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Integration comes to Cleveland, Miss., a town divided more than 100 years

Since Cleveland was founded in 1886, white and black residents have mostly lived separately in this town of 12,000 in the Mississippi Delta.

Although one of its two high schools, Cleveland High, is racially balanced, most of the neighborhoods in this community are still segregated.

The second high school, East Side, is 100 percent black.

Last week, in a case brought more than 50 years ago, the U.S. District Court in Greenville issued its decision on arguments from both the Department of Justice and the Cleveland School District regarding proposed desegregation plans.

The Department of Justice believes the two high schools should be consolidated into one.

The School District argued for programs to make East Side more attractive to white students, stating this would cause voluntary desegregation. The court sided with the Department of Justice and gave the district three weeks to develop an implementation timeline, one that will affect the 2016-17 school year.

Cleveland was segregated back in 1967 when I lived in neighboring Mound Bayou, where we were one of only two white families in that historically all-black town.

I remember playing with an African-American friend on the mini-carousel in front of a Cleveland grocery store while his mother shopped inside. A white woman grabbed me by my arm and pulled me off the horse, and asked me if my mother knew who I was playing with.

My mother knew exactly where I was and she approved completely of my choice of a playmate.

Unfortunately, in some areas, the sight of white and black children playing together is still all too unusual.

Town divided

Although the Illinois Central Railroad no longer runs through the middle of town, the path where the tracks used to be still divides Cleveland's races: whites to the west and blacks to the east.

During the 50 years since the Department of Justice filed its lawsuit seeking enforcement of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that schools must desegregate, there have been many court orders and appeals, but no action.

This case is just one of almost 50 active desegregation suits in Mississippi alone, but most are situations in which a school was integrated and later re-segregated. East Side High is one of very few schools never integrated.

The Cleveland School District wants to maintain two high schools, arguing there would be no benefit to consolidation, because, they say, if the black students of East Side are all sent to the racially balanced Cleveland High, the white students -- not wanting to be in a significant minority -- will flee to private schools. The judge was not swayed by this argument.

The disadvantages

I recently stayed with friends whose children attended East Side. They speak fondly of the traditions there and acknowledge they will miss cheering for the East Side Trojans after the two high schools merge, but they say it is way past time for this to happen.

Though they recognize East Side High has turned around academically -- it's ranked higher by U.S. News & World Report than Cleveland High, with higher test scores and smaller classes -- they say the general perception is still that Cleveland High is better. More important, they believe -- as does much of the black community -- racism is still a problem in Cleveland and the only way they can move beyond intolerance is for their children to all attend school together.

There are some disadvantages to consolidation.

There will be only one varsity team for each sport, resulting in fewer opportunities for young athletes. And black students and parents are aware Cleveland High, despite being close to 50 percent black, has never had a black valedictorian, whereas East Side High has always had one.

When the case was scheduled to come to District Court in Greenville a year ago, the School District filed for a continuance, requesting time to come up with yet another alternative to consolidation. Judge Debra M. Brown, who presided over the hearing, denied the request, saying, "The District has offered no reason why such an attempt could not have been made during the 50-year pendency of this case."

She's different

When I was an 11-year-old child living in Mound Bayou, a visitor asked if I ever forgot all my friends were black.

"No," I laughed, finding the question odd because I could see my playmates. "I forget that I'm different."

I wasn't thinking about the civil rights movement or racial equality. I was just being a kid; the youth of Cleveland are entitled to that same innocence. The time has come for the Cleveland School District to implement the single-high-school plan proposed by the Department of Justice, and thus finally bring full integration to Cleveland's high school students. Let's hope the district doesn't delay longer by appealing the U.S. District Court's decision.

Jo Ivester is the author of the recently published award-winning memoir, 'The Outskirts of Hope,' the story of her family's two years in Mound Bayou during the 1960s. She recently completed a national book tour and was featured on NPR's show, 'Author's Corner.' She has degrees from MIT and Stanford and taught for several years as an adjunct professor at St. Edward's University. She is now working on a new book focusing on her transgender son.

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