Roy Exum: Signal Mountain Vs. NAACP

Sunday, August 13, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Jefferson County, Ala., which you know better as the Birmingham area, is still under a federal segregation order. That is of foremost importance because a federal judge had to grant special permission to the town of Gardendale – 88 percent white – this spring to form its own school district. Gardendale is 15 miles north on I-65 from Birmingham, now No. 8 on the ‘Most Dangerous Cities in the United States,’ and doesn’t much camouflage the real reason for "resegregation" is because there are few blacks in its neighborhoods.

Last Monday a legal defense team of the National Association of Colored People filed an appeal of the judge’s decision on behalf of black children, some 20 percent believed to now live in poverty in Jefferson County. The claim is the resegregation is counter to long-standing case law and discriminates again blacks who will be left behind and will no longer share in as much of the state and federal tax money afforded to Jefferson County for education. Gardendale will siphon it off.

Oh, brother. Signal Mountain is threatening to bolt from the Hamilton County Department of Education and it is a growing trend across the country. Since 2000 there have been 41 school districts formed in mostly-white communities and Signal Mountain is one of nine that are now trending. Gardendale is another.

"It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County," said Stan Hogeland, mayor of Gardendale, a middle-class town. "My focus is on Gardendale, not the county as a whole."

In stark contrast, Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley says "race" is not a factor of any sort in Signal Mountain’s decision, "It saddens me that so many people who are not involved want to make this about race. Race and elitism never crossed my mind until I started reading some of the national articles," he said yesterday.

Mayor Howley added, "An interesting fact -- at least, I believe having studied this so in depth – is that with open enrollment we have a much better opportunity to be more diverse. In fact, five of the six Memphis school (districts that split from Shelby County) are more diverse today than they were before the split. I think diversity is one of the keys to a well-rounded education," he added.

For the record, Howley "walks the walk" – does he ever. Now retired as an executive with Republic Parking, Chris coaches players (black and white) as the high school basketball coach and middle school football coach and his players (black and white) all adore him. He may be the least racial person in all of Tennessee; his actions prove it.

Also much to his credit: as a community leader he has remained both unbiased and open to anyone in what could be easily be allowed to become a very divisive issue for the town. Signal Mountain must never allow differing opinions to dampen the great gains it has made since the high school has made it a premier real estate destination for families with children.

But Gardendale is different. As the Washington Post explained, "In April, U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala found that the separation arose out of intentional racial discrimination, sent messages of racial inferiority to black students and would likely hamper court-ordered desegregation efforts countywide — but she said the effort could move forward anyway."

* * *

Guess who may be "coming to dinner" on Signal Mountain? A group of concerned residents on Signal Mountain feels a small district would be better, like a similarly-minded Gardendale group argued. The official statement in Gardendale is, ""We believe that having local control over the city's schools will give the community a sense of pride and ownership," the website states.

"Research has demonstrated that schools benefit from being in a community that is directly invested in their success," added the Alabama website. "From an economic standpoint, forming a city school system in Gardendale should allow us to flourish."

That is the same thing the Hamilton County Department of Education is hearing from Signal Mountain. County Mayor Jim Coppinger has called for a community-wide meeting on Sept 7 at Signal Mountain Middle/High to go over the pros and cons of "staying and leaving." It will begin at 6:30 p.m. and is quickly becoming more anticipated than the Aug. 21 eclipse.

NAACP Senior Counsel Chris Kemmitt, is ready to fight white communities that weaken children left behind with fewer tax dollars. He told NBC News that "the District Court agreed that Gardendale’s bid to form its own school district was designed to exclude black school children," and, in his appeal, stated the Legal Defense Fund is "simply asking the Circuit Court to follow that finding to its logical conclusion and prohibit Gardendale from creating a separate, segregated school district at the expense of the broader community."

Emma Brown, the writer of the Washington Post story, wrote that Judge Haikala, in her 190-page April decision, "said that evidence demonstrated Gardendale leaders, in their attempt to separate, were trying to exclude black students who were bused in from elsewhere as part of the county’s desegregation efforts.

"That sent clear messages of racial inferiority that ‘assail the dignity of black schoolchildren,’ Haikala wrote. But she decided to allow the separation to move forward, she said, in part because if she blocked it, she worried black children would bear the blame."

The Gardendale decision is far from over. So is the one on Signal Mountain.

* * *


GARDENDALE FACTS: The city in Jefferson County has a population of 13,783 and the racial make-up, according to the 2010 census, was 88.4% White, 8.6% Black or African American, 0.3% Native American, 1.2% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 0.6% from other races, and 1.0% from two or more races. 1.5% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. There were 5,670 households out of which 27.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them. (from Wikipedia)

SIGNAL MOUNTAIN FACTS-- The town in Hamilton County is located on Walden's Ridge, a land mass often mistakenly referred to as "Signal Mountain" itself. Signal Mountain is a colloquial name for part of the Walden's Ridge close to the town. The population was 7,554 as of the 2010 census (believed to have climbed to 8,573 since the high school opened in 2008). The racial makeup of the town was 98.2% White, 0.03% African American, 0.1% Native American, 0.5% Asian, and 0.2% from other races. There were 2,960 households, of which 33.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them. (from Wikipedia.)

* * *

Since the year 2000 federal judges have released thousands of schools from court-ordered segregation and, the Christian Science Monitor just reported, a full half of the elementary schools in Mecklenburg County, N.C., either have less than ten percent white children, or less than 10 percent black children.

* * *

"Segregation means people are being deliberately assigned to schools based on skin color," says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Church, Va. "If it simply reflects neighborhoods, then it's not segregation."

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