As Gov. Bill Lee proposes a program that will allow thousands of students from low-income families to choose private schools, it’s unclear how many Memphis parents might take him up on the offer.
That’s because what’s not often publicly acknowledged is the memory shared by black Memphians of a private school system founded so white families could avoid sending their children to integrated public schools.
Black Memphians make up a large portion of the people who will qualify for the governor’s proposal. These parents are hesitant to trust predominately white private schools, even if they believe the education system might be better.
LaToya McCutcheon enrolled her son, Zion, in a public high school after two years of bullying at a predominately white private school, including an assault during an argument comparing black people to apes.
“One of the major reasons we selected private school is because we thought it would provide him with a safe environment, but also we wanted him to get the best education we could possibly afford,” she said of the three private Christian schools in Memphis that Zion has attended since fourth grade.
“I still think my son received a good education. I just feel that there definitely lacked a level of cultural competence in dealing with my child,” she said. “And I don’t feel like it’s just my child, I feel like many African-American families may experience the same thing.”
But Lee is betting thousands of students from low- and middle- income families in the black-majority city will choose private schools over a low-performing neighborhood school. He recently announced a $75 million initiative to create education savings accounts, a form of vouchers, which would allow parents to receive $7,300 in public funds to spend on private school tuition, homeschooling supplies, online classes or tutoring. The proposal began its journey through the legislature March 19, where lawmakers have deliberated over the concept for more than a decade.
The idea has been opposed by many in Memphis and other Tennessee cities as well as rural communities. School leaders say they don’t want money for private school vouchers to take away from public school funds. But the glaring local history has been largely left out of the debate.
While school desegregation plans were being hammered out in court in the 1960s and early 1970s, inexpensive private schools sprang up across the South as white students fled public school systems. Some Southern states offered vouchers so white students could take advantage of the private school boom. Other schools systems opted to shut down completely rather than comply with the federal mandate.
In Memphis, court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools began in 1973. In anticipation, the number of private schools more than doubled in five years — from 40 in 1968 to 90 when busing began. Private school enrollment also nearly doubled during that time, according to The Commercial Appeal archives. And the proportion of white students in Memphis public schools fell from half in 1972 to one-third a year later. Altogether, about 30,000 white students left public schools in less than a decade.
This phenomenon eventually led to Memphis private schools being the most racially segregated in the nation during the 1990s, according to a 2002 journal article by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. Now, about 30,500 students attend 113 private schools in Shelby County, according to state data.
At least six schools in Shelby County that were founded during desegregation are still open and enroll about 14 percent of students in private schools. Their origins as what became known as “segregation” and “white flight” academies has mostly faded from public discourse.
Briarcrest Christian School was the largest private school network to open during desegregation in 1973, but the school says its founding had nothing to do with segregationist intentions. The school did not include discriminatory language in its policies, while other schools that were organized under a group called “Citizens Against Busing” openly opposed desegregation efforts.
“Briarcrest has consistently maintained that it was founded for the purpose of providing Christian education,” said Beth Rooks, the school’s spokeswoman. Several schools that opened during the same period pointed to a 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision 10 years earlier that outlawed public school officials from leading prayer as the reason the schools were founded.
Rooks maintains that Briarcrest today, now the largest private school in the county, is “committed to being a warm and welcoming place for students and families of all races.” One out of five students is a person of color, she said.
But McCutcheon’s son, Zion, who attended Briarcrest for two and a half years, tells a different story.
During his sophomore year in 2016, Zion got into a fight with another student who compared the Memphis protesters who peacefully shut down the Interstate 40 bridge to a violent scene where apes fought police officers in the movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Zion still has a scar on his neck where the student injured him.
This was not the only racist encounter Zion experienced at Briarcrest, including online bullying when he refused to stand during the national anthem at a school football game. But the fight over the film was especially painful.
The scar left by a ring worn by the other student “is a permanent reminder that somebody did something to me,” Zion said.
Memphis education historians and civil rights leaders who campaigned for desegregation questioned Briarcrest’s wholesale denial the school’s founding had nothing to do with white flight. The same would go for other private schools founded during that era, they said.
It would be “a heck of a coincidence” if Briarcrest’s sudden opening that attracted nearly 2,000 students in its first year had nothing to do with upholding racial segregation, said Marcus Pohlmann, a Rhodes College professor. He wrote Opportunity Lost, a book that chronicles the history of education in Memphis.
“I think at some of those schools, they weren’t necessarily stirring segregationist attitudes, but they were certainly capitalizing on it,” he said. “There’s no getting around that. … They certainly facilitated that white flight.”
James Lawson, a pastor and prominent civil rights activist in Memphis in the 1960s, was more direct: “There’s no doubt in my mind that the academies system … began as a segregated school system and to provide a white alternative to the public schools,” said Lawson, now 90 and living in California. “That’s how they began. Any 2019 effort to pretend ‘we were just a private school providing choice’ is nothing less than a clear lie.”
Sonya H. Smith, a longtime education advocate in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood, said private schools have a long way to go to gain the trust of African-Americans. Her daughter attended a predominately white private school for students with disabilities in the early 1990s.
“It just makes me know that the private schools that are considered the best were not created with us in mind,” Smith said.
She thinks other parents zoned to low-performing schools are unlikely to sign up because private schools do not prioritize serving them now.
“If they were, they would already be looking for them. They have scholarships for the best and the brightest,” Smith said. And after the state spent years overhauling education in Tennessee, including creating a district that has not made significant gains, she said she’s tired.
“Everything that happens through legislation that the government says is supposed to benefit our children hasn’t. When we ask and say this is what we want, they say this is not what you need. But when it doesn’t work out, the blame goes back on public schools,” Smith said.
Mary McDonald was one of the few private-school leaders who went out looking for students lagging behind in academics when she sought to establish the Jubilee Catholic Schools for low-income families in the 1990s. That’s when she came face-to-face with the suspicion Smith described among black families.
“I realized while I was speaking, I was the only non-African-American, and I was asking them to trust me with your children,” McDonald said, recalling a standing-room-only crowd at an informational meeting she hosted. “I look like everything you have grown to mistrust.”
Two decades later, her Catholic school network was one of the few private schools in Memphis that expressed interest in participating in Tennessee’s voucher program if it passed. McDonald acknowledged that as she traveled across Tennessee as part of the former governor’s task force on vouchers, there was only “moderate” interest among parents to take advantage of a program.
Russell McCutcheon, the father of the former Briarcrest student, said he does not regret sending his son to private school, despite the racism his son experienced.
“When I look at it now, I’m not going to berate private schools,” he said. But “there’s not much room for thoughts that are different, or for minority students to be authentically themselves as opposed to having to assimilate into a culture that is already established.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.