THE DESEGREGATION OF ABILENE PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND ITS IMPACT ON CARTER G. WOODSON JUNIOR AND SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL, 1953-1974
On February 22, 2016, officials in Abilene, Texas, held a special ceremony at Dyess Elementary School to mark the campus’ historic role in the local desegregation process. As part of the ceremony, district administrators noted that Dyess had been the city’s first public school to open its doors to both white and black students in 1963. The campus deserved, administrators said, to be honored for its crucial place in Abilene’s desegregation story. Although the ceremony was attended by students and adults of many ethnicities, it focused on the inclusion of black students at Dyess Elementary. While Dyess Elementary was integrated in 1963, the district continued to maintain an elementary campus, Sam Houston Elementary, for Hispanic students in grades 1-6 until 1970. The white-washed, liberal-integrationist narrative that officials shared with students actually distorted the true complexity of the desegregation process in Abilene. To begin with, the district avoided all calls for racial integration for nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Then, when desegregation actually began in 1963, black students, teachers, coaches, and administrators bore the brunt of the hardship caused by desegregation. The district continued to maintain racially identifiable schools, both for African-American and Hispanic students until the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare forced the district to address the issue.
This thesis will examine Abilene’s school desegregation process and focus special attention on the historically-black campus at Carter G. Woodson Junior and Senior High School. The Abilene school district opened Woodson in 1953 to forestall African American efforts to integrate the schools. The new campus excited the local community and created an important space for African American students, teachers, and administrators to make an independent cultural institution of their own. In fact, Carter G. Woodson became a key fixture in Abilene’s black community; it hosted sporting events, school dances, academic ceremonies, and graduation exercises. The teachers, students, and alumni from Woodson developed a love for the school and considered it a vital part of their personal and communal stories. Yet, in 1969, after only fifteen years in operation, Abilene Independent School District chose to close the campus, despite protests by black community activists and students, because administrators feared that white students would refuse to attend the school.