Mapping Race, School Segregation, and

Black Identities in Woodville, Mississippi:

A Case Study of a Rural Community

 

Celnisha L. Dangerfield

The Pennsylvania State University

 

  Abstract

This article seeks to show how separation within the school system of a rural community impacts identity formation and how the identity formation process is reinforced by the local mass media. It is the author’s belief that segregation and media reinforcement of segregation allowed racism to continue in the rural south by sustaining the racial identities of the past.To analyze this phenomenon, the educational system in Woodville, Mississippi is analyzed, paying particular attention to the mandate for national desegregation that went unheeded in this community.This analysis is of importance because the county is separated almost completely along the lines of race, much as it was before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.In fact, the racial separation that exists is even comparable to the separation that existed after Reconstruction.This study will be facilitated by a discussion of the local newspaper’s coverage of the events leading up to the “official” establishment of separate schools—one public and intended primarily for blacks, the other private and intended primarily for whites.The analysis covers newspaper headlines between 1959 and 1970.

 

Research on the shaping and negotiation of identities has been conducted across various disciplines.The work of social psychologists, sociologists, and communication scholars has produced much of the literature on identity and addresses how one’s identity is impacted by a number of social factors.Though this construct has been approached from any number of different viewpoints, most will agree that identity is socially constructed—that is, our sense of self is only so because of our contact with others.Accordingly, Hecht, Collier, and Ribeau (1993) point out that, “identity is defined by the individual and is co-created as people come into contact with one another and the environment.As people align themselves with various groups this co-creation process is negotiated” (p. 30).

 

Though identity has been the focus of many studies, it is still somewhat ambiguous because there are many factors that interact to construct a person’s identity.It is important to note that no person has only one identity, but several defined by such factors as events and experiences, one’s sex and/or gender, his/her sexual preference, race, and group affiliations.Social institutions and geographic location are two aspects that also aid in the creation of one’s identity. Furthermore, people constantly negotiate these identities (Deaux and Ethier, 1998; Jackson, 1999).The constant negotiation is what allows certain parts of one’s identity to be more salient than other parts at any given time. 

An example of how aspects of a person’s life impacts his/her identity can be seenby analyzing the actions, thoughts, and emotions of those persons that reside in the rural South.Life-long residents have been raised according to the “southern-way-of-life,” a way of knowing that is impacted by current and historic race relations in the South, the major social institutions, and a combination of many more elements. 

 

When one analyzes the uniqueness of the south and then adds to the discussion the effects of rurality on identities, a profound situation is created.The word “rural” is often associated with agriculture-driven environments.However, this is not necessarily the case; rural can also refer to areas that claim a population that ranges from 1,000 to 5,000 people (Sanders, 1977, p. 2).Rural areas exist throughout the United States.Yet, rural life is often associated with the Mid-West and the South.Most of these “rural” areas in the south are unique because they are not necessarily driven by agriculture, but more commonly classified as rural because of their extremely small populations.

 

This article focuses on how separation within the school system of a rural community impacts identity formation and how the identity formation process is reinforced by the local mass media. It is the author’s belief that segregation and media reinforcement of segregation allowed racism to continue in the rural south by sustaining the racial identities of the past.To analyze this phenomenon, the educational system in Woodville, Mississippi is analyzed, paying particular attention to the mandate for national desegregation that went unheeded in this community.This analysis is of importance because the county is separated almost completely along the lines of race, much as it was before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.In fact, the racial separation that exists is even comparable to the separation that existed after Reconstruction.This study will be facilitated by a discussion of the local newspaper’s coverage of the events leading up to the “official” establishment of separate schools—one --public and intended primarily for blacks, the other private and intended primarily for whites.The analysis covers newspaper headlines between 1959 and 1970.

Review of Literature

Literature on Identity and the Rural South

The identity literature is rapidly growing.Jackson (1999) defines identity as “the process and manner in which individuals, groups, communities, cultures, and institutions define themselves” (p. xiii), but one’s identity is also shaped by social factors as well.Martin and Nakayama (2001) highlight five aspects of identity which include 1.) how it is influenced by society, 2.) the idea that it is created through communication, 3.) it is created in spurts, 4.) identities are multiple, and 5.) they are dynamic.Probably one of the most important components of this research analyzes how people negotiate their identities.Scholars such as Deaux and Ethier (1998), Sokefeld (1999), and Jackson (1999) address the importance of identity and how it is negotiated daily. 

The identity of rural inhabitants is shaped by a number of things including the experiences that are unique to rural areas.Ching and Creed (1997) highlight the impact of rural life on one’s identity and their ensuing career choices through a compilation of essays.Their work is important because they manage to present a number of ideas from an interdisciplinary standpoint. 

Residing in the rural South further complicates one’s identity.There have been numerous works written on life in the South in general, and about those people who have been--or still are--a part of that world.These texts range from personal accounts of life in the South to discussions of southern artifacts by scholars that are removed from the southern way of life.Franklin (1994) uses the writings of black poets, authors, and scholars to explain the link between southern whites and blacks.He argues through the words of other southerners that there is a “shared past” that makes the racial dichotomy in the south unique. Moody (1968) discusses her life in the rural south in an autobiographical text.She vividly recounts her struggles from childhood through college in a manner that highlights many of the major race problems that existed in the south during that time.

Several scholars have studied the relationship that the economy, social institutions, and culture have played in rural areas.Clark (1991) addresses the concerns of rural life, but Tickamyer and Duncan (1990) go a step further by addressing the rationale behind the poverty that is often found in rural areas.They assert that, “…blacks, children, and those in female-headed households—are even more likely to be poor if they live in rural areas.

Clearly, an analysis of identities in the rural south forces one to examine several interdependent factors.Southern identity by itself connotes its own set of ideas, problems, and ideologies.For many southerners, rusticity is inherently woven into the conversation. When the element of race--and its distinctions (or the lack-there-of)--is introduced, the equation is somehow compounded.What remains is a complex web of history, social identities, and culture.

Background

Historical Factors and Their Impact on

Current Race Relations in the Rural South

In order to understand the identities of rural, southern inhabitants, one must first understand the context out of which these identities emerged.As previously mentioned, the South was known for its avid pro-slavery stance.Furthermore, as a major proponent for racial stratification, white southerners helped shape many of the erroneous assumptions and predispositions toward members of other races and ethnicities.The institution of slavery created a hostile environment, one in which two races were pitted against one another, both distrusting of the other.It was in this environment that the identities of both white and black southerners alike were shaped. 

Many white rural southerners were slaveholders before the Civil War.In fact, almost half of the small farmers in Mississippi owned at least one or two slaves (Foner, 1988, p. 13), as did several U.S. presidents.These slaveholders had an array of justifications for slavery.Support of the institution ranged from the idea that God created blacks to be subservient to whites, to the notion that slavery was necessary to ensure that whites maintained higher class-positions.Still, there were those that believed slavery was necessary because blacks were savages who would not know how to act if they were free.In either case, the argument was often advanced because of the perpetuation of the belief that the slaves were content in their restricted state.Wayne (1990) describes the master-slave relationship as it was typically thought to exist, at least from the master’s perspective:

For their part, the slaves, with little to be gained from open rebellion and with hopes of securing and increasing their limited rights within the system, by and large went about their labor in an apparently orderly manner.In other words, most of the time the slaves behaved in a way that would have allowed anyone so inclined to believe that they were in the situation of life where God in his divine wisdom had placed them and that they were largely reconciled to their fate.This is not to deny that individual slaves or groups of slaves engaged in acts of resistance, but the form that their resistance ordinarily took—malingering, lying, theft, for example—would only, given the predisposition of the planters, have contributed to the impression that blacks needed the kind of oversight that slavery allowed (p. 862).

In reality, the slaves abhorred their predicament.The inability to act of their own free-will proved too much for many of the slaves.Many tried to escape, while others took their own lives and the lives of their children in efforts to avoid living the life of a slave.Yet, rebellion and escape were not the only methods employed by slaves to elevate themselves out of their menial status as common laborers.Even though it was against the law for blacks to be literate, they often risked their lives for the opportunity to have some status—even if it was not equal to that of whites.

Despite the large numbers of illiterate blacks and the brutal methods employed to keep slaves from learning to read and write, the desire to get an education was not completely extinguished among the slaves.Several learned to read and write despite the clear danger that literacy posed. After the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, the desire for an education only increased.“Slaves carried into emancipation,” states Jones-Wilson (1990), “the belief that book learning was ‘almost a sacred act’” (p. 123).In his book on Reconstruction, Foner (1988) contends that many whites were amazed that blacks exhibited such a thirst for knowledge, what they called “an avidity for learning” (p. 96). 

The Civil War and the period of Reconstruction proved to be a trying time for blacks and whites.Southern whites were left in utter desolation in comparison to the lives they had once lived as Cotton Kings and Queens.Most of the huge plantations were destroyed in the wake of major battles fought all over the South.Those that were left standing were left in wretched states with the absence of the slave labor that had become a necessity to care for the huge crops.The result was an extreme shift in the attitudes of many whites toward an even firmer anti-black stance.In the aftermath of the Civil War, in terms of race relations, “…traditional animosities grew more acute, long-standing conflicts acquired altered meanings…” (Foner, 1988, p. 11).

For Blacks, Reconstruction signaled the beginning of a new life; one free from the same oppressions they had witnessed as slaves.However, a change in status—while welcomed—proved difficult for many of the former slaves to adjust to.They had become accustomed to life in the confines of the plantation on which they lived.Faced with the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, many embraced the opportunity to leave slave life behind.Nonetheless, many maintained a slave mentality—a mindset that made it difficult to abandon the mental and social conditioning that they had undergone.Unfortunately, the effects of this mentality—when combined with other factors such as institutional racism—is evidenced today in the preponderance of female headed households, over-dependence on government help, and lowered aspirations both educationally and economically.As Foner (1988) points out, “Long after the end of the Civil War, the experience of bondage remained deeply etched in blacks’ collective memory” (p. 78). 

Reconstruction carried with it many implications for race relations in the South.Whites emerged from this time-period determined to return blacks to their lowly position as slaves.They blamed Northern carpetbaggers and blacks for the turmoil of the Civil War and the ensuing ruin of the South.  When the northerners (army members and carpetbaggers) returned home, blacks were left “by themselves” in the South.The former slaves were subject to the woes of whites determined to punish blacks, and at the very least, keep them away from everything that was white and pure.

The identities of the former slaves were shaped by their new position as free individuals and by the things they had observed whites doing as free individuals for so long before (Foner, 1988, p. 78).These notions made the desire for education, wealth, and the finer things in life even greater.However, these things were hard to obtain—especially when many white people were determined to keep blacks in “their place.” 

An array of conflicting identities were created in the midst of the South’s attempts to rebuild after the Civil War.According to Foner (1988), “Reconstruction laid the foundation for the black community, whose roots lay deep in slavery, but whose structure and values reflected the consequences of emancipation” (p. 78).Yet, this was not only true for the black community, but for the white community as well.The result was racial identities that were created in the midst of chaos.Unfortunately, those identities have remained in place over the past 130 years—especially in the rural south where racial identities appear to be frozen in time.They are relatively unchanged since the days of Reconstruction, and only slightly so because of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.The deference of older blacks to whites, at least in public, and whites’ belittlement of African Americans are but a few examples of the thinking of old that remains in the rural South.The importance of land to African Americans in the South today is also reminiscent of the newly freed slaves’ desire to acquire some sentiment of prominence like that enjoyed by White Americans.

For African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement proved to be the first major social catalyst since Reconstruction.In the midst of political struggle, the fight for equality within educational institutions found new might.Inspired by a new-found need for social recognition, blacks in the South fought for the right to vote with vigor, often risking their lives to find a sense of equality in the United States.The sentiments of this time period were of limited degrees of black pride coupled with fear of being hassled by the Ku Klux Klan, being lynched, or being run out of town (if one was so lucky).This was the atmosphere that existed as the federal government stepped in to desegregate the educational institutions across the country.This was especially the case in Woodville, Mississippi.In this small town, there existed extreme amounts of fear, distrust, and hate, along with a genuine desire to keep the races separate at all costs--especially in the schools.

Southern Identity

The Southern portion of the United States is a unique place, different in many ways from any other area in the country (and in the world for that matter).This “uniqueness” did not emerge over night; it is safe to say that the South has always been different, even from the very beginnings of this country.It was the South and its dwellers that were the staunchest supporters of slavery, which was demonstrated by its large slave population.It was the South that pulled away from the Union during the Civil War because its inhabitants felt threatened by attempts to alter the “southern way-of-life.”It was also the South that, even after the “official” end of slavery, took strategic steps (i.e., Jim Crow, disenfranchisement through poll taxes and literacy tests) to maintain the subjugation of blacks and those relegated to the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.[i]Thus, Southern identity itself has been problematized by race.The history and way-of-life that have traditionally accompanied southern existence may partially explain this problem.These issues are further complicated by the realization that much has not changed within the major social institutions, and ultimately in the southern mindset altogether.There is still separation within the major social institutions including the churches and the schools.In addition, even the graveyards in many areas of the rural South are still separated on the basis of race.Indeed, many of the beliefs that were acceptable under the southern identity of old are still in place today.

There is a common thread that runs rampant through each of the fore-mentioned illustrations.Beyond the fact that these acts are identifiable with the South, the concept of race is an important component in each of these images.In fact, the notion of race in the United States gained much of its fervor and support from southerners. 

Race is a fluid concept that has been altered to meet the needs of whomever was using the term at the time.The evolution of this term is discussed by Jackson and Garner (1998).These authors provide illumination as to how this socially and biologically ambiguous label has been used, and they provide an indication of how the term should be used instead.Still, one cannot easily ignore the malleability of the term as it existed, and in the form that it is used today. 

During the days of slavery, one’s race was determined by the one-drop rule, which stated that if a person had one drop of black blood then he/she was legally black.As Davis (1991) points out, “This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks alike” (p. 5).Furthermore, according to Sellars and Weis (1997), “In the 1960s and 1970s, most researchers used the term minority students to describe students who were not White.Because the majority of these minority students were Black students, researchers typically classified students according to a Black/White dichotomy (cited in Baker, Keller-Wolff, and Wolf-Wendel, 2000, p. 511).In effect, the race “question” was answered in either black or white, leaving little if any room for in-betweens.Yet, despite the many ways in which race is defined, Crenshaw (1988) points out that, “…race consciousness in the United States is a central ideological and political pillar that upholds existing social conditions, in which racism functions as ‘a central ideological underpinning of American society’” (cited in Jackson, 2000, p. 70).

Social Institutions

The mainstays of American life are its social institutions.These institutions—the family; the church; the government; schools; and the most recent addition, the media—are the foundations upon which all other things emerge and are defined in this society.While each of these institutions continue to have profound effects on what people do and think, the importance of educational institutions cannot be underestimated.This is especially true when one considers that in addition to the other institutions’ primary roles, they also pacify pedagogical responsibilities.

In addition, the role of the media cannot go without mention.The media is another social institution with far-reaching implications.People in American society are constantly bombarded with messages from the media.Lowered self-esteem, negative influences on child development, and increases in violence are just a few things that have been attributed particularly to the increase in the access to television.As a result, the media has come under intense scrutiny over the last 20 years.However, while the television remains one of the most important mediums, the role of the other mediums including newspapers and magazines should not be discounted.Thus, the relationship between these two major social institutions—the educational system and the media—and their effect on identity are extremely important.

Media scholars have traditionally placed media effects in one category or the other.There are those that believe the media is like a magic bullet or a hypodermic needle, injecting the ideas and beliefs of the media on to society.This role has often been described as agenda-setting.Still, there are those that believe that the media merely reflect what is going on in society.Those in this camp believe that the media are fair and partial judges that simply report what occurs on an everyday basis. 

There have been arguments against both of these views of the media, though. According to Spitulnik (1993),“Media scholars have increasingly rejected these top-down, ‘hypodermic,’ or ‘magic bullet’ models of media effects and media power, and have turned their attention to the interpretive practices of media audiences, the diversity of media audiences and media uses, and the multivocality and indeterminacy of media texts” (p. 296).The idea that the media is always fair and impartial is flawed because each person has his/her own biases.Furthermore, one cannot forget that the driving factor for many industries is the desire to make money.Thus, even deciding which stories to cover—not just how to cover them—is influenced in the least by a person’s personal experiences or paradigmatic assumptions, not to mention which story will appease the paying audience (Shanahan and Morgan, 1999).In effect, the critique of the media usually falls along a continuum of these two ideas.This notion takes into consideration that there are a number of rationales for why the media has the impact that it does and why it presents a particular view to its audience.

Focus of Study--Wilkinson County, Mississippi

While there are several areas that still exist in the south that are both rural and retain antiquated educational systems, this essay focuses on one particular county.Wilkinson County, Mississippi is a rural county located in the extreme Southwest corner of Mississippi, just south of Natchez, MS[ii].There are three towns (Woodville, Centreville, and Crosby) and a number of smaller communities (such as Fort Adams, Pickneyville, and Doloroso) in the county.According to the 2000 Census, the population of the county is 10,312.There are 7,034 African Americans and 3,219 Whites (U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Redistricting Data).

Because they were impacted in similar ways, the educational system throughout the county is mentioned.However, the major focus of this analysis will be on the media and the school system in the town of Woodville[iii].Woodville was incorporated as a town in 1811 and serves as the county seat of Wilkinson County.Its importance to this analysis can be found in the fact that it was the place where several decisions were made that impacted race relations throughout the county and the state.The mandate for school desegregation—and the ensuing decision to ignore the mandate—is probably one of the most important of these racially-motivated decisions, the implications of which can still be witnessed in Woodville today.

Desegregation of Rural Schools  

No discussion of school desegregation in the United States can be undertaken without a discussion of the landmark case that was responsible for one of the most pivotal mandates for change since the Emancipation Proclamation.In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that the separate-but-equal doctrine that had been established in the case of Scott v. Sandford (1856) was unconstitutional.The ruling mandated desegregation of the nation’s schools.Blackwell (1991) offers an important assessment of the decision to enforce desegregation:

Desegregation, it was believed, would eradicate institutionalized segregation.The concern was not with changing the hearts and minds of segregationists; rather, it was an effort to respect the constitutional prerogatives of dispossessed people and assure them legal protection and the preservation of their rights (p. 228-229).

Whatever the intention of desegregation, it was met with disregard in many areas of the country, including Wilkinson County, Mississippi.In fact, the courts had to go back in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and add to their initial statement that the desegregation of schools had to be done with “all deliberate speed.”According to Davis (1991), the discontent with the ruling was expressed in a book called Black Monday.In the book, “Yale-educated Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brady of Mississippi contended that the Brown decision would lead to ‘the tragedy of miscegenation.’He wrote fiercely that he and the South would fight and die for the principles of racial purity and white womanhood rather than follow the Supreme Court’s decision.This is where the story of separation—and attempts to end it in Wilkinson County, Mississippi—begins.

Education in the Rural South

Those who have traditionally held the power in the south have always understood the role of educational institutions in uplifting those in the black community.Walters, McCammon, and James (1990) argue that it was with this knowledge that educational opportunities were provided or withheld from blacks, immigrants and the poor.In a follow-up article, these authors unabashedly highlight the mind-set of southern whites.Walters, James, McCammon (1990) contend that, “…southern elites were firmly convinced that education could do nothing to improve labor productivity; in fact, they believed that too much education had adverse consequences (It would ‘spoil a good field hand’ and ‘create an insolent cook’)” (p. 147).According to Foner (1988), many thought that allowing blacks to receive an education led to “‘insolence’ and ‘insubordination’ among the freedmen (p. 79),” both of which were acts that were unacceptable to whites—especially in the years immediately after the Civil War. 

The majority of the schools that were open to blacks, however, were not even remotely equivalent to those that were attended by whites.Classes were often held in tiny one-room schoolhouses, or more often, in the tiny churches of black worshippers. 

More importantly, inequality was apparent in the lack of education that many black teachers had.Many had taught themselves to read and write, and very few had obtained formal education for any extended period of time.This was especially true in those years immediately following the end of slavery.Still, the teacher’s determination to educate others exceeded their limitations.Foner (1988) states, “…blacks’ hunger for education arose from the same desire for autonomy and self-improvement that inspired so many activities in the aftermath of emancipation” (p. 97).

The level of education that was offered to blacks increased over time, and more and more black people obtained higher levels of education.In addition, many school systems actually built schools for the African Americans in their communities.However, the rationale behind the decision to do so was often tainted.Nonetheless, in most instances, the courts had to intervene to force equality within schools.The ruling in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) had a major impact on the education institution in many areas.However, this was not true in many areas of the rural south.Despite the ruling, many counties and townships in the rural south maintained segregation within the school system.This was the case in Wilkinson County, Mississippi around the time of the Brown ruling; unfortunately, this is still the case today.

Separation Within the Schools

In Wilkinson County, Mississippi, the attempts to desegregate the schools in the county were met with direct opposition.In an effort to appease the blacks in the county without actually enforcing the desegregation mandate, the Wilkinson County Board of Education decided to build a new school.According to a statement which appeared in the local newspaper, The Woodville Republican, the new school was to “serve as a county elementary and high school for [N]egroes” (New Negro School, 1959).The new school was named the Wilkinson County Training School3.It is important to note that it took five years after the initial ruling in Brown for any steps to be made toward bettering the education of blacks in the county.Even then, the goal was to establish schools that were “equal,” not desegregated.

The resistance to desegregation that was demonstrated has been discussed by several people including Anne Moody, a native of Wilkinson County.In her autobiography, Moody describes the racial tension that existed by asserting that because of the no-nonsense façade that was presented by the white residents of the county, “No organization was about to go to Wilkinson County.It was a little too tough for any of them.And I wasn’t about to go [back] there either” (p. 275).

In her autobiography, Moody went on to give her description of the new school that was to be built to “satisfy” the requirements of desegregation.According to Moody (1968):

Wilkinson County was a recipient of one of the new “Separate but Equal” schools built throughout the South as a result of the 1954 Supreme Court Decision.It had been under construction on a fifty-two-acre plot in Woodville for almost a year, when I graduated in 1959.The following September all the Negro high schools in Wilkinson County would consolidate into the new school, giving it nearly three thousand students and eighty to ninety teachers.It was supposed to be the largest new school in the state and it caused much bickering among the Uncle Tom principals and teachers in the country4…(p. 211).

In its opening year, Wilkinson County Training School became, “Wilkinson [C]ounty’s largest school and the largest of its kind in the state…” (County Schools, 1959).Almost 2000 black students attended the school during its first year, and throughout the county, the totals for black students attending school fell around 3,066 (County Schools, 1959).

Clearly, there were those who disagreed with the mandate to desegregate all public schools.Those who were positioned at the higher tiers of government (i.e., the U.S. Supreme Court) had no idea of the lengths rural southerners would go to, to ensure that the educational institutions remained separate.Building a new school for blacks was only the beginning step in assuring that the races remained separate, at least with regards to the educational system. 

In lieu of the fact that building another school did not appease the requirements of integration, to make certain that the races remained segregated, county officials did the unthinkable—they allowed black students to “have” the newly constructed public school, and created a private school for the white students to attend.The creation of a private school ensured that the government could have no say so in the school’s racial composition. 

While this step seems drastic, Cosby and Charner (1978) offer additional ideas as to why private schools were established in the rural south:

In rural and small town counties which have only one school system, it is physically impossible to engage in the flight to other public school locale within the immediate area which have a ‘desirable racial makeup.’Consequently, the trend [was] to establish a separate private school system (p. 11-12).

This is exactly what happened in Wilkinson County in the towns of Woodville and in Centreville.

Racial Separation Supported by the Local Media  

The pervasiveness of the media is too grand to ignore (Dangerfield, 2000). 

Americans are constantly bombarded with messages that impact thought, action, and deep-seated beliefs.The same was true in Woodville, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and continues to be true today.

For years after the ruling in the case of Brown v Board of Education, the state of Mississippi abstained from enforcing the ruling.There was clear intention to disobey the courts, but even that was somehow slighted by the local media in Wilkinson County.Because Woodville is such a small, rural town, it boasts of only one public medium—a newspaper called The Woodville Republican.The Woodville Republican is a small, locally owned and operated, family-run newspaper.Established in 1824, the paper boasts of being the oldest newspaper in the state of Mississippi and is published weekly.

The Woodville Republican’s coverage of the desegregation debate was lacking to say the least.It painted an image that was “rosy”—a staunch contrast from the realities of the debate which featured a strong desire to keep the races separated in Wilkinson County.

In the November 14, 1969 edition of The Woodville Republican, the front line read, “Dual County School System to End Dec. 1.”The article discussed how the county was being forced to integrate the schools by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals after the failure of an attempt to delay integration by the Nixon Administration (Dual County, 1969).In the following weeks, there were several articles about the specific plan that was being implemented to desegregate the schools.However, on January 2, 1970, an article appeared entitled, “Private School Organized Here; To Open Jan. 12.”The article announced the opening of the Wilkinson County Christian Academy, a school that would temporarily be housed in three of the local churches--Baptist, Christian and Methodist (Private School Organized, 1970).This article was important for several reasons but mostly so because it announced the county’s intent on disobeying the mandate to integrate and it also marked the change in the media’s coverage of the push toward desegregation.Prior to this article, the focus was on the “strangers” that were coming in to enforce local desegregation.The announcement of the new private school, however, painted the picture of a simple occurrence—blatantly ignoring the impact that this would have on future generations of black and white students (and their identities). 

In the next edition of the paper, the major headline was, “County Public Schools Open With All Black Enrollment.”Only two white students attended the public schools on the first day and they did not return on the second day of school.This fiasco received nationwide coverage, and the Woodville Republican even reported that CBS news crews showed up to get footage to air on the Walter Cronkite news program (County Public Schools, 1970).Thus, the impact of these events were clearly obvious to those outside of the county and it was important enough for national news crews to come in and report what was going on in this small, rural town in Mississippi.Next to this article appeared another article that re-announced the opening of a private school in Woodville, the school’s board of directors, and faculty members (Private School to Open, 1970).

There were those who clearly disagreed with this decision.Moody’s opinion of the newly built public school, which subsequently became the school for Wilkinson County’s black youth, is clear:

My class was scheduled to be the first to graduate in the new school building.Most of my classmates were all excited about this but not me.As most of them, students, teachers, and principals alike, were bragging about how good the white folks were to give us such a big beautiful school, I was thinking of how dumb we were to accept it.I knew that the only reason the white folks were being so nice was that they were protecting their own schools.Our shiny new school would never be equal to any school of theirs.All we had was a shiny new empty building where they always had the best teachers, more state money, and better equipment.The only exciting thought I had about graduation was the fact that I was finishing high school and that would enable me to leave Woodville (Moody, 1968, p. 211).

No one had a clue that such a decision would have such a profound effect, one that can still be felt 30 years after its implementation.

Effect on Identity

As fore-mentioned, the media’s effects are felt along a continuum.According to McQuail (1989), “We should expect no single theory to apply universally to all aspects of such a complex matter” (p. 95).However, the social-cultural approach most accurately depicts the effect that the local newspaper may have played in reinforcing the identities and traditional race roles. 

Surely, racial identities have been impacted by the limited contact between the races.It is especially problematic when one considers that it is a result of institutional separation, in both the local school and within the local newspaper. One need only see a copy of the Woodville Republican prior to the 1970’s to realize that even it was “separated.”The paper allocated one page toward the back for new pertaining to “Our Colored Friends.”In effect, the paper then becomes analogous to race relations within Wilkinson County.Even within the Woodville Republican there was separation of the races, a fact which in itself supports the notion that one race was better than the other—at least in Woodville. 

Identity Status of Blacks and Whites Today in the Rural South

In 1965, W.E. B DuBois, a noted sociologist, professor, and scholar made the following comments:

There stand in the south two separate worlds and separate not simply in the higher realm of social intercourse, but also in church and school, on railway and streetcar, in hotels and theatres, in streets and city sections, in books and newspapers, in asylums, in jails, in hospitals and graveyards.There is still enough of contact for large economic and group cooperation, but the separation is so thorough and deep that is absolutely precludes for the present between the races anything like that sympathetic and effective group training and leadership of the one by the other, such as the American Negro and all backward peoples must have for an effectual progress.

It is tragic that over 35 years later, much of what is said in this quote still holds true; Clearly, it does in Woodville, MS.One can only conclude that since the circumstances are almost identical to the way they were at the time this quote was written, that social identities of this town’s residents must also be the same.

This article suggests that while there has been some change in the south, and in Wilkinson County in particular, the racial identities of the county’s dwellers seem to have remained relatively unchanged, and the local media may have played a major part in that.The youth of the county can still see race separation as it existed after the Civil Rights Movement, and even as it existed after the Civil War.Even in the year 2000, the decision to separate the schools on the basis of race is still affecting race relations throughout the county.Black students attend Wilkinson County Public Schools and White students still attend Wilkinson County Christian Academy; the only thing that has changed is the name of the public school.No one questions the separation—not even the media--because it is merely the way it has always been. 

 

This is not to suggest that outright slavery still exists in Woodville and its surrounding communities.Yet, evidence of“master-slave” or post-Reconstruction identities are readily apparent.These corrupt identities still exist, despite moderate attempts toward change (see Entman and Rojecki, p. 53).This becomes clear through the realization that the separation that was institutionalized within the Wilkinson County School System has never been contested by the black citizens of the county.It has been accepted with no questions, just like the orders that were given to slaves over 135 years ago.

Conclusion

Discussion of Implications

The preceding research addresses several problems that exist, not just in Wilkinson County but all over the rural South.As previously mentioned, identities are influenced by a number of different factors.However, because of the social stagnation that has consumed many rural places within the southern region, many of its inhabitants unknowingly promote corrupt identities—identities that are laced with remnants of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.

Of course, all of the blame for sustained racism in the rural south cannot be placed on the separation within one particular social institution.Not can all of the blame be placed on The Woodville Republican.This is especially true when one considers that social institutions are interrelated in several ways.In Woodville, separation still exists in several aspects of daily life beyond the school system in areas including the core of the family structure, churches, and even town’s graveyards.When the town’s youth are constantly exposed to such extensive degrees of segregation, they cannot help but be influenced by the lack of contact between the races.

This does not mean that there is no contact between races in Wilkinson County.There are any number of healthy relationships that exist which span color barriers.However, lack of exposure may be a key identifier as to why there is only limited contact between so many, and as to why racism is so prevalent in the rural south. 

Ideas for Further Research

Wilkinson County, Mississippi is truly a unique place.There are only a few places left in the United States where the ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education was never enforced.There are other areas where “White Flight” and busing programs have resulted in segregated schools, but documenting areas where the segregation that exists is a result of opposition to the 1954 may provides interesting research opportunities that could contribute to the literature on the impact of social institutions and race on social identities.

The slave mentality that was discussed earlier in this paper may also be used to explain other occurrences within southern, rural communities.An example included positing why some people never leave their hometown, and why others leave, but return shortly thereafter.

References

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Notes

[1] As pointed out by Walters, McCammon, and James (1990), “It is virtually impossible to separate the effects of race and class in analyses of the South during this period” (p.3).Unfortunately, while there were poor whites, those relegated to the lowest tiers of the economic system were often blacks.

[2] The discussion of race and “slave mentality” in Wilkinson County is especially important because of the county’s close location to the city of Natchez.According to Wayne (1990), “…the Natchez district was the richest area in the South, perhaps the richest area in the United States.The concentration of planters in and around Natchez was no doubt greater than in any other section of the cotton belt” (p. 863).

[3] The school’s name was later changed to Wilkinson County Elementary School (1st through 6th grade) and Wilkinson County High School (7th through 12th grade), respectively.The name of the schools and the grades represented by each of the schools remain the same even today.They are both situated on the original site (in the original buildings with other additions) that was set aside for the school in 1959. 

[4] The information that appears in Moody’s autobiography about Wilkinson County Training School is confirmed by a 1959 article that appeared in The Woodville Republican entitled, “New Negro School Nears Completion.”