feared free black people would unite and rebel.

Even after slaves were freed, white people in Mississippi were striving to keep black people ignorant, so they weren’t capable of understanding real estate documents or the broader commercial world, Twitty said.

“You can keep it secure by trying to keep people in the dark,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court allowed state-sponsored segregation in 1896 with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and for decades, schools were separate – and unequal. There were dozens of schools for black children around Yazoo County, mostly one-room shacks without plumbing or central heating. There were no buses for black children, even up until 1950.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, declaring separate educational facilities unconstitutional.

But many districts, including Yazoo City’s, failed to change.

In 1966, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare cut off federal funds to Yazoo City because their “freedom of choice” efforts had failed. Under freedom of choice, certain black students were allowed to attend white schools.

The first black students entered white schools in 1967.

Gloria-Elayne Owens was one of the black students who was offered the chance to move to a white school in Yazoo City.

Owens’ mother wanted her to go to the white middle school because she believed it was unfair for schools to be segregated.

Owens, who was a 7th grade student in the 1968-1969 school year, moved to the white middle school and faced immediate retaliation.

Gloria-Elayne Owens, in Yazoo City in July 2018
Sarah Kleiner / Center for Public Integrity

Once, in the cafeteria, she and other white students were licking salt off their hands. A teacher saw her and “jerked” her into the principal’s office, she said. He then announced over the intercom that all the salt shakers would need to be sanitized because Owens, a black student, had touched them.

“I’m 61 years old,” Owens said, “and I can still remember every detail of that day. That was the worst memory for a child to have.”

By 1969, there were fewer than 100 black students in white schools, out of more than 3,500 total students in the district.

“Even this small black enrollment did not take place without the usual agonies of the soul and dark rages against the federal power,” wrote Willie Morris, a Yazoo City native who became editor of Harper’s, in his 1971 book “Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town.”

In October 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered 30 school districts in Mississippi, including in Yazoo City, to integrate immediately, a sign to the rest of the nation that integration was no longer something they could put off.

In the winter of 1970, white and black students in Yazoo City went to school together for the first time.

Yazoo County’s sheriff, who happens to be named Jacob Sheriff and is black, grew up in Yazoo City and graduated from the public school system. He said he remembers once, not long after schools were desegregated, he moved toward the back of the classroom to hang up his coat. A group of white athletes was blocking the way. One of them told Sheriff to go around the group.

Yazoo County’s sheriff, Jacob Sheriff, in front of his childhood home in Yazoo City in July 2018.
Sarah Kleiner / Center for Public Integrity

Sheriff refused and walked through the middle of the group. The other student hit him in the face and Sheriff hit him back, knocking the white student into a window.

Both wound up in the principal’s office, where the boys said they had been playing. The experience wasn’t all bad: the boys wound up becoming friends, Sheriff said.

The population in Yazoo City in 1970 was about 11,000, slightly more than 50 percent black. In 2016, the population had barely nudged up to 11,330 people, but the ratio of black people had ballooned to 87 percent.

Driving north on U.S. Highway 49 from Jackson, the flat, commercially developed landscape gives way to rolling hills and thick corn fields. People live right along the highway — some in ramshackle trailers tucked into vine-covered forests, some in modest homes centered on tidy clearings.

That paradox is reflected in Yazoo City itself. The buildings in downtown are painted in bright, cheery colors, like Easter eggs. R&B music is piped in through speakers attached to poles up and down the main street.

But many of the neighborhoods outside downtown are run down. Some of the occupied houses are in shambles; other homes have been completely reclaimed by the earth.

It’s a distinctly southern town. Restaurants serve chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, fried catfish and hush puppies, collard greens, black eyed peas, cornbread and iceberg lettuce smothered in ranch dressing.

Churches are everywhere, but for the most part, they’re racially segregated. Restaurants, too. At a meeting of the Rotary Club one Wednesday afternoon in July, about 15 people ate meatloaf together in a church gathering hall. Everyone in the room was white, except the one black woman who cooked and served the meal.

A few parents, including Joe Freeman, center, started a pee-wee football league to give young Yazoo City boys something to do in the evenings after school.
Sarah Kleiner / Center for Public Integrity

Evenings at the local park underscored the black/white divide. Pickup trucks and SUVs lined one side of the parking lot, where white children played baseball.

Older-model sedans lined the other side where dozens of young black boys practiced tackle football, their parents camped out on the sidelines in the thick, humid air.

Come fall, the boys returned to Yazoo City schools reeling from the latest disappointment: their district’s rating slipped, once again, to an “F.”