School Desegregation in Union County

(1875-1950s) The first schools in Union County were established around 1875. In 1901, New Albany began construction of the first building dedicated exclusively to public education. Presumably, this school, which featured eighteen classrooms, offices, a basement, and an auditorium, served only white students. Meanwhile African American students attended a handful of smaller schools scattered throughout the county. The school system remained segregated until 1964, when the New Albany School District began a process of gradual integration.

Much of the early history of Union County’s African American schools is unrecorded. There were at least four such schools in Union County in the first part of the twentieth century: Mitchell School, Oak Grove School, Shiloh School, and an unnamed school that met in an area known as Hatchet Bottom. Each of these schools was supported by the local African American community.

Mitchell School was in operation as early as 1909. The school was an off-shoot of a local church and may have been the same structure that is sometimes referred to as Pine Bluff school. Three to five teachers taught the approximately 200 students who attended the school each year. At both Oak Grove School and Shiloh School, one or two teachers taught approximately 100 students every year. Oak Grove School was a one-room building, and Shiloh School met on the ground floor of a two-story building it shared with the Masonic Lodge. At both schools, parents were responsible for providing books for their children. In the 1950s, these and possibly other schools consolidated at Mitchell School, and students were bussed-in from across the county. Mitchell School remained in operation through the 1950s.

African American students who could afford to go to high school attended the Union County Training School in New Albany. The New Albany School Board purchased the site for the school from the Baker family in 1912. The old Baker home operated initially as a first through eighth grade school and later as a high school until it burned in 1943. From that time until 1948, students attended classes in local churches and in what remained of the old school – its gym and home economics cottage. In 1947, the school board built army barracks on the site to provide additional space. A new building was built at the same location in 1948.

Benjamin F. Ford served as principal of the school from 1921 until 1950 and is credited with expanding the school into a complete first through twelfth grade school. He was responsible for the building of the first gym at an African American school in the area. After his death in 1950, the school board renamed the school the B.F. Ford School, which today serves as a Head Start facility.

One Union County Training School student, Geneva Wade, recalled that it was difficult for African American students to go to high school. To attend the school, many students had to relocate from their homes in the county to New Albany. Often they found families in town who would provide them room and board. It is believed that Principal Ford helped students find after-school work that would permit them to pay rent. Wade recalled, too, the education she and others received:

“At this stage of education for the black youth, emphasis was placed on home economics, agriculture, morals and growing up to be a good productive, self-sufficient citizen. . . . The deepest motivation to the black student of my day was gotten through speeches of inspiration on Friday. There were debates and discussions on problems of the blacks that hindered their progress:”

The positive effect Principal Ford and the Union County Training School had on the local community is inestimable. Wade observed: “Union County Training School produced some such students . . . who were destined to succeed, not because of good facilities, but in spite of deprivation.”

In the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the nation slowly integrated. As in other parts of this state, some white residents in Union County and New Albany proposed establishing a private school to serve white students. But no such school was ever formed. While other communities resisted integration, the Union County school board chose to integrate voluntarily.

The process began in 1964 under the direction of Superintendent of Education J. Bryant Smith. Superintendent Smith devised an innovative plan to integrate public schools: In the first phase of integration, African American students could choose to attend community schools; after two years, attendance was mandatory. Elementary schools were integrated first. Instead of assigning students to grades one through five, the schools assigned students to “primary”or “intermediate”tracks. Students learned at their own pace under the direction of subject-specific teaching teams, each of which included four white teachers and one black teacher. As these students advanced to junior high and high schools, integrated teaching teams continued to instruct their education. When the process of integration completed in 1970, African American students comprised 29 percent of the school district’s students, and 20 percent of the schools’ faculty.

It is believed the children of the Siddell family were the first African American students to attend Union County schools. The children of the Barry and Hill families were the first African American students to attend New Albany schools. In light of many white residents’ bitter reaction to integration, the families feared for their children’s safety. Although there were no reported incidents of violence, it is known that the community’s first African American students to attend integrated schools endured significant harassment by their white classmates. Interestingly, and despite fears of many white families, students in Union County and New Albany schools performed higher on standardized achievement tests in the years immediately after integration began.




History of the New Albany Schools, supra note 6 at 44.

Geneva Wade, Opportunities for Black Students to Obtain an Education Under a Segregated System and its Effects on Their Lives, in CITY OF NEW ALBANY, SESQUICENTENNIAL COMMEMORATIVE BOOKLET, NEW ALBANY, MISSISSIPPI 1840-1990 20, 20 (1990).

John J. Synon, Blueprint for an Independent School, NEW ALBANY GAZETTE, Jan. 8, 1970, at 2 (recommending ways “individuals could establish judge-free seats of learning”); Chicago Tribune Prints Story of NA Schools, NEW ALBANY GAZETTE, Feb. 5, 1970, at 1.

Chicago Tribune Prints Story of NA Schools, NEW ALBANY GAZETTE, Feb. 5, 1970, at 1 (“Our board fought this and put it off for awhile,”Smith said. “Finally, the board decided not to go the court-route and made a policy decision on integration.”).

History of the New Albany Schools, supra note 6 at 45.

Interview with Alicia Robinson, Vice Pres., NAACP of New Albany, Miss. (Apr. 9, 2007).

Chicago Tribune Prints Story of NA Schools, NEW ALBANY GAZETTE, Feb. 5, 1970, at 1.

Interview with Charlene Cobb, SNCC coordinator in N. Miss. (Apr. 2, 2007).

Chicago Tribune Prints Story of NA Schools, NEW ALBANY GAZETTE, Feb. 5, 1970, at 1.