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.”
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.
“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.