By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 29, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ Jane Henderson’s voice trembled as she implored the school board not to let Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s schools resegregate any more than they already have.
Afterward, asked to explain her emotion, her eyes welled. “I’m so grateful that I was able to go to school with people who were not from my exact background, and I’ve wanted that for my children,” said Henderson, a professional gardener with deep roots in the red clay of Charlotte, where she was among the first generation of white students to go to school with blacks. But fewer and fewer folks shed tears for integration here.
The suburbs in Mecklenburg County, which surround Charlotte and share a school system with the city, are swollen with new arrivals innocent of local racial history and preoccupied with securing quality neighborhood schools like those they left behind. The result is an unexpected twist across several fast-growing stretches of the New South: 140 years after the end of the Civil War, a new invasion of Yankees is undermining school integration.
“Some of the desegregated parts of the South, especially metro areas that were fully desegregated for more than a quarter-century, had some of the most rapid growth in the country, partly, I think, from the positive view of their educational institutions,” said Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the nation’s foremost authority on school desegregation patterns. “But this very growth drew in many affluent Northerners who thought they had a right to segregated all-suburban schools, a process that is producing some of the terribly isolated, impoverished ghetto schools that the Northern cities have suffered from. “There is a terrible irony here.”
To many newcomers, however, there is nothing of the sort. They see only their obligation as parents to secure the best possible education for their children. If they are invaders, they are an army of liberation, freeing the South from its hidebound obsession with race.
“We always end up in all kinds of trouble by fighting the last war,” said Jack Heilpern, a management consultant and father of four who grew up in Salt Lake City and lived in 10 states before moving to the suburb of Huntersville north of Charlotte a decade ago.
In recent months, Heilpern _ who prefers the wisdom of crowds to that of even the brightest and best-intended experts _ has emerged as spokesman for a movement to break up the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). It is a movement borne of suburban discontent with a large, centralized school system that to them seems unresponsive to their needs, in part because, even with the end of busing, it is still struggling to avoid too much resegregation.
The movement was started via e-mail by Heilpern’s 17-year-old son, James, soon to be a senior at hopelessly overcrowded Hopewell High School in Huntersville, and ’05 class president Domenic Powell, 18. By the time people discovered the two were teenagers, their cause had caught fire.
The effort to break up CMS would require state approval and is unlikely to succeed. But its popularity among whites _ a Charlotte Observer poll in May found 54 percent of them were supportive, while 64 percent of blacks were opposed _ is the latest blow to the school system where court-ordered busing began and which, after initial resistance, came to be a national model for successful integration. Integration was once a source of civic pride. CMS students were dispatched to help Boston through its busing crisis. When Ronald Reagan railed against busing during a 1984 campaign appearance here, he met with silence.
Charlotte boomed as a banking center and, in 2000, Bank of America CEO Hugh L. McColl Jr. credited school integration with igniting the Southern economy “like a wildfire in the wind.” But by then success was already unraveling. A late 1990s lawsuit ultimately ended racial busing in CMS. Of the seven plaintiffs, six were recent arrivals. The lead plaintiff, Bill Capacchione, returned to California before the case even came to trial. And now, 30 percent of Mecklenburg County’s residents have arrived within the last few years, outside avatars of post-civil rights color-blindness who operate beyond the reach of Hugh McColl or the long arm of history.
Educational testing _ including that mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law _ allows affluent white movers to consult the numbers and buy homes near schools replete with others like themselves, segregating in streamlined fashion.
“When people move, they are looking to go from like to like,” said the Rev. Lisa Hunt, a member of the school board for Metropolitan Nashville (Tenn.) Public Schools. There, the student enrollment has just become majority minority, even as the population in neighboring Williamson County, which is only 5 percent black, surged with newcomers, many drawn by the reputation of its schools.
It’s the same story in Georgia’s fastest-growing county, Forsyth, an Atlanta exurb that is only a fraction of a percent black. With the end of court-ordered desegregation in CMS, schools popular with newcomers, like those in northern Mecklenburg, overflowed with students from nearby neighborhoods _ and new demands.
“It’s `I, I, I, me, me, me,”’ said Richard McElrath, a retired teacher and founder of Parents United for Education. In his view, Huntersville’s hunger for more schools or its own district would consign children of the poor _ black and now also Hispanic _ to increasing isolation in the city.
Between 1991 and 2001, according to Harvard’s Orfield, the average black student in CMS went from attending a school that was 52 percent white to one that was 35 percent white. Local figures indicate that by last year, the proportion of black children attending schools that were at least 80 percent black had quintupled since 2001 _ to 15 percent from 3 percent. A debate that posits the suburban rebels as racists, however, is likely only to drive people away.
“I’d rather move out of North Mecklenburg than be called a racist,” said Christine Pinard, a transplant from Westfield, Mass., who with her husband launched a Web site _ dumpcms.com (Don’t Underestimate Mecklenburg Parents) _ as a venue for information and discussion about splitting the district. The Pinards have a child in private school.
“I’m sure I miss some of the local racial sensitivities,” said Heilpern, adding, “I have no Southern white baggage.”
But to some who lived through it, owning up to that “baggage” and overcoming it yielded astonishing progress.
“The civil rights struggle was a real gift to Southerners,” said Araminta Johnston, a professor of religion at Queens University of Charlotte and a co-founder of the Swann Fellowship, which advocates on behalf of integration. Johnston grew up in Mississippi and was living in Oxford when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. “Now to have all that dismissed is pretty galling.”
The pressure from newcomers to end aggressive desegregation efforts in Southern school districts has grown obvious elsewhere. In Wake County, where the school system still buses to maintain socioeconomic balance, the opposition is led by Cynthia Matson, who moved from Lexington, Mass., in 1989 in an exodus that brought 25 members of her family to North Carolina.
“I didn’t grow up here when they had segregation and I didn’t grow up in the have-and-have-not, which is what they keep preaching to you _ `You don’t know what it was like … ‘ “Everybody who moves here gets duped,” she said. “People buy into a neighborhood because of a school associated with a neighborhood, and the next thing you know, your kid’s being sent across the county.”
They also bus for socioeconomic balance in St. Lucie County, Fla., but the school board there is looking to devise a new student assignment plan. A recent community survey brought seething criticism from parents who complained that busing was an artifact of another time, unnecessary in the face of growing diversity in their communities. St. Lucie is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. More of its residents were born in the Northeast or Midwest than the South, and their outrage at busing is informed by their experiences in the smaller, more insular districts where they grew up. Florida has but 67 school districts _ one for each county.
North Carolina has 118 districts. But Michigan has 556 school districts. New Jersey has 595 and New York has 722. The Southern way is more egalitarian, but can’t compete with the smaller, more homogeneously affluent districts that many newcomers were accustomed to.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Jack Heilpern said, “they’ll say, `We’re the best big-city school system in America,’ but they’re comparing us to Dallas and Detroit and Chicago. That’s like being called the tallest dwarf in the United States.”
James Heilpern, a precocious political talent who founded Hopewell High School’s Teenage Republican Club, suggests CMS could be divided like slices of a pie, so each new district would include some of the city’s poor. His partner in the movement, Domenic Powell, is biracial and a self-described Hobbesian _ invoking a philosophy that prizes self-interest. Even on its own, Powell says, a Huntersville school district would be plenty diverse. He describes Hopewell, which is two-thirds white, as a high school where a white student wearing a Confederate flag patch walks side by side with a black student.
Early on their effort was tagged a “secession” movement, but the Heilperns preferred the clunkier, less inflammatory “deconsolidation.” It is the Revolutionary War, not the Civil War, whose spirit they want to invoke, holding their first public meeting at Hopewell Presbyterian Church. There, according to lore, local patriots signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775. The meeting at the church drew 400. State Sen. Malcolm Graham, whose district includes Huntersville, was one of the few blacks.
“It was a split-from-the-union kind of rally,” Graham said. “In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, you’ve got some white parents who don’t want to send their kids to school with black kids because of fear of school violence, because of fear of lower-quality education, because of fear of inferior teachers etc. etc. etc.”
Michelle Warren-Selby, one of the first generation of whites to attend integrated schools, met some of those white parents when she worked as a Realtor. “I would have people get in my car and tell me, `Don’t show me any neighborhood that has black people in it,”’ she recalled. “They were from Chicago and Philadelphia and Delaware and New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”
The morning after the school board meeting, Jane Henderson took a pick axe to the red clay of her front yard so she could amend it with compost and soil conditioner. She is descended on her father’s side from John McNitt Alexander, a signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence; on her mother’s from Thomas Perrin Quarles, a Confederate soldier who would not surrender. Her son, Benjamin, hair down to his shoulders, was mowing the lawn. He attends East Mecklenburg, her alma mater and the one school that maintains a perfect racial balance. When he graduates, she said, she and her husband may quit Charlotte, maybe for Oregon.
“The way Charlotte’s going,” she said, wincing, “it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Earlier that morning, outside the Hopewell church, James Heilpern also wondered about the future. He’s considering the University of North Carolina and Duke, Stanford and Dartmouth, as well as his parents’ alma mater, the University of Utah. The decision is complicated by the fact that his parents may move again once he graduates.
“I’d like to be close to home,” James said, “but I’m not sure where home is.”