Posted on December 3, 2020

50 Years After Desegregation Order, Baton Rouge Schools Look Nothing Like What Was Intended

Charles Lussier, The Advocate, November 28, 2020

Fifty years ago, Baton Rouge made its first real attempt to integrate its schools. The school system today is nothing like what was envisioned.

In fall 1970, following a judge’s order, East Baton Rouge Parish erased school boundary lines that had largely kept Black children and White children from attending classes together. New “unified” lines produced many racially mixed “neighborhood schools,” or at least as mixed as various parts of the city could produce.

That’s all a distant memory now. Very few schools of any kind in East Baton Rouge have a racially mixed student body. The urban public schools are almost all Black or minority, while private and suburban public schools are mostly White.

“The school system is predominantly one race, and I find that to be a tragedy,” said Gary Mathews, who served as schools superintendent from 1995 to 2001.

Kirk Green, a social studies teacher at Westdale Middle School, says Baton Rouge is “a divided community” along racial, economic and cultural lines.


As the 1960s came to a close, just 13% of the parish’s Black children were enrolled at schools with White children. In the 1970-71 school year, 86% of the parish’s Black children were enrolled with White children. Of the 102 schools in the public system then, just 19 remained all Black or White, half the number of the year before.

Children, however, soon began re-sorting themselves on their campuses, and some families moved elsewhere in the parish, and later into neighboring parishes, in an effort to preserve their personal status quo.

“Neighborhood school desegregation plans just as a general rule don’t work,” said Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University. “They can’t work because the neighborhoods themselves are segregated.”

In 1970, the racial makeup of East Baton Rouge Parish was about two-thirds White, as was its schools. The hope at the time was an increasing number of public schools would, before long, achieve a similar mix. In his order, one of many similar federal court orders that went into effect at this time across the South, U.S. District Judge E. Gordon West called for school faculty at all schools to have the same racial balance of the parish as a whole.

While many school systems saw protests, boycotts and scattered violence, Baton Rouge’s integration wasn’t terribly tumultuous at the start. News accounts from the time show that after the Aug. 31 opening of school in 1970, the first days of school here occurred largely without incident.

Having lost in the courts, many of integration’s fiercest opponents decided to start their own schools instead. Dozens of private schools popped up all over Louisiana, enrolling tens of thousands of White children. They were especially popular in parishes with large Black populations. Pointe Coupee Parish, for instance, saw at least nine such schools open in 1969 when it was forced to integrate.

The state of Louisiana took a stand, too, and it stood with the separatist schools. It set aside $10 million to help pay the salaries of teachers at these new segregationist academies. Some schools ended up closing, though, after a 1975 court ruling said Louisiana could not accredit private schools that wouldn’t accept students of all races.


Prior to integration, Black high schools had been pillars in their communities. Afterward, many buildings were converted to junior highs, but some were demolished altogether. Many of their best teachers were transferred to White schools to help the parish achieve its court-mandated 2-to-1 mix.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, all-Black Northwestern High was converted to a middle school, while previously all-White Zachary High became the area’s sole high school.

Jerry Boudreaux, Zachary High’s new principal, met with residents for months ahead of fall 1970 to prepare the community. The school system became a source of local pride that carried over beyond 2003, when it broke away from the East Baton Rouge district. It emerged as the top school district in the state and remains so to this day. Enrollment now is roughly half White and half Black.

The rest of the parish hasn’t fared so well.

With White flight into surrounding parishes or into private schools, several predominantly White Baton Rouge schools quickly shifted to predominantly Black schools during the 1970s. In the 1980s, a new, and even more controversial, court order required crosstown busing. White flight accelerated, especially the outmigration of families to neighboring parishes.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system, formerly fast-growing, saw enrollment growth slow in the early 1970s, peaking in 1976 at almost 70,000 students. Since then, the district’s enrollment has dropped 40%; that includes losses to separate school districts in Baker, Central and Zachary. During that time, the population of the parish has grown by 34%, but the ranks of school-age children has declined by 11%.

Voters in the southeastern corner of the parish have voted to create a new city of St. George, a potential step toward carving out another separate district.

In the East Baton Rouge district now, White students make up 11% of the enrollment, and last year, for the first time, Hispanic students outnumbered White ones.


Baton Rouge High was one of the first schools to experience significant White flight.

For much of its history, the high school educated only White children, though there are Black neighborhoods adjacent to the school. The first Black students enrolled in 1963, a group of 27 racial pioneers who voluntarily transferred from Black high schools. By 1969, the year before full integration, only 122 students at Baton Rouge High were Black, or about 8%.

In fall 1970, Black enrollment at the high school nearly quadrupled, with Black students making up 31% of the students.

Five months into the school year, as many as 250 students left class and wouldn’t return, protesting the school’s unwillingness to lower the school flag to half-staff to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated three years earlier. White families soon began to leave.

Tara High School, which opened in fall 1970, took in many from BRHS. Already predominantly White, Tara added more than 400 White students in its second year in operation.

At a September 1971 School Board meeting, Ted Mann, a parent of a Baton Rouge High student, said the high school was deteriorating and that it would soon “lose the last nucleus of those who give a damn about the school.” {snip}