I recently traveled to rural Wilcox County, in Alabama’s Black Belt, to understand the origins of the local “segregation academy” and how it still divides the broader community. It was the first story in our series about segregation academies, private schools that opened across the Deep South after the U.S Supreme Court released its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. White Southerners opened hundreds — perhaps thousands — of these schools, which allowed white children to flee just as Black children arrived in the public schools. Now, 70 years later, ProPublica has found that hundreds of these academies still operate. Where they do, schools often remain segregated — and as a result, so do entire communities.

While I was in Wilcox County, I wondered: How would things be different if the segregation academy didn’t exist? Locals I met in the county seat of Camden mentioned another small town just a short drive over the county line where people had chosen a different path.

So I headed to Thomasville, Alabama, to meet current school leaders and a group of Black former students who were on the front lines during desegregation. They described the critical turning points when Black and white residents alike made decisions that resulted in integrated public schools and a very different future for the town’s schoolchildren.

When Jim Emerson arrived in rural Alabama’s Wilcox County to work as a paper mill executive, he saw opportunities for development in its rolling hills, lush riverbanks and charming small-town county seat of Camden.

He tried to steer new hires toward moving there.

But he hit an obstacle: The local schools were sharply divided by race. Virtually all of the public school students were Black, and most white students attended Wilcox Academy, one of the hundreds of private schools in the Deep South that researchers call “segregation academies.”

Many of the paper mill’s new employees instead moved to Thomasville, a small town in a neighboring county.

In Thomasville, Emerson sees what Camden could have been.

Trophy cases at A.L. Martin High School celebrated its students’ achievements. Credit: Lt. R.C. Brooks of the Alabama Highway Patrol/Alabama Department of Archives and History

The two small towns’ futures diverged, in many ways, starting in 1970. That year, the fairly new Thomasville City Schools came up with a court-ordered desegregation plan that called for shuttering A.L. Martin, the high school for Black students, and sending its students to Thomasville High, the school for whites. A segregation academy also opened in Thomasville that year.

Several former A.L. Martin students recalled that when they arrived at Thomasville High, they were sent to separate classrooms from the white students. Gone were their Black coaches. Their principal was relegated to a job as the superintendent’s clerk.

“It destroyed the fabric of the community. This was the nucleus of the Black community,” said G.B. Quinney, a student then who’s now director of a museum in the A.L. Martin building.

By fall 1971, they’d had enough. Every Black student got up and walked out of school together in protest. A large majority stayed out for nearly the entire school year, organizing protests and a boycott that cost local white businesses money. Their demands included eliminating segregated classes, hiring a Black administrator and more Black teachers’ aides, and increasing the participation of Black teachers in planning school activities.

What happened next separates Thomasville from Camden and many other Black Belt areas.

White leaders eventually invited Black protestors to negotiate a return to school — and to their businesses. Many white parents also either never left the public schools or did so but soon returned.

Some students also transferred from Wilcox County to Thomasville “to escape the almost all-black Wilcox County public schools and to avoid the cost of tuition at private academies,” according to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report issued in 1983.

In the 1970s, the chair of the Thomasville school board also stood firm: The district would not hire teachers who sent their children to private schools, nor would it beg students who left to return.

The superintendent agreed: “If they leave, I don’t want them back.”

In 1987, the segregation academy in town closed. Today, Thomasville High School’s students are about 60% Black and 40% white, far more integrated than many schools in Alabama’s Black Belt.

Annette Davis was in 10th grade when the district moved her class from A.L. Martin to the white high school in 1969, the year before the entire school was merged. She was among the student protesters who were arrested.

Today, when she returns to Thomasville High for football games and other events, she is proud to see white and Black students in class together — and a Black principal at the helm. “When I walk into that school now, I feel good,” Davis said.

Many families who can afford private school tuition still choose the city’s public schools. They use their resources to help other students with everything from transportation to winter coats and wrestling uniforms. They become alumni who support the school through fundraisers involving their businesses, Thomasville Superintendent Vickie Morris said.

In downtown Thomasville, a sign in a storefront reads, “Let’s Go Tigers!” — the public high school mascot.

In contrast, a sign in the window of a downtown Camden business reads, “Proud Supporters of the Wilcox Wildcats” — the local private academy.

A.L. Martin High School was built on a hill overlooking Thomasville. Today, a museum dedicated to the city’s Black history operates in the space. Credit: Lt. R.C. Brooks of the Alabama Highway Patrol/Alabama Department of Archives and History

“We’ve got the whole city’s support,” said Thomas E. Jackson, who graduated in one of A.L. Martin’s final classes and now is a longtime Democratic state legislator. In 1966, when he was a junior, he and three other Black students fled gunfire after entering an ice cream store through the front door, which was reserved for white patrons.

Morris, the current superintendent, described parents from surrounding districts, who pay $400 a year to transfer students in, tearfully begging her to admit their children when classes are full. “We are the choice,” she said.

Among those transfers are 71 students from Wilcox County.

“It shows you what can happen when the community makes up its mind not to be divided,” said Emerson, the paper mill executive who’s now retired. Wilcox County’s white citizens chose another path in the 1970s, “which, in retrospect, was a very, very bad decision.”

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