Although the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education declared public school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, schools in Yalobusha County’s two major towns clung to it for an additional 16 years.
Water Valley and Coffeeville, nestled in the state’s northern hilly region on land that was once inhabited by the Choctaw and Chickasaw indigenous people, didn’t integrate until 1970.
Community activism and another U.S. Supreme Court case in 1969 forced schools in Yalobusha County and the South as a whole to finally desegregate.
The court ruled in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education that schools had to desegregate “immediately,” instead of the previous ruling of “with all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board in 1954. By Feb. 1, 1970, schools across the state of Mississippi and in Yalobusha County finally integrated after over a decade of willful delay.
Today, 51 years since school desegregation, former teachers and students who witnessed and participated in the school integration movement still vividly remember the experience of attending all-Black schools for their entire lives until that changed in 1970.
Dorothy Kee, 75, was born and raised in Coffeeville and graduated from the then-segregated, all-Black Coffeeville High School in 1963. Kee’s father was president of the local NAACP chapter; she said she remembers seeing him lead school desegregation efforts in the community.
“My dad was a believer in civil rights to its fullest and to its fairest,” Kee said in a 2019 oral history interview. “So he became one of the leaders of the NAACP.”
Kee had already graduated from Alcorn State University in Lorman with a degree in social work and had begun her career as a teacher in Yalobusha County when she joined her father and other activists in the community who were pushing for school desegregation.
“I was secretary. I never participated in the marches because at the time I was pregnant with my daughter,” Kee said. “But I played (as) many roles within the community as possible, such as keeping records of what happened and things like that. I had already finished college when the most effective fight for rights was started. As a matter of fact, I almost lost my job because of my daddy’s participation.”
Kee taught school in Oakland and Coffeeville during the early years of school integration in Yalobusha County, but leading up to integration in 1970, she remembers a local boycott in the community to pressure the school board to desegregate the schools. She said the event was organized with guidance from Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, vanguard civil rights activist, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and mentor and friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“(They) became kind of worried about the situation of discrimination in Coffeeville, and one of the goals that they wanted to meet was to see (our) children or faculty members with the same treatment as white citizens. There was a lot of discrimination, and this lead to people that had the nerves and the mind to try to change things in Coffeeville,” Kee said.
But the transition to having white children and Black children in the same schools for the first time in history wasn’t an easy one — for Black children or for Black teachers in Yalobusha County.
“So when I went over to Oakland, the (white) students thought maybe I came from Africa or anywhere else. They didn’t know me,” Kee said.
Emma Gooch grew up in a big family in Water Valley. She was the third of 12 children born to their mother, a homemaker, and father, a World War II veteran. Gooch, now 68, attended the all-Black Davidson Elementary School and Davidson High School. She graduated in 1970 and was part of the final class of students to graduate from segregated schools in Water Valley.
As a child, Gooch’s family sharecropped, picking cotton, corn and sorghum for wealthy white plantation owners to survive and make ends meet. Like many other Black children who were raised in the South under Jim Crow segregation, Gooch’s primary education revolved around, and often came second to, sharecropping.
“I was a pretty good student. I had very strict teachers. I remember them all, how they trained us and kept us in check. And we had to go to school every day,” Gooch said in a 2019 oral history interview. “And then in the harvest season, we were released from school at noon so that we could go work in the fields…We worked in the field until the harvest was done, and then we would start going back to full day school times in late December up until school was out in May.”
Gooch began sharecropping with her family at about 5-years-old, and it wasn’t until her family moved on their own land in Water Valley when she was about 10-years-old when she and her siblings did not have to leave school to sharecrop during the harvest season.
Today, Gooch and her family live on the same property her family bought years ago.
Still, what stands out most to her when she thinks of her years in school is not the sharecropping, but the experience of attending school with a close-knit, caring community of teachers and students at Davidson High School.
“It was amazing. We had some of the strongest teachers. They were so involved in us…They knew our parents, and they could whip our butts if we did wrong,” Gooch said with a laugh.
She still has copies of all of her report cards from grade school, which she keeps in an album with a collection of family photos and documents for her memory and to share with her children and grandchildren.
When Gooch graduated high school in 1970, she moved to the Midwest to attend a clerical training school. When she came back home to Water Valley in hopes of getting an office job, the only available employment was at the denim factory. She worked there for a few months before enlisting in the United States Army, where she remained active duty for decades while raising two sons. Gooch retired in Water Valley where she still lives today and enjoys spending time with her two grandsons, who attend Water Valley schools.
Today, there are two primary public school districts in Yalobusha County — the Water Valley School District and the Coffeeville School District.
WVSD serves a student population of about 1,000. Today 52% of the student body is white and 43% is African American, according to 2020-2021 data from the Mississippi Department of Education. The Coffeeville School District serves a total of 460 students, 80% of them African American.
Gooch said these days she focuses on taking care of herself, her family and her grandchildren and that “life is different here than it was when I grew up here.”
“Not only were we segregated in school, we were segregated in life, in town and stuff. Now, Black people live all over this town in all of the different neighborhoods and everything, and that was a big change,” Gooch said “But when I was growing up, that didn’t happen.”
Editor’s note: A full archive of photos and additional oral history interviews, like the ones mentioned in this article, are available online in The Black Families of Yalobusha County Oral History Project Archive, which emerged after Dottie Chapman Reed, Water Valley native, and author of the column “Outstanding Black Women of Yalobusha County” in the North Mississippi Herald, and Jessica Wilkerson, a former history and Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, collaborated. In the spring 2020, Dr. B. Brian Foster, a sociology and Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, took over as director of the project and will collaborate with UM students and Reed on its expansion in the next phase of the project known as the Mississippi Hill Country Oral History Collective.