Good Trouble’ In A White Flight Suburb: Oak Grove High Teens Confront Racism

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tags: Mississippi, youth, Black lives matter, Protest

Forrest and Lamar, the Counties and the Men

Hattiesburg is a city split in two, with the Forrest-Lamar county line and Interstate 59 marking the split between east and west—a division also borne of the fallout over racial integration. 

Like Lamar County, Forrest County, which includes Hattiesburg’s east side, is also named for a prominent racist: Confederate Army General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and served as its first grand wizard.

Hattiesburg proper is in Forrest County, including the old downtown and its art galleries, pubs and a local brewery. It is home to several universities and colleges, including the University of Southern Mississippi. Historical markers dot the streets on that side of town.

On Highway 98 on the opposite side of town in Lamar County, Oak Grove almost imperceptibly blends into west Hattiesburg along a stretch where suburban sprawl gives way to a series of shopping centers, large churches, box stores and chain restaurants.

Less than half a century ago, though, that stretch, and all of what is now west Hattiesburg, consisted mostly of pine trees, and Hattiesburg began only once travelers crossed Interstate 59, where Highway 98 turns into Hardy Street. (It is named for William Harris Hardy, a Confederate captain before he founded Hattiesburg several decades after the Civil War). 

When Hattiesburg began integrating its schools in the mid-1960s, much of Oak Grove was farmland, devoid of the many middle-class subdivisions that populate it today.

“The Oak Grove and west part of Hattiesburg that we see now was completely non-existent until the early 1980s. If you were on Hardy Street and you crossed over I-59, it immediately turned into woods, and it was just a two-way highway. There was no industry,” said Christopher Preston, the Black minister who joined Oak Grove High students at the walkout on Aug. 21.

The preacher, who pastors New Mt. Zion Baptist Church in nearby Moselle, Miss., was a student at Hattiesburg High School in the mid-1980s. West Hattiesburg was growing, and Oak Grove’s population was booming, he said, thanks largely to the phenomenon known as “white flight.”

After Hattiesburg began integrating the city’s public schools in autumn 1964, white families who were unwilling to allow their kids to share classrooms with Black children began looking for alternatives. At first, many moved their children to white-only segregation academies, like the ones former Gov. Phil Bryant and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith attended, which popped up in earnest after the U.S. Supreme Court forced all schools statewide to desegregate in late 1969.

From Seg Academies to Suburbs

As Hattiesburg public schools began integrating in 1964, the Forrest County Citizens Council, a segregationist group, created the Forrest County School Foundation Inc., to launch a local segregation academy. The local Citizens Council’s membership included M.M. Roberts, a local attorney who had defended Theron Lynd against the federal lawsuit over voting rights and who served as the president of the board that governs Mississippi’s universities and colleges.

When the foundation launched the private school in 1965, they named it after longtime Hattiesburg public-school teacher and principal J.A. Beeson, who served as the foundation’s superintendent.

Mordaunt W. Hamilton Sr., a founding member of the local Citizens Council and the Forrest County School Foundation, took care of securing land for the Beeson Academy’s construction

A 1965 Hattiesburg American article claimed segregation was not the school’s “only aim” because “the school will have Bible reading and prayer” and “stress patriotism, American heritage, constitutional government and the free enterprise system.”

But 13 years later, Hamilton would tell the University of Southern Mississippi in an oral history that the Council’s aim “was to keep our schools from being integrated and keep from having forced social activities with people we didn’t want to.”

Read entire article at Mississippi Free Press

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