'It's a long, hard battle': 50 years after integration, Acadiana schools have re-segregated

Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Antoinette Pete and Jimmy Meche look at yearbooks from the early 1970s at Crowley High. Pete was a ninth-grader and Meche her assistant principal when the school was integrated in 1971. Monday, April 26, 2021.

Editor's note: During May, the staff of The Daily Advertiser, will bring you a series of articles that look at Lafayette's and Acadiana’s past focused on segregation and racial inequities. We’ll give you an honest, fair and often uncomfortable view where we as a community have been and where we are today. Our hope is that in those uncomfortable moments we’ll find solutions and resolve to take concrete actions that will unite our community. Find the first in the series here.

The early 1970s were a historical time of firsts in Acadiana.

Antoinette Chaffers was going to ninth grade. Jimmy Meche was entering school administration. Greg Davis was starting at a new school.

And it was the first time for Black and white students in this region of southwestern Louisiana to attend the same schools.

Integration impacted children and adults, shaping a generation through a variety of experiences that would leave its mark for decades to come.

But the impact on schools would not be as lasting. Many have re-segregated in the 50 years since Acadiana and other parts of Louisiana integrated their campuses for the first time.

Today, a new generation is taking classes in mostly "racially identifiable" schools, meaning the student body's racial breakdown doesn't reflect that of the overall school district.

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More than three-quarters (78%) of public schools in the eight-parish Acadiana region have an inordinately high percentage of white or Black students, meeting that definition of a term coined within court-ordered desegregation efforts.

That also means that this generation may not be seeing, communicating with and learning from peers and leaders who look different than themselves, who bring diverse experiences to the classroom and who show them opportunities.

"It is something that is detrimental to both races that they're not able to experience the social growth that would prepare them for life outside of those boundaries," Albert Hayes Jr. said.

Hayes, 69, grew up in segregated schools in Eunice, taught in integrated schools in St. Landry and Acadia parishes and now is in his seventh year on the St. Landry Parish School Board. He said he sees racially identifiable schools in his parish, especially where there might be a majority of Black residents in the area. He believes having schools that are predominately white or Black doesn’t help anyone.

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"I was able to travel to the East Coast and spend several years in Pennsylvania and New York, and it gives you a different perspective, I believe, to be able to see beyond the city limits," Hayes said. "If you further constrict those city limits to Blacks and whites, then you're even less prepared for a more global institution."

A 1973 yearbook shows photos of faculty at Crowley High School during the first years of integration in Acadiana.

A look at our history

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, but Acadiana’s public schools, like the cities in which they were located, remained separated into Black and white for more than a decade after that until federal courts began ordering school boards to change their practice.

The Lafayette Parish School Board was ordered to submit its desegregation plans by fall 1965 after a group of 11 students and their guardians sued the board with help from the U.S. Justice Department.

The school district operated under a "freedom of choice" plan for certain grades, which spread more than 800 Black students across formerly all-white schools but did not significantly change the racial makeup of schools' populations.

A hallway in the Lafayette Parish School System Central Office features a timeline of public school construction in the parish from 1904 to 2017.

Freedom of choice was ruled unconstitutional in 1968, forcing Louisiana schools to produce legitimate desegregation plans, and busing and rezoning began in Lafayette and other parishes.

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The U.S. Department of Justice deemed the Lafayette school board in compliance with the federal desegregation order and withdrew from the case in 1979, but it would return in 1998 as the district was building new schools without seeking permission from the court.

In 1998, the racial composition of at least 22 of the 39 schools in LPSS were considered "racially identifiable" either white or Black, which means the percentage of one race at a school is 10 to 20 percentage points different from the overall district percentage.

A marker stands on the site of the first public school for people of color in Opelousas, called Opelousas Colored School or St. Landry Parish Training School, that was open from 1919-1953.

A judge new to the case, Richard Haik, found the school system in violation of its desegregation order in 2000, and for five more years the district had to work toward a more equal racial makeup across its schools. Two elementary schools were closed and students bused to five predominately white elementary schools. Twelve school principals — six white and six Black — also were transferred.

Similar stories have played out in school systems across Louisiana. In 1970, 45 parishes faced the threat of losing federal funding if they didn't produce true desegregation plans. Full integration of public schools came slowly, with most areas seeing it by the mid-1970s, but like Lafayette, other districts also backslid and faced more court mandates to meet desegregation orders. 

Whereas many saw their desegregation cases closed in the 2000s — like Lafayette — it came much later for others. St. Landry Parish’s desegregation case was closed in 2016 and Avoyelles Parish’s in central Louisiana in 2018. The case is still open in Tangipahoa Parish, making it one of the nation's oldest desegregation cases.

A personal look at the past

Antoinette Chaffers Pete, 65, who started ninth grade in 1971 as integration began in Acadia Parish, would be the first in her family to graduate from Crowley High and later teach classes in the same building she helped to integrate.

Antoinette Pete looks at yearbooks with from the early 1970s at Crowley High School with Jimmy Meche. Pete was a ninth-grader and Meche her assistant principal when the school was integrated in 1971. Monday, April 26, 2021.

"I don’t want to say it was frightening — just mind-boggling," Pete said. "It wasn’t easy. We were always the minority. (But) we had a faith that carried us through anything."

There were divided opinions about integrating schools at the time, even within the Black community.

"Some people were saying, 'Integration is good,' and some would say, 'No, leave us where we are,'" Pete said. "I wanted to be able to do what others do and get what others get. At St. Theresa's (Catholic School) we only got hand-me-down books."

Greg Davis, 65, was starting 10th grade at Northside High School in 1971 after attending a variety of schools — segregated schools in Bogalusa, a barely integrated Catholic school in New Orleans and later two Black Catholic schools in Lafayette. 

Northside began integrating its student body, but the faculty and staff remained mostly white, something Davis and his classmates fought to change. They led sit-ins at the school, demanding a Black administrator, Black head coach of either basketball or football and Black people on the cafeteria and custodial staff.

Greg Davis, 65, was starting 10th grade at Northside High School in 1971 after attending a variety of schools. Northside began integrating its student body, but the faculty and staff remained mostly white, something Davis and his classmates fought to change.

When the school system did not implement the students’ demands, there were days of community marches, demonstrations and eventually arrests.

“It was scary,” Davis said. “But we knew it was something we had to do to stop from being mistreated and to get Black teachers.”

Jimmy Meche, 86, was tapped to be an assistant principal in 1970-71 as the Acadia Parish School System combined the student bodies of Crowley High and Ross High School into one.

Jimmy Meche was assistant principal at Crowley High School when the school was integrated in 1971.

“It was tough on our community,” he said. “First day of school, everybody was scared. Parents were calling the police to check the school. You had friends that you knew who would call the police. It was like they wanted something to happen.”

Hayes first experienced integrated Acadiana schools when he began to teach at Eunice Junior High in 1976.

He'd graduated in the last class of Charles Drew High School, the all-Black school in Eunice that closed during integration. He attended the school from first through 12th grade and moved to Pennsylvania to study political science at Lehigh University on a scholarship.

"Until I left Eunice, I never had a class with a white student," he said. “At Lehigh University, I was one of maybe 30 Black students.”

So he observed integration in his hometown from afar, staying in Pennsylvania a few years and later returned to southern Louisiana to study education at LSU Eunice.

Albert "Al" Hayes Jr. is a member of the St. Landry Parish School Board. As a 1969 graduate of Charles Drew High School, he was in the last graduating class of the all-Black high school before schools in the area were integrated. Monday, May 3, 2021.

"I think the city of Eunice embraced it fairly quickly — first in sports and really much later socially," Hayes said. "An example, we won a state championship in football in the mid-‘80s, and we had our first integrated prom in 2000."

Read more of their stories here.

A look at the present

Acadiana schools have re-segregated over time, with many schools across the eight-parish region still "racially identifiable" five decades after they began to integrate.

The Lafayette Parish School System reached "unitary status" in 2005 and was no longer under federal desegregation restrictions. Since the order was lifted, schools have drifted back into segregation, with 29 of more than 40 schools in the district meeting the "racially identifiable" definition, according to fall 2019 enrollment figures.

Lafayette isn't alone in this, of course, as some districts across Acadiana have an overwhelming number of racially identifiable schools. But Lafayette serves asa good case study, looking to schools located on the north side of town.

Northside High’s student body was 95% Black in fall 2019, and a similar story plays out at nearby Dr. Raphael. A. Baranco Elementary (93%) and J.W. Faulk Elementary (92%), according to enrollment data from the Louisiana Department of Education. All three schools are located within a few miles of each other on the north side of Lafayette.

Another thing these schools have in common is chronic poor performance. J.W. Faulk’s most recent school performance score from the state was an F in 2019, which followed Ds from 2015-18. Northside has received a D four out of the last five years with a C in 2017.

A hallway in the Lafayette Parish School System Central Office features a timeline of public school construction in the parish from 1904 to 2017.

The high school's average ACT score was 15.3 in 2019, well below the state average (18.9) and the 18 needed to get into a four-year college in Louisiana. And its graduation rate (59.1%) shows that more than one-third of Northside students don’t graduate.

"Where we are now is the culmination of 40 years, 50 years of integration," Davis said. "Look at the data on North Lafayette schools, which are mostly Black students. The data on their performance is so bad all of us should say it is unacceptable. We should be very upset that Black children aren’t achieving even at a moderate level.

"So the schools now in North Lafayette are mostly Black students, mostly white faculty, and outcomes are terrible,” he continued. "So integration, desegregation, did not translate into high academic achievement for Black students. Academic outcomes actually went down. I think we were better off in segregated schools (based on academic achievement)."

Lafayette Parish School Board member Elroy Broussard said it seems schools are divided like they were decades ago, and it affects everyone.

"I think until we can understand what has taken place, we will never be what we desire to be — an A school district — because of the division we're developing now," Broussard said.

"When you have one race dominating, you don't know everybody's culture and we can't grow. When we all believe one thing, we are limiting our capacity to see the world the way it is. You don't get the full picture. That's what you get when you have a segregated society."

"When you have one race dominating, you don't know everybody's culture and we can't grow," said Lafayette Parish School Board member Elroy Broussard. "When we all believe one thing, we are limiting our capacity to see the world the way it is.

A look to the future

When St. Landry Parish’s public school system achieved unitary status in 2016 it no longer had to hold onto restrictions to meet race ratios. In fact, districts are not allowed to use race as a determining factor in zoning decisions.

That doesn’t mean there isn't a problem — just that it has to be addressed differently now, Hayes explained.

"It’s certainly plain as day we need to have a diverse group of instructors, administrators and students," Hayes said. "Busing was the first attempt to achieve that. I think now the best way to gain a balance is to improve schools overall, so there is no accelerant to flight from our urban areas to outlying school districts."

Broussard proposes teaching Black history in Lafayette Parish schools and looking into ways of diversifying enrollment at the district's magnet academies.

"We should take a serious look at where we are and where that's leading us," he said. "What message are we sending? Are we going back to the '50s and '60s, or are we trying to move forward?"

"I think this board is capable of doing that," Broussard said. "We can come up with a positive solution that will benefit and grow the system."

Davis said everyone's mindset will have to change to make a real difference, and it will require acknowledging and addressing the root of the problem. That doesn't happen overnight. 

"I’ve been involved in this question of education for decades," he said. "It’s a long, hard battle and we have not even come close. The system does not want to change. And the race factor is part of it. Louisiana will not move from the bottom (in education) unless we address the legacy of these issues of race."

Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.