By George E. Curry
It’s been almost 50 years since I lived in Tuscaloosa, Ala. I go back from time to time, but not much after Mama moved to Cleveland about 35 years ago and later to Augusta, Ga. Except for a couple of cousins, all of my relatives have either died or moved away. My youngest sister, Susan Gandy, lives in Tuskegee, Ala. My other sisters, Charlotte Purvis and Chris Polk, live in Durham, N.C. and Oakland, Calif. area, respectively.
Many close family friends such as Mrs. Dorothy Smith and Mrs. Emma Henderson, two longtime neighbors from my McKenzie Court housing project days, are deceased. A growing number of my Druid High classmates – James Calvin Brown, Reginald Henderson, Peter Boyd and most recently, Ronald Thompson and Estella Robertson Carter – are no longer with us.
I returned home to give three speeches last Friday – at Central High School, the University of Alabama and Christian Community Church. Though exhausting, my whirlwind tour of my hometown provided me with fresh insight on how much Tuscaloosa has – and hasn’t – changed since I graduated from Druid High School in 1965.
The first notable sign of change was that the Tuscaloosa News published a story on my upcoming speech at the church. Growing up, the only way to get coverage in the Tuscaloosa News was to play sports, be an entertainer or, heaven forbid, commit a crime. When I began my career as a journalist, I could get a job as a reporter for Sports Illustrated, but not with my hometown paper because it did not hire African Americans. But that has changed for the better.
Another change for the better was supposedly the desegregation of Tuscaloosa public schools. But it was not always for the better. My education at all-Black Druid High school was on par with, if not better, than that provided by Tuscaloosa High, our all-White crosstown counterpart. That notwithstanding, both high schools were demolished in the name of desegregation. Druid was replaced with a new building that became a middle school and Tuscaloosa High was replaced by Central High, another new structure. The plan was that Whites and Blacks would attend middle school and high school together. The reality is that didn’t last for long.
That became clear when I entered Central High on Friday, the first time I set foot in the building. If you had placed a blindfolder on me and lifted it once I was inside, I would have thought I was back at Druid. The “integrated” school was virtually all-Black. Whites have done what most Whites who can afford it do: they pulled their students out of desegregated public schools and enrolled them in majority White private or parochial schools.
But Tuscaloosa is no different than the rest of the South. As the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reported, “The reality is that segregation has been increasing since l990, for almost a quarter century, and that today black students are substantially more segregated than they were in l970. The direction of change, however, suggests that things will continue to worsen.”
Like Ole Miss and the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama was desegregated under pressure from the federal government. I had just completed the 10th grade at Druid when Gov. George C. Wallace made his famous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” on June 11, 1963 to prevent the enrollment of two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. That day will be forever etched in my memory.
After objecting to what he called “the unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama,” Wallace was forced to step aside and allow the students to enroll.
When I spoke to a class on race and gender at the university, Black and White students interacted openly and comfortably. One White student spoke fondly of her close friendship with her Black roommate and others described how the university had made it easier for them to meet new friends who did not look like them. I smiled contently as they relayed their stories, happy that real progress had been made in my hometown.
Over lunch, however, I was brought back to reality. A university professor relayed that Black students told him of being called the N-word every day on campus. Every day. On one hand, ‘Bama represented what seemed like unimaginable racial progress. On closer inspection, nothing has fundamentally changed – except the cosmetics – from the bad old days.
At my evening speech at the Community Christian Church, except for two Whites, the audience was all Black. That was two Whites more than I expected. Tuscaloosa, like the rest of America, remains mostly segregated.
Whether it was interacting with high school pupils, talking with students at the University of Alabama or the community, not that much has really changed in Sweet Home Alabama once you look beyond the surface.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.