People in Alabama's Gardendale County, located near Birmingham, push for the segregation of one county high school. (Courtesy
People in Alabama's Gardendale County, located near Birmingham, push for the segregation of one county high school. (Courtesy

White students from an Alabama school responded to a recent court order allowing the segregation of Gardendale High by wearing blackface — an act that has divided the community leaving many to ponder the future.

And to allow Black citizens to voice their concerns, a local advocacy group led a press conference on May 24 at the high school where allegations of racism dominated the remarks.

“It is alleged, with photos attached, they went further to write ‘n….s’ on their Snapchat,” said a spokesperson from Outcast Voters League, the group behind the press conference now charged with representing the interests of the community’s Black residents.

“These types of actions aren’t tolerated within the [local] county school system … and should be investigated as hate crimes,” the spokesperson added.

Neal Underwood, the father of one of the two students whose actions remain under examination by school officials, described what his daughter did as a stunt for a charcoal beauty treatment that had no racial implications.

Although there seems to be evidence of racial slurs connected to photos featuring the youth in blackface posted on social media, the girl’s father insists it’s all been a misunderstanding, saying the photos had been taken months ago then somehow secured and posted by an unknown person or persons.

“These two students don’t have a malicious bone in their bodies,” said Underwood, who added his daughter has since received death threats and has been removed from the Gardendale High School dance team since the posting of the questionable photos.

Regarded as a symbol of racial oppression, blackface traces its origins to the theater where it became a popular makeup device beginning in the 1830s. Non-black performers used blackface to represent a black person to great popularity. It contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon.”

Sparking a new wave of racial descent, just earlier this year in April, a U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala from Gardendale passed a motion allowing the re-segregation of the county’s schools in the 88 percent white community after hearing the “Jefferson County Board of Education v. Gardendale City Board of Education” case.

While the judge cited that she believed the town’s request to separate itself was motivated by race deeming it “deplorable,” she still voted in favor of the request with reported cheers from a majority of white residents including Chris Segroves, president of the Gardendale Board of Education who further encouraged local school control.

“We know that the community is anxious and ready to achieve its goal of a locally-led public school system. We are, too,” Segroves said.

Despite her stance, the judge added that the school system must pay the county for Gardendale High School which cost Jefferson County $55 million to build seven years ago, also ordering that the city form a desegregation plan that should include a Black resident on its school board.

Gardendale and Black plaintiffs have appealed the judge’s order and plan to address a recent meeting with Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey concerning the principal of Hueytown High School, recently arrested for obstruction of justice for not reporting sexual misconduct at the school.

An attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said she’s disappointed by the judge’s decision.

“There’s no way to cure or to fix discrimination by allowing further discrimination to go forward,” Monique Lin-Luse said in a printed statement.

Lauren M. Poteat

Lauren Poteat is a versatile writer with a strong background in communications and media experience with an additional background in education and development.

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