Equity & Diversity

Curtain Falls on Desegregation Era in Nashville

October 07, 1998 3 min read
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The 43-year-old federal desegregation case that has often polarized the white and black communities in Nashville, Tenn., ended last week after an emotional four-hour hearing and the stroke of a judge’s pen.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Wiseman declared the Nashville-Davidson County schools to be unitary--a legal term meaning free of any vestiges of segregation. The ruling came as the judge approved a $206.8 million plan that will eliminate most cross-county busing.

Over the next five years, the 71,000-student district will build at least 11 new schools, many in predominantly black neighborhoods, and will renovate dozens of others. The plan will allow most students to attend school in their neighborhoods or to enter magnet schools elsewhere in the district.

“I think this means a new beginning,” said the Rev. Bruce Maxwell, a local Baptist minister whose late father, Henry Maxwell Sr., joined a group of black parents in a 1955 lawsuit to force the city to admit their children to all-white schools. In 1971, the federal court ordered the city to begin busing students to bring greater racial balance.

“We have come a long way, and we’re ready to proceed toward the future that is best for children,” Mr. Maxwell added.

Three-Tier System

As part of the plan approved last week, which was proposed by municipal leaders in June, students in primarily black inner-city schools will have the option of attending suburban schools, with transportation provided.

Extra resources will be provided to schools with predominantly black enrollments. Some 43 percent of the district’s students are African-American.

Most students will graduate through a three-tier system that includes a local elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. Under the current system, students attend as many as five different schools during their academic careers.

Although many students will still ride buses up to five miles, most of the long bus rides--some as much as 45 minutes from home--will be eliminated.

Although many schools will remain “racially identifiable,” the rearrangement of feeder patterns will allow the diversity of students to increase as they progress to the upper grades, officials said.

“From an educational point of view, as well as from a logistical point of view, it’s an excellent plan,” said Richard H. Dinkins, a Nashville lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

Commitment Vowed

Officials said that cooperation between local government and school officials, African-American leaders, the families of the plaintiffs--and a representative task force appointed five years ago to help address the desegregation issue--was critical to gaining overwhelming support for the plan.

“It’s been a dream for a long, long time that we could get to this point in this way,” said Superintendent Bill Wise, who was an assistant superintendent 17 years ago when the court order began. “I would not be nearly so gratified if we had gained unitary status ... at the cost of the positive attitude and collaboration that we were able to develop here.”

Though the ruling brings the case to a close, Mr. Dinkins said that local African-Americans will continue to monitor the plan, since it depends on continual funding in the school board’s operating budget, which is funded through the Nashville-Davidson County metropolitan government.

City leaders, who will pay for the plan through a 12-cent property tax increase, have promised their continued commitment and vowed to make the new plan work. “This has been a very polarizing force in the community for a lot of years,” Mayor Philip N. Bredesen said. “We came up with some compromises that everyone can live with.”

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