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 Roles Community Colleges Play in Brown’s Legacy 

By Arnold M. Kee
Community College Times
April 13, 2004

While it is a well known fact that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court called for the desegregation of public education in the U.S.,  the effects of the ruling on two-year colleges is a less prominent issue.

A closer examination of two community colleges - Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., and Santa Ana College in Santa Ana, Calif. - sheds some light on the intersection of community colleges and school desegregation.  

Hinds Community College began its operation as a segregated two-year institution for white students, but eventually merged with their black cohort college.  Santa Ana College was founded as an integrated institution, but still receives students emerging from a legacy of Mexican-American segregation.

Twenty-two days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that institutions created under the “separate-but-equal” doctrine were unconstitutional, the state of Mississippi created Utica Institute.  The institute was a reformation of Hinds Agricultural High School for Negroes and was intended to provide postsecondary education to black students.  Even after the Brown decision, state law forbade black students from attending the nearby Hinds Junior College, then a whites-only institution. 

When another legal action, Ayers v. Fordice was filed in 1975, it triggered a renewed effort to desegregate Mississippi community colleges.  By 1982, Hinds Junior College and Utica Institute merged to satisfy part of the lawsuit.  In 2004, as the Utica campus of Hinds Community College, the former institute maintains many of the traditions that built strong historical bonds within its small rural community. George Barnes, vice president of Hinds and an administrator on the Utica campus for 30 years, said new generations of alumni continue to see Utica as a sound choice despite the historical context that made it the “only” choice.

Like most community colleges, the Utica campus offers a full range of academic and vocational programs, but it also operates a high school on its campus.  But in a state where students were found to be resegregating (“Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare,” Harvard Civil Rights Project) the resources employed by the Utica campus on behalf of pre-college students may mitigate the vestiges of segregation.

According to the Harvard study, 44 percent of Mississippi’s K-12 black students are in schools where students of color make up 90-100 percent of the enrollment.  Similarly, they found that only 26 percent of the state’s black students had any exposure to white students in school.  As school districts re-segregate, the report suggests that students of color are at risk for inequitable funding and deficient opportunities.  However, Utica’s pre-college math, science, and leadership programs challenge those proposed inequities.

In Orange County, Calif., the dynamics of segregation played out differently.  In the case, Mendez v. Westminister (1946) five Mexican-American fathers challenged the Orange County school system claiming that their school intentionally placed children of “Mexican and Latin descent” in separate schools.  Predating the Brown decision by eight years, Judge Paul McCormick ruled that the school board in question had a “clear purpose to arbitrarily discriminate against the pupils of Mexican ancestry and to deny to them the equal protection of the laws.”   A year after the judge’s ruling, California’s then Governor Earl Warren repealed remaining California codes that supported segregation.  In 1954 as the Chief Supreme Court Justice, Warren would go on to write the opinion in the Brown decision.

In 2004, the Santa Ana school district appears to be experiencing de facto segregation.  California shows high concentrations of Latino students according to the Harvard report.  Forty-four percent of Latino students in California are in schools where students of color comprise 90-100 percent of the enrollment.  Only 12 percent attend schools with a white majority and only one in five is exposed to white students in school at all.

Utica Institute and Santa Ana College provide different vantage points to look back at the history of desegregation.  Emerging from segregated black high schools or illustrating how community colleges were compelled to operate within dual systems, these colleges are enduring examples of the struggle to overcome the history that made the Brown decision necessary.

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