Backlash to the largest school consolidation in the U.S. cemented disparities in Memphis. Here’s how

Laura Testino:

When former county school board member David Pickler, an advocate for the suburban school districts remaining separate, tells the story of the merger, he traces it back to the creation of each school system. Each was started around the same time, in the late 1860s after the Civil War. Memphis held more wealth than its surrounding suburbs, which were largely rural and poor. Kids in the suburbs were taught in a handful of one-room schoolhouses.

Most neighboring Southern states passed legislation ahead of the Civil War that prohibited, fined and corporally punished Black people who were learning to read or write and any other person who helped them.

After the war, Memphis became unique in opening its own district, separate from the county, which is how most Tennessee school systems were structured. The separation was motivated by wealth, Pickler said.

“They quite frankly did not want their kids associating with those poor kids out in Shelby County,” Pickler, who is white, said of the creation of the city district.

This separation continued under Jim Crow. Within the two districts, Black students received significantly less, with separate education that was unequal to education for their white peers.

Hart, born in 1971, remembers situating her own family into the Civil Rights Movement. History’s recency suddenly dawned on her.

“One day my mom came home from work and I asked her, had she ever had to drink out of a colored fountain. She said, ‘Yes,’” Hart recalled, “and I almost burst into tears.”