Forty years ago, the Dallas Independent School District forcibly desegregated its schools. Many involved in the painful, frustrating and necessary process, which lasted more than three decades, are still around to share their stories.
As told to Keri Mitchell • Photos by Can Türkyilmaz, Benjamin Hager & Madeline Stevens
Until 40 years ago this fall, black students living in Dallas were relegated to a small portion of the city’s schools. The rest were reserved for white students. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit outlawed segregation by race 17 years earlier, Dallas public schools hadn’t fully heard the message.
In 1971, however, after plenty of lip-service but little concrete action from public school administrators, a federal judge forced black and white students to integrate through busing. It didn’t take long for the fallout to begin. Lives were disrupted. Students and parents threatened each other. Families both black and white fled their neighborhoods for suburban and private schools. This story isn’t an attempt to analyze that history-altering process. Instead, 40 years after desegregation began, key neighborhood residents involved in the process look back on those years and tell us in their own words what the changes meant to them, our neighborhood and our city.
Interviews have been condensed and edited.
ROBERT H. THOMAS began representing the Dallas school district in the desegregation case in 1980, when the original attorney had to resign due to health issues. Thomas and his wife, Gail — the president of the Trinity Trust Foundation — live in Bluffview, and he is a partner emeritus at Strasburger law firm.
Thomas: The first case was Brown v. Topeka and was handed down in 1954. The Supreme Court said segregated public schools are unconstitutional. And nothing happened, actually. It just fell on deaf ears around the country. And then a couple of years later, the Supreme Court handed down another decision that said, “We really mean it. You’ve got to desegregate the schools and do it with all deliberate speed.” Well, speed is in the eye of the beholder.
JAN SANDERS is the widow of Barefoot Sanders, the federal judge who assumed the desegregation court case in 1981. Their four children attended Hillcrest High School. Sanders still lives in Preston Hollow and remains active in the community.
Sanders: Our second baby was born the day of Brown v. Board of Education, so then the DISD finally had a magnet program that she went to school at that was brand new 16 or 17 years later. So the deliberate speed was not very speedy in Dallas. We had Jim Crow laws that were discriminatory, and from those laws we have the heritage — the culture of discrimination that affirmed those laws.
People tolerated that this is just the way we live together — we have colored water fountains and white water fountains, we have colored waiting rooms and white waiting rooms, we have black schools and white schools. These were the cultures that emerged from the law. The culture might change but the law is static, so that’s what had to change in the courts.
STEVE KENNY moved to Dallas from New York in 1966 and began attending Dealey Elementary. He had just finished his ninth-grade year at Franklin Junior High (now Middle School) when the desegregation order was implemented. Kenny graduated from Hillcrest High School in 1974, worked for the Dallas Morning News for many years and recently moved back to New York, where he works for the New York Times.
Kenny: When it became clear that the federal government wanted schools to desegregate, after 10 years of Brown vs. Board of Education … and we’re talking true segregation in ’64, when black kids could only go to five high schools in Dallas — Lincoln, Roosevelt, Madison, Pinkston and Booker T. Washington, which was at one point the only black school in the city — and that was by law, no matter where they lived. That was going to have to end.
ED CLOUTMAN was beginning his career as an attorney when Sam Tasby walked into his office in 1970 saying he wanted his two sons to be allowed to attend their neighborhood school. Cloutman filed the lawsuit and spent the next 33 years defending the cause of Tasby and all minority families and children in the Dallas school district. Cloutman still practices law in Dallas, spending most of his time representing labor cases.
Cloutman: Mr. Tasby walked into my office in West Dallas in the summer of ’70. It was late summer, and kids had gone back to school. His kids, Eddie Mitchell Tasby and Phillip Wayne Tasby, were then being assigned to Sequoyah Middle School and Pinkston High School, and he thought it was not fair because there were nearer schools to his home, and no buses available — they had to ride the city bus at his expense. He was a working guy. We started talking to other people, and by October, we had filed the lawsuit.
Thomas: You know the difference between state and federal courts? People elect judges in the state courts, and judges in federal courts are appointed for a lifetime. That’s a major difference. So if a judge wants to get reelected, he’s not going to say, “We’re going to desegregate schools.” He would have been voted out the next election. So it wasn’t too long until the liberal lawyers figured out that the only place to force desegregation was in the federal courts.
Cloutman: We were real sure we were going to win the initial round. The schools were well out of compliance with what the Supreme Court had said at the time. A huge round of cases were decided by the Supreme Court the year of our trial, and they were sort of the benchmarks: “You’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do it now. You can’t wait any longer.”
Kenny: Basically the ruling was sort of the beginning of the end of the traditional white oligarchy that controlled Dallas, that they couldn’t stop this plan. The white business community went by the name the “Citizens Council”, which was almost a political party. The Citizens Council ran a slate of candidates every race, and they almost always won. And of course, the Citizens Council was basically all white.
What happened was the Citizens Council went to the leaders of the black community and said, “We’re going to end segregation in Dallas, but we’re going to do it very peacefully, and we want your cooperation. We are going to integrate the schools by neighborhood.”
So if you were a black student living in the Hillcrest district, you could go to Hillcrest. But when this lawsuit was filed, it said this integration wasn’t good enough because the schools that were in minority neighborhoods were inferior to schools in the white neighborhoods, which I think was true. The buildings were crumbling, the teachers weren’t as good, and the money wasn’t going there like it was to the white schools.
I think then there was nothing that the Citizens Council could do to stop that change. Now I don’t think anyone would argue that business interests still run Dallas, but this old-timey club of the white Citizens Council, I think basically this was sort of the end of their total control over the city.
Thomas: The Tasby case was filed in Judge Mac Taylor’s court, and he didn’t know what to do with it. You won’t believe this, but the school district says, “Well, if we want to have these students go to school with each other, why don’t we install televisions in each classroom so schools in South Dallas can hook up with North Dallas classrooms and they can conduct desegregation that way?” Is that not classy?
Cloutman: It was $25 million just to install the cameras and the screens. Today that’d be closer to a half a billion, given inflation. We got that stopped in about a week.
Kenny: I remember the summer of 1971 as a very complicated summer. After Dallas schools were ruled segregated and had to be changed, the court came up with a plan, and it was a very radical plan where almost every high school in the city would have been affected in one way or another.
At the time, every high school had these six or seven feeder schools. I was a George B. Dealey [Elementary] student at Royal and Hillcrest, and under that plan, Dealey students would have been bused to Crozier Tech, which is a school that no longer exists but was part of the original Dallas High School in downtown Dallas. And in my neighborhood, Dealey people, there was just utter panic, and the vast majority of parents said they were not going to allow their children to go to Crozier Tech, which was a mostly minority school.
KEN BARTH graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1972. He and his wife, Carolyn, live in Sparkman and have served in their neighborhood schools by starting science clubs, being active in booster clubs and heading up PTAs. Their son graduated from W.T. White and their daughter from Booker T. Washington.
Barth: Thomas Jefferson at the time was integrated — 60 percent white, 20 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic would be just a wild guess. There was a pocket of homes between Lemmon, Inwood, Lovers and Mockingbird, and that pocket was already in the Thomas Jefferson district. They attended Sudie Williams Elementary, then Cary Junior High.
To be honest with you, it kind of flew under our radar. I don’t really remember many of the parents being that upset about it. The biggest thing that happened to us is we used to be known as the Thomas Jefferson Rebels, and then we changed it to Thomas Jefferson Patriots. I remember that being a little bit of a stink.
But you know, I remember it all being pretty damn smooth, to be honest with you. But once it happened, you started noticing the white population moving away quickly.
Kenny: Overnight, applications to Greenhill, St. Mark’s, Hockaday, all the private schools just went through the roof, and a couple of new private schools were born overnight. People were just not going to allow their children to be bused to what they considered inferior schools where there was a minority population.
MARTY FRENCH graduated from W.T. White in 1979, and she is the school’s current PTA president. Her son graduated from DISD’s Townview magnet high school, and her daughter graduated from W.T. White.
French: My husband’s family lived in the Withers area. He would have continued in the Dallas schools, but he had a younger sister, and his parents were some of the founding parents of Trinity Christian Academy. When Trinity was started, they needed more students to justify the school, so my husband wound up going to Trinity.
KATHY BATEMAN attended Dealey Elementary, then entered Franklin Junior High when busing began at the school. She graduated from Hillcrest High School in 1976. Her four sons attended W.T. White High School, and the youngest graduated this past spring.
Bateman: Some of my friends’ parents decided that they weren’t going to go to Franklin; they were going to go to private school. I had friends who were the first child, and they left and went to a Christian school or Hockaday. I think my parents were anticipating the change, but they weren’t going to send me somewhere else. My mom volunteered at both the junior high and high school when I was there, so she was always around. I think maybe that was her way of making sure everything was OK.
Kenny: Someone asked my mother if I would be able to walk the neighborhood with a petition to get people to sign against [the plan], which I did do at the time. I was 14, about to turn 15, and I didn’t want to go to Crozier Tech. I was looking forward to my 10th-grade year at Hillcrest.
I was being raised by a single mother and had a brother and a sister, and we didn’t have any money — even though we lived in Hillcrest, which was considered a rich district — so there was no option of private school for me. I really didn’t think through the politics or anything about this, and for several weeks, I walked the neighborhood with this petition and almost everyone I knew did sign, but those that didn’t were quite vocal and tried to educate me about why they thought the ruling wasn’t such a bad thing because Dallas was terribly segregated, and schools in minority neighborhoods were inferior, and this needed to change.
Then what eventually happened was the original plan was overturned. They came up with an alternative plan, which the court accepted, and this plan would basically exempt a lot of the white schools from having to get on buses. Hillcrest feeder schools could still all go to Hillcrest. Then the plan was an elementary from the North Dallas [High School] district, Ray, that served the projects in the area around Lemmon Avenue and Hall Street on the east side of Central (which have been mostly replaced since then), those kids were bused to Hillcrest.
Cloutman: The plan Judge Taylor adopted involved a fair amount of busing for high school and middle school students, and was sending some of the poorest kids from South Dallas and West Dallas into North Dallas schools where the economies were like night and day. They had more money, they had after-school programs — it was sort of an invasion of sacred space by kids who were so poor and were not made to feel welcome.
Kenny: When the kids from Ray did get to Hillcrest, it was really a clash of cultures. Not a lot of kids from North Dallas had ever been around a lot of black people. I think a lot of families in North Dallas had a black maid that would come once or twice a week, but you didn’t really associate a lot with black people; you just didn’t see them a lot, and you didn’t see many Hispanics, either. It was a very segregated, “Leave It to Beaver” white neighborhood.
I look back now, and we were a little concerned, but it was our high school, and I think how terrified the kids from Ray must have been to get on that bus and go to Hillcrest High School and to be this very small group of kids who not only were of a different race in an era where that was much more important than it is now, but they also came from a totally different culture and class background. Hillcrest had a reputation of being the Jewish high school. It was known among other schools as “Hebrew High”, and Franklin was called “Little Israel”.
BOB JOHNSTON began working in the Dallas ISD communications department in 1970, and was the board secretary for 17 years and special assistant to the superintendent from1998 to 2000.
Johnston: When busing started, the superintendent at the time, Nolan Estes, had all of the central office administrators get their school bus driver’s licenses, and the first big school day of the busing order, he drove a school bus himself. [Estes] had hired monitors who rode the buses with the kids from South Dallas and then worked at the schools when they got out there so the kids knew somebody from their neighborhood.
One reason we used so many monitors was because there were lots of folks in the black community who didn’t like the idea of their kids being bused out. They wanted integration, but they feared what would happen at the end of that bus ride, or whether or not they would get on the bus and go out to the school only to be put in a separate class. And that happened sometimes until somebody would find out about it and straighten it out.
Kenny: Within Hillcrest there wasn’t a lot of mixing, except maybe on the football team, because there was an internal segregation in Hillcrest even after busing. You had your accelerated classes, what would be known as AP now, and those were still almost all white. Black kids within Hillcrest still were encouraged to take shop instead of debate.
Bateman: I remember at Franklin, you didn’t go to the bathroom during class periods. You only went in between. I remember there were lots of fights, and I guess I was surprised that there were a lot of girl fights. It was kind of frightening because you were going from this elementary school environment where you were all in a cocoon, and then you were thrown in this mix in junior high where there was all this animosity.
Kenny: There were fights, and especially concern among girls. I remember policewomen being stationed in the girls’ restrooms because there would be fights there. This was the year of the big afros, and the black kids would have these really long-teethed metal combs, which I think they called picks, which they would use to fluff up their afros. This sounds funny, but there was a fear among a lot of the white kids that they could use these as weapons, and there was a debate as to whether they should be allowed to use these in school.
Bateman: There was just a lot of frustration. The kids who were bused into Franklin weren’t happy because they were having to take a bus all the way across town, and they were separated from their friends. They were mad, and I knew why they were mad — because they didn’t feel like they should have to be bused across town.
I look back at it, and I think, “They should have been able to get the same education, and no one should have been forced to go to either place.” But I realize that was part of integration because everyone lived in separate neighborhoods.
Thomas: One of the things that made it difficult was that we had such a large African American population south of Interstate 30, and none north of Interstate 30, so it made it very difficult to mix bodies or teachers or anything without crossing the expressway. That’s a historical fact and a historical problem we had with desegregation because of the long distance between blacks and whites.
Bateman: I think those first few years were really difficult because no one was really meshing yet, and that took a few years to happen. In high school, it was a lot better. Everybody seemed to get along, and we were adjusting to mixing, but I still felt it wasn’t right for people to be bused across town.
Sanders: Some of the very respected African American leaders were for busing, and at the end of it, they were against it. Why should these kids ride all the way across town to go to school with kids down the street?
Cloutman: It was a horrible atmosphere for kids of all colors because it was organized mayhem in schools. The atmospheres were allowed by principals to fester. It was sort of like, “You want integration? I’ll show you integration.” Kids at Hillcrest, kids at Spruce were getting into constant fights.
“This is the right thing; we’re going to do it,” was not something you heard from teachers and principals. Dallas was growing then, and people were basically being told, “Don’t locate in the Dallas ISD because they have busing.” And it worked. It wasn’t so much we had white flight, but no white in-migration, and as white kids graduated, there was nobody to replace them. People with school-age children were not locating here.
Kenny: Dallas in the ’60s and early ’70s was a very odd place, maybe the oddest city in the country because of the Kennedy assassination. Dallas had this reputation for being a very, very right-wing city, and after the Kennedy assassination, the whole city was blamed for killing Kennedy.
Dallas was a pariah city. Economic development just stopped. No one wanted to move here. It was vilified throughout the country, that there was something rampant about Dallas that had caused Kennedy to be killed here. So the white business community went out of their way then to try to protect Dallas from some of the upheavals that occurred throughout the country in the rest of the ’60s.
Thomas: The city fathers were very, very careful to avoid the rioting and the fighting and everything that occurred in the other cities. We never lost a bond election. Every time, people voted to tax themselves because the city fathers said, “The school district needs this money, and we’re going to have a good integrated school district. We didn’t want an integrated school district, but we’re going to spend the money to do it.” It was a deliberate effort on the part of every councilman and mayor and school board member to work together.
Kenny: There were riots in Detroit, there were riots in Newark, and there were lots of riots everywhere, but there were no riots in Dallas. Dallas didn’t want any of that seen on national TV. Dallas already had a problem with public relations, and Dallas has always been sensitive to its public relations, so there was going to be none of that.
Johnston: Now, we had people show up at school board meetings who complained and picketed and things like that, but it wasn’t like Little Rock where they called out the National Guard and that sort of thing. People remember it mostly through the media and the effect it had on their kids. If they had kids in school while busing was going on, they weren’t too wild about it.
MARY “PETEY” GOODE’s oldest daughter entered Nathan Adams Elementary as a first-grader in 1976 and stayed until her fourth-grade year when she was bused to Walnut Hill Elementary. All of Goode’s children graduated from W.T. White High School, and today she is the office manager at Nathan Adams, where she has worked for 24 years.
Goode: When they bused our oldest daughter to Walnut Hill, that was my first experience with the busing issue. It was a culture shock, for sure. I remember her class picture when she came home that first year — she and maybe one other girl were the only white children in her class. She did fairly well. Her daddy, on the other hand, didn’t adjust too well. He liked a more protective environment, and I kind of did, too. We were used to having her close at hand, and she wasn’t as close because we lived just a few blocks from Nathan Adams, and she had to ride a bus all the way to Walnut Hill.
French: All of the South Dallas kids who came to Marsh and W.T. White were not being forced. At my grade level [W.T. White class of ’79], it was voluntary transfers. My younger sister, Jeray, was the one that was forced busing. That was in third-grade, I believe. They started off by just alternating grades, so third grade at our school, Gooch, was shipped down to a school in South Dallas, and the third-graders in South Dallas were shipped up to our school, and it was every other grade.
We actually lived one block from our elementary school. I remember my sister coming home from her school every day in tears — girls pulling her hair because she wore glasses. My parents ended up putting my sister in a private school six weeks later because they were worried about her mental health.
It was hard on my parents. They were actually supportive of the desegregation order. My dad was a professional football player. He played for the Kansas City Chiefs; he signed with the Dallas Texans and played one season when they switched the teams. We lived in Kansas City for a little while, and there’s family pictures of get-togethers with football players and their wives and kids running around, and there was always a couple of black players and their wives. My mom really felt bad about being one of the white flight parents at the time.
DAWN HALL moved to Dallas and attended Withers Elementary as a sixth-grader in 1969-70, then moved to Germany the next year when her father was promoted. In 1971, he died suddenly of a heart attack, and Hall’s mother took her daughter back to her friends in Dallas. She graduated from W.T. White in 1977, and her son and daughter are both Hillcrest graduates.
Hall: In that interim time between Withers and going to the school in Germany was desegregation, and Dallas was all abuzz. The Realtor asked my mother, “Are you sure?” My mom was certain. “If I can give one thing of stability to my daughter,” she said, “at least she can pick up with her friends.” She was worried enough that she made me go take the entrance exam at Greenhill. I took the test, I got in, and I looked at her and said, “I don’t want to make new friends again” — friends I’m still friends with today.
So I am now an eighth-grader, and I went to school at E.D. Walker the year it opens. I thought it was the most awesome place. Then in ninth grade we went to Marsh. Marsh is a big school, and it seemed like the desegregation was more apparent at that school. My mom said, “Are you sure, Dawn?” And I said, “Yes, I want to stick with my friends.”
Looking back, I can’t come up with one time I was afraid, one thing I thought was strange. I remember that people seemed to be making a bigger deal out of it than it truly was. I knew girls I had gone to Withers with who enrolled at Ursuline and at Hockaday, and I stayed the course because of my friends and my personal experience.
Goode: Our daughter went fourth and fifth at Walnut Hill, and then we took her out and joined the white flight group. She went to Good Shepherd [Episcopal School] in sixth, seventh and eighth. Marsh Middle School had something of a reputation for being a little rough, and we just felt like she would be more protected in that private school.
The problem with private school is about eighth-grade, we discovered we were spending her college money, and she wasn’t getting any better of an education than at public school. That’s why we put her back in W.T. White for high school. It was great, and I don’t know if that had been several years to acclimate and have the African American students get used to the white students and vice versa, but she ended up with some really good intermix at W.T. White and did quite well with it.
Hall: There really were no problems. There was this sort of peaceful coexistence. I did sense that, yes, though we were in school together, there was not much intermixing because we were in totally different neighborhoods. I couldn’t walk home with this person.
Barth: I live in an area called Sparkman, and we have black people, white people and Mexican people. Our kids are starting to go to school together and come home and play together. That’s not the case when a kid jumps on a bus for an hour and a half to go to school.
It used to be that Sparkman was a one-school neighborhood. Everybody went to Caillet, Cary then Thomas Jefferson. We played together on the weekends, we hung out together, everybody was right there in my world. When Ken Barth was growing up, if 50 kids lived in Sparkman, 49 were going to Thomas Jefferson and one was going to private school. Ten years down the road, probably 20 went to Thomas Jefferson and 30 went to private school.
Now you’ve fragmented the neighborhood. Everybody’s not on the same page anymore. And to use Sparkman as a microcosm, you had the same thing everywhere. To me, that wasn’t a good thing. Today, with the same 50 kids, 10 are in public school, and the other 40 are at various private schools around the area. At Sparkman board meetings we’re all together, and at PTA meetings we’re all apart.
Hall: I do remember feeling sorry for these kids who were bused because it does seem like it was forced upon them. When desegregation happened, this whole neighborhood, they’re busing kids, and it sounded so terrible. Why do they have to get up earlier than I do? Because a judge said so? I remember thinking that as a student. My experience is very different from my children’s because for our kids, it was diverse from day one.
French: The schools are certainly very diverse now. We’re in an opposite situation. My kids have always been the minorities at the school. The black students were the minority back then, probably 10 percent of [W.T. White], and some of the families lived in our neighborhood. Certainly, the black students who lived in our areas were still very rare back then. I’m pleased to see them at our high school reunions and such.
Bateman: At [Hillcrest] reunions, I don’t see a lot of people coming back who were bused in, which I think is sad. I wonder what happened to a lot of those people. You never know if the education was really better for them being bused over to Hillcrest, or if they would have had a much happier life if they hadn’t been bused.
I do feel like because I went through that experience I can relate better to all different types of people. When you live in an environment that is totally surrounded by people who are just like you, always doing the same things, you don’t really have a perspective of how other people are. And even though I didn’t know where these kids were coming from or know what they had to go through to get to school each day, they would tell us stories and open up.
In the restrooms, it would be interesting when we would be brushing our hair. They had the rakes and the big afros, and we would say, “How do you get your hair to do that, and how do you get makeup to show up on your face?” It was more just novel ideas that we didn’t know about each other.
I think those kinds of experiences, just bathroom talk, you learn about things that you wouldn’t just by meeting someone later in life. So I kind of learned about the world, that you need to look beyond a face to know what’s going on with a person. You don’t know what people go through just to get to school and just to get an education.
Years after the initial busing orders, the case continued to drag on in court, first being appealed by the defense attorneys, then finding its way to a new DISD attorney, then landing in the lap of a judge who refused to dismiss it until he felt justice had been done.
Thomas: I started in about 1980. The lawyer [before me] representing the Dallas public schools, his name was Warren Whitham, and he was a staunch segregationist. He wasn’t going to give up and let the judge tell his district what to do, and he just fought and fought and fought, and he had a heart attack, and his doctor told him, “Warren, you’ve got to get rid of this case. This case is going to kill you.”
I was president of the Dallas Bar Association in 1978, and we bought the Belo Mansion on 2101 Ross Avenue. It was an empty big home that had been a funeral home, but the lawyers of Dallas thought it would be neat to lease it as our headquarters. By 1980, it was finished, and one of my partners said, “Bud, you owe us a lot of time. You’ve had a lot of time off; you’ve really got to get to work on something.” And I said, “Anything you need done, I’m willing.”
And about a month later he called me into his office and says, “Warren Whitham has had a heart attack, and they’ve asked our firm if we can furnish a lawyer to handle the case, and I think you’re the right guy for the job.” And I said, “Oh crap.” I went to see Warren Whitham at his home, and I said, “Warren, I’m Bob Thomas, and I’m going to try to take your place in the desegregation case.” And he says, “Alright but let me tell you this: Fight, fight, fight (coughing), fight …” and his wife comes in, and says, “I’m sorry, Mr. Thomas, but you’ll have to leave.”
I had just met the superintendent of schools — his name was Linus Wright, the new superintendent from Houston — and I walked out of Warren Whitham’s home and went to the nearest 7-Eleven and used a pay phone to call the superintendent, and said, “I need to come talk to you.”
And I told him the story of meeting with Mr. Whitham in his home, and said, “Is that what you want me to do? Do you want me to fight, fight, fight?” And he said, “I’m so glad you asked me this question. No. Desegregation is coming. It’s here. It’s 1980, and we were told in 1954 that it had to be done. We want it done, but we want it done with a degree of sensitivity. We don’t want to alienate our employees, and the constituents and taxpayers of Dallas. We have to do this in an orderly manner where we don’t lose students, we don’t lose teachers, and we build up a fine desegregated school system.”
And so that’s what I did for 23 years.
Cloutman: A friend of mine was doing this in Mississippi, and I wrote him [in 1970] and told him we were doing it, and he said, “Well, great. How long do you think it’s going to take?” I thought, trial by summer, an appeal by next year, should be done in five years. Wrong. 33 years — 1970-2003. Bob Thomas and I were friends to the end in this case, mostly because we learned it was easier to get along than fuss at the courthouses.
Thomas: Barefoot Sanders came in just a little after I did because Judge Taylor was in ill health and had to retire. Judge Taylor called a meeting of all the federal judges in his office, and he said, “Gentlemen, I want one of you judges to take it over for me. Which one of you wants to do it?” Silence.
“OK, tell you what we’re going to do.” He took six slips of paper with the names of the six judges in the room and put them in his hat and said, “I’m going to pull a name out of the hat, and you’re the new judge in the desegregation case.” And he pulls out the name and says, “Barefoot Sanders.”
Sanders: The truth of it was that none of the judges wanted it. Barefoot was, I can’t say delighted, but I would say eager to take it on. He saw it as an opportunity and went after it. Barefoot was very proud of his role in this case because he was born and raised in Dallas and educated in the public schools and saw the importance of individual rights. He had served in Washington to pass the voting rights act of 1965; he was in the Department of Justice at the time.
Cloutman: When we started this, we truly had two school systems in town. The black kids were going to school in inferior buildings with three-editions-ago schoolbooks.
Sanders: There in South Dallas they had bought the property of an unsuccessful shopping mall on the east side of freeway. It was just always fraught with problems and leaks because it wasn’t built as a school. I remember that they didn’t have a fence along the freeway where the playground was, and if a ball or something went off the field they could step into a freeway, so Barefoot just insisted they build a fence.
They kept saying they would build it, they would build it. It wasn’t done until he insisted on it, and that was frustrating about the case. The resistance was like taking a big locomotive and turning it around in another direction.
Thomas: We had a bunch of black students in shabby buildings. I mean really crummy buildings. They were colored schools, and they had not been kept up. The roof leaked and it was cold and the campus wasn’t big enough, so the court said to supervise the buildings.
Sanders: A lot of people in the community simply distilled the integration-segregation issue with students sitting in the classroom, and certainly that was a huge, important part of it, but that wasn’t all of it. A lot of the inequities in the Dallas ISD had to do with staff, facilities, boundaries. They were the vestiges of the Jim Crow laws, and so there were a lot of facets for him as the judge to get right.
Kenny: One of your first questions when you run into a person in Dallas at that point was, “Where did you go to high school?” Because it immediately placed you in a certain neighborhood, and you could say things about that and you made certain assumptions about that person. I know when people asked me and I said Hillcrest, they immediately would think, “Oh, spoiled rich kid.” Though that wasn’t necessarily true in my case, that was the way people thought.
You just sort of knew what was a white school and what was a black school, and the ruling was to really kind of stop that because the black schools were not very good. They were heavy on vocational education and not heavy on academics, and it was an intentional effort to steer black students into blue-collar careers and steer white students into college. It was a very unfair system.
Johnston: In many cities, they were just body mixing. All of our orders were educational orders. Black kids at that time had poor test scores as it related to the white kids, and the goal in getting them together was to provide a quality education for all and raise the test scores as a result. The feeling we tried to get across to the community was the education element was important and necessary; the body mixing was an effect.
Thomas: It finally dawned on the blacks, “We don’t want to ride the bus, either. Why don’t we just have better schools in our neighborhood?” So slowly the idea began to crystallize that maybe it’s better to have good schools than integrated schools. They would rather have more money spent on those black schools and have good teachers than ride the bus to someplace where they were not welcome.
So we created something called “learning centers” in 1984, and established three South Dallas learning centers that were approved by the court of appeals, and then established some West Dallas learning centers for the Hispanics. And see, the federal judge had control over the pocketbook. They could catch up education, if you will. They had computers before any of the white kids had computers.
Cloutman: We supported the notion to have busing dismissed when learning centers got created and schools got expanded to offer a choice of desegregating options to kids. The loss of public support in parts of town and the fact it took so damn long … nothing that takes that long can not have some wheels falling off the bus, and they did.
Thomas: Busing may have worked in Charlotte, N.C., and it might work in a little town like Mineola, Texas, but the problems are so much bigger in bigger cities.
Johnston: There were school board members at the time who grew to resent the extra amounts of money being spent in other parts of town, but Nolan Estes and Linus Wright, both of their attitudes were: “It’s a court order, we don’t have a choice, we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it right.” Nolan was a positive person — still is to this day — and I never heard him say a negative word about it, and I was with him for 10 years.
Sanders: There was built, before [Barefoot] had the case, the Skyline magnet school, and there was not a counterpart in South Dallas. And that was the balance, that a second one should be built making it more equal for all the students to be able to opt into those magnets.
So that was the origin of Townview [talented and gifted magnet school], and again the DISD drug their feet, and he made clear that he wasn’t going to let go of the case until that was accomplished. He kept hoping he could finish the case and make a final ruling, and then the DISD would do something bad, like the way they would draw their school district lines that were designed to discriminate.
Thomas: If [Barefoot Sanders] wanted to talk to the superintendent, he would call me and say, “Get the superintendent in my office this afternoon. I read all of these quotes in the Dallas Morning News opposing things I have ordered.” And then the next time I met with my client, he would say, “Will you tell the judge to stop reading the Dallas Morning News?”
Sanders: Barefoot was in public life from the time we were married on. He was a state legislator, U.S. attorney. I grew up in my adulthood with the idea that we were subject to some hate calls. I just didn’t let it bother me. People would call the court and say, “Well, you just tell Judge Sanders that I’m never going to vote for him again,” because they’d been a friend and supporter of Barefoot Sanders, not knowing that a federal judge was not elected. [Laughing] He took it as, “They’re going to be disappointed.” He always said, “I’ve got people mad at me on both sides. I guess I must be doing something right.”
Thomas: The lawsuit was filed against the school district and the superintendent and every member of the school board, so all of these individuals were subject to the court jurisdiction, and if you were elected to the school board or hired as the superintendent, you were part of the lawsuit.
We brought in an African American superintendent from Illinois, and he was a nice guy, and his name was Marvin Edwards. He lasted about two years, then he said, “I am going back to Illinois. This is the craziest damn city I’ve ever seen.” He was good, but he didn’t like all of this infighting. We had a reception over at the [Fair Park] Hall of State to say goodbye and farewell and thanks for being with us, and I went through the receiving line and said, “Thank you, Dr. Edwards. It was a pleasure working with you.”
And he said, “Bob, the first thing I want you to do tomorrow is write to the court and tell them it’s no longer Tasby vs. Edwards. Get my name out of this case.”
• • •
When Barefoot Sanders dismissed the Tasby case in 2003, Dallas ISD had an entirely different demographic makeup — 6 percent white, 31 percent black and 61 percent Hispanic, compared to the respective 54-36-10 percent makeup in 1971.
Thomas: Did it work? That’s a good question. It complies with the law. The dismissal could have been appealed, but [Sanders] was very careful in writing his order of dismissal and was very well-respected and was a liberal judge, and everybody knew that it had been dismissed by Barefoot Sanders and therefore it was going to stay dismissed. He wrote in his opinion, “I have done my best, but Dallas is a growing city, a changing city, and everything changes.”
Cloutman: It worked more so than not. Of that I’m pretty sure. I say that again from the perspective of the children who we were representing. I don’t think it hurt any white kids any more than they had to get over the first hurdles, the bumps, and that probably did cause a distraction that was unnecessary, but what it did for black kids and brown kids, it required, in a whole lot of detail, the district to do things that otherwise it wouldn’t have done.
Thomas: We’ve had white flight and you can’t force people to stay in schools. There’s Plano, there’s Richardson, there’s Duncanville and DeSoto, so now we’re only 5 percent white and 55 percent Hispanic, and [Sanders] said, “What more can I do? I’ve held onto the white that we do have — Woodrow Wilson is integrated, and to a large extent W.T. White — and that’s all I think can be done.” And now we have to learn with what we have, the reality of life, which is you can’t force people to ride a bus. If they don’t want to ride a bus, they’ll leave.
Kenny: I think the forced busing rulings nationwide, not only in Dallas, led to the rise of magnet schools, which no one had heard of before the ’70s. This was a way for public schools to try to stop white flight, to create these schools by interest, like the arts magnet or the science and math schools, these centers that would attract talented kids and keep white families in the district and talented minority families in the district, too.
There wasn’t just white flight. I know that black families moved out to DeSoto or Duncanville to get away from deteriorating schools in South Dallas and South Oak Cliff. So magnet schools were an attempt to keep middle class and talented students in the district.
Sanders: Of course we all want the best for our own children and [should] recognize that other families have that same wish. Hillcrest High School, where our kids graduated, the immediate surrounding area is predominantly Anglo, but I would not be surprised if Hillcrest was majority minority now, as most of the schools are. And I would say to parents that that’s the real world. That is the world that this child is going to be moving into. We’re doing a lot of international trade, we’re becoming a global economy, and if we can’t understand people different from ourselves, well, we’re not going to be able to function in that.
Goode: It’s a different perspective nowadays. My children, by the time the youngest got into school, they really didn’t see color. It was manifested in several ways. We had a contest about which movie star or athlete would you like to be, and we had all kids of crossovers. To me, it really brought home that they didn’t see color, and that’s a good thing, but it took a while to get there.
Kenny: From a standpoint of 40 years later, something had to happen. Dallas was doing a disservice to itself by the way it operated its school district with schools that were superior versus schools in minority neighborhoods that were inferior. The overnight and sort-of wrenching aspect of the federal justice department coming in and forcing a change so quickly, it ended up destroying some neighborhoods and protecting others.
It was unfair, and it led to divisions and resentments that have played out ever since. Things had to change, but I’m not sure the way that it was done was the best way possible. It’s one of the reasons I think it’s a city that is still around 50 percent white, but only 5 percent white in the school district. When parents move to the city, and they’re afraid to send their children to schools in the City of Dallas, I think that hurts the entire area, and I think that some of that can be laid at the fact of the way the busing was handled.
Segregation had to end, or at least this sort of unequal treatment of minority education had to end somehow, and if Dallas wasn’t going to stop it or change it on its own, the federal government had to act. But we’re still feeling repercussions today.
Barth: Everything I’ve read seems to me there were very serious qualitative issues as to what went on in the white schools and in the black and Hispanic schools, so it forced everybody to deal with it. But after that, you let the genie out of the bottle and started having a lot of white flight, and as a consequence, you’ve been trying ever since to bring the neighborhoods together.
So much of what we do nowadays, we’re segmented and segregated in our society. We become fearful of people who don’t have the same lifestyles, the same education, the same income level. I feel like it is human nature to live with people that are like you are. Segregation can’t be fixed by forced busing in education. Desegregation can only happen when people live together in neighborhoods.
That’s what desegregation was trying to solve, and what is solving it is the ability of folks to better their situation socioeconomically so they can all move in together. As people start coming back from private to public school, then you’re going to see what they were trying to accomplish so many years ago. It takes generations to solve problems like this.
Thomas: Some people say we went too fast, some people say we went too slow, but we got to the destination, and desegregation got to be equal opportunity, equal education. It’s clearly the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever been involved in. To shepherd this thing to where it is today, and it ain’t perfect, but it’s peaceful, and it’s quiet.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.