CLEVELAND – Two cultures uniting as one – that’s what leadership and many students at Cleveland Central High School say they want this new era to be about. Making that happen isn’t easy though.

That merging of cultures was challenged last week during homecoming when it came time to combine the two former schools’ traditions into one.

“Whenever you have a homecoming, there’s a lot of pride in both schools so naturally if it doesn’t go one way or the other, and someone wants it to go their way, it causes a little bit of tension. There was a little bit of tension leading up to homecoming which was to be expected,” said Randy Grierson, principal of Cleveland Central High School.

Grierson formerly served as the principal of East Side High School, where the student body was 99 percent African-American. In 2016, a federal judge ordered East Side to merge with Cleveland High School, which was about 60 percent African-American and 40 percent white. Federal Justice Department officials recently visited the district to track progress.

Cleveland Central High School is now comprised of about 25 percent white students and 75 percent African-American.

Some seniors, like former Cleveland High student Kathleen Green, expressed excitement about being the first student body to go to the new school’s homecoming. 

“I’m so glad that me and all of my classmates can get together. It’s like a new vibe, and it’s like we’re growing closer every day,” said Green, a senior. “True, we have our challenges, and not everybody gets along, but in the end, homecoming is bringing us together. I love it.”

Green said homecoming week — culminating with the football game on Oct. 13 — started off stressful with not knowing what shirts they were going to order or if they would finish their float, but it all came together in the end.

Students from East Side though said they felt many of their traditions were sidelined – there was no coronation, no Mr. and Miss East Side, and the homecoming parade didn’t go through any East Side neighborhoods like it used to.  

“It feels like everything has been accommodating the Cleveland High students,” said Konnor Short, a senior and former East Side student. “For instance, it’s homecoming week and it doesn’t even feel like homecoming because we’ve adopted all of their traditions and they don’t have any of our traditions from East Side.”

Short is one of the students that Mississippi Today will document throughout the course of “Behind The Headlines: Cleveland Central High” – a project aimed at letting people affected by the 2016 desegregation order tell their own stories.

East Side traditions not being incorporated makes students feel excluded, Short said, adding that he only feels pride at Friday night football games.

“Honestly, Friday night is the only night I feel any type of allegiance to Cleveland Central,” he said. “Other than that, I feel like it is what it is.”

Despite the challenges of feeling excluded, Short said all of the students get along well.

“Like I’ve always said, it’s never really the students because we tend to mesh well with each other. It’s mostly like adults.”

Another student being documented for the project is Olecia James, a senior who was crowned last week the first homecoming queen of Cleveland Central High.

“I wasn’t the homecoming type at first. If I was at East Side, I would’ve ran for Miss East Side. I was Miss Junior, Miss Sophomore, Miss D.M. Smith. I didn’t really do the homecoming court thing, but since we don’t have a Mr. and Miss Cleveland Central, that’s why I got on the homecoming court,” she said.

Grierson said that some traditions were cut because of lack of funding and lack of time.

“There were a lot of things that we used to do at East Side that cost a lot of money and we don’t have the budget built up for that,” Grierson said.

“I’ve had multiple phone calls in the week of and the buildup in the weeks before saying these things [about homecoming] and when I present the facts of what it takes to put these things on, people have a better understanding. And that’s the [case] with a lot of issues we had were generated from a lack of understanding or a lack of communication.”

He also said that a leadership group will be formed this year to start planning next year’s homecoming as well as new traditions for the students.

Ava Lubin and some other students say they expect the journey will be smooth again once they move beyond homecoming. Credit: Aalyah Wright / Mississippi Today

Homecoming in some ways added pressure to students and highlighted issues of equitable representation; other students saw it as a hurdle.

“When we got coming up to homecoming, then it got kind of strained,” said junior Ava Lubin, a former Cleveland High School student. “I feel like once we get away from homecoming then everything will be smooth again.”

Scenes from Cleveland Central High School’s first homecoming:

Photos by Aallyah Wright and Kelsey Davis

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she works as one of our Mississippi Delta-based reporters covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.