Then and Now

The author of the 1972 desegregation plan looks at white flight.



I had a dream. Not a Martin Luther King-type dream of a better America, but a dream about high school. I am way past high school, but this is an unintended consequence of spending too much time going to school board meetings and reading the Tennessee Report Card.

In the dream, I was trying to get into a private school that looked like Harry Potter's Hogwarts. Everyone was wearing blazers and white shirts. I was wearing jeans and a Trout Slayer Ale long-sleeved T-shirt and had just finished eating a rack of ribs, served wet. Not prepared for the test, you might say, but at least I was not naked. The headmaster asked me my name. In a panic, I looked in vain for a white shirt and a bathroom. Then I woke up.

Maybe I should see a psychiatrist, but it's uninsurable, I don't have the money, and it probably wouldn't take anyway. I think my subconscious was telling me, "Don't forget private schools."

So instead of seeing a shrink, I called Dr. O.Z. Stephens.

Now retired, Stephens helped write court-ordered desegregation Plan Z in 1972 when he worked for Memphis City Schools (MCS). Inasmuch as his middle initial was "Z," he got tagged with it. He knows a lot about white flight and public and private schools. In 1973 and 1974, some 40,000 white kids left the Memphis public schools for county schools and private schools because of busing.

"We sure enough desegregated the schools, given the legal term," he said. "We satisfied the federal court. But we also created the largest segregated school system in the South, called the Memphis Private and Parochial School System."

Stephens lives in Bartlett and left MCS in 1984. He said he would vote against school consolidation if he could.

"I love the Memphis City Schools system. I gave 30 years to it. I am not an alarmist, but folks in Bartlett, Southwind, Bolton, and Millington, they don't want to be jerked around. There will be a different kind of white flight. I don't think it will happen for a year or so if the existing county school board is in charge. But the minute Memphians take over the county system, which they will, it will be bye-bye.

"You can get the tenor of some unrest in county schools right now in the talk of redistricting Bartlett, Bolton, and Arlington," Stephens said. "Folks just get bent out of shape when you say that in four years, the eighth grade is going to be reassigned. When this merger comes, you're going to have folks who are going to look for options in private schools and surrounding counties."

Nobody knows exactly how many kids are in private school in Shelby County. There are blueblood schools like MUS, Hutchison, St. Mary's, and PDS; Christian schools like Briarcrest, ECS, and Harding; Catholic schools like Memphis Catholic, Christian Brothers, and St. Benedict at Auburndale; Jewish schools like Solomon Schechter; newer schools like St. George's.

There is an arms race in private education. The fancy facilities and sky-high standardized test scores have to be seen to be believed. The charter-surrender debate is being framed as if the only choices are school equivalents of Walmart and Target, but there are also the Shops of Saddle Creek and the Avenue Carriage Crossing.

My way of keeping up with the privates is reading the sports page in The Commercial Appeal. You can get a pretty fair idea of who's going where by looking at the pictures of the "Best of Preps" teams in the private and public school conferences.

There was a time 25 years ago when the Memphis Tigers basketball team was a cross-section of players from public high schools from Grand Junction to Melrose to West Memphis. No more. Today's elite athletes — Michael Oher, Elliot Williams, Barry Brunetti — are as likely to be recruited by a private school or attend a sports academy.

If you are a parent, do whatever you have to do to get your kid into a good school. If you live in Memphis, make a thoughtful vote in the referendum. And if you decide to put your kid in private school, I hope you don't have barbecue sauce on your hands when you meet the headmaster.

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