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Louisiana Parish's Schools Consolidated : Integration Comes Four Decades Late

May 14, 1989|ALAN SAYRE | Associated Press

GREENSBURG, La. — Change comes slowly down the two-lane highway that winds through forests and dairy pastures into Greensburg.

It's taken four decades for desegregation to reach the seat of St. Helena Parish. Even now, a visitor looking for John Hall's house behind the Masonic lodge is asked: "You talking about the white Masonic hall or the black one?"

"This parish hasn't changed since 1907 . . . . Education has been what kept it like it is," said Hall, a construction worker who has spent 37 of his 70 years fighting to give black students--including his 14 children--a chance.

Hall filed suit in 1952, after he was told that the school district didn't have money to furnish a new school that he and other black residents had built to replace an inferior facility.

First Integrated Term

Segregation finally has ended because the district couldn't afford to keep separate schools going. This semester marks the first time in St. Helena Parish that all students, black and white, are taught under the same roof.

Under a plan approved in December by U.S. District Judge John Parker in Baton Rouge, classes were consolidated into three buildings--including the one built by community blacks in the 1950s.

"I'm not trying to take credit for anything," Hall said. "I wanted my children to get an education, and that's what they got."

St. Helena Parish has one of Louisiana's poorest school districts. About 95% of the parish's annual $6.5-million budget comes from the state. Until Jan. 6, its 2,040 students, 70% of whom are black, attended seven schools.

"There is no question the St. Helena Parish School Board has been operated in violation of the U.S. Constitution," Parker said in December. He added that the consolidation "means desegregation will be accomplished."

Seven Schools Combined

The judge said some of the schools "are not fit for a dog house," and Supt. Perry P. Spears said all seven were substandard. Spears, who is black and went to school here, plans to do away with a fifth school and is working to float a $7.5-million bond issue this fall, to pay for improvements to the remaining two.

"I enjoyed my elementary and high school career in St. Helena, but at the same time, I knew that we were not being supported equally," he said.

The point was driven home for Spears when he became superintendent three years ago and saw that the whites' schools had equipment such as washing machines and dryers for the athletic programs. The blacks' schools did not.

Back in the early 1950s, black students often sat on soft drink cases, boxes and logs to hear a teacher who didn't have enough supplies "or even a chair to sit down on," Hall said. "These schools were as bad as anything you've ever seen. I don't know why they'd send children up here to get an education at a place like that. I'd rather put them under a tree."

Built Own School

In 1952, he asked the board for a new black school. Officials told him there wasn't enough money, but they offered a deal: Build the school yourself and the parish will furnish it. The black community pitched in their meager assets and their elbow grease to build a new school, but then Hall was told there was no money for furnishings.

"I told him right then 'I'm going to take my children up there to go to school with the white folks,' " he said. "He took him a good laugh. He and his crew had a big fun-making deal about it, I understand."

Hall didn't laugh. He, his father, and two other blacks who still want to remain anonymous turned to A. P. Tureaud, an attorney for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"They said 'you're going to have some mad white folks here,' " Hall said. "I said I was already mad." After all, he said, the black residents faced "nothing more than talk. All kinds of threats and talk."

Although the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in 1954, Hall's suit and scores of other desegregation cases floated in the courts for years.

'Token' Transfers

In the 1960s, St. Helena Parish built a modern high school for blacks. A few blacks started going to the white Greensburg High and a few whites attended classes in the black schools. "It was all token desegregation," Hall said.

Segregation hurts both black and white students, he said. "You can't hold back one race without holding the other back."

Over the years, running seven schools used up the parish's allotment of state-supported teacher salaries and resulted in duplication of basic classes. As a result, few advanced classes were offered and the students suffered.

"We have not been able to offer a comprehensive curriculum," Spears said. "I feel that was the biggest disadvantage we had over the years."

Under consolidation, elementary school pupils eat lunch in a makeshift cafeteria in an old gymnasium, and some classes meet in trailers. Head Start pupils still go to the cramped building the black residents built.

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