In 2000, I graduated from Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Central opened in 1979 after a federal court order forced the mostly segregated high schools in the Tuscaloosa City Schools system to integrate. For the next two decades, Central was an academic and athletic powerhouse in Alabama, producing state championships and National Merit Scholars.
In 2000, the court order that created Central High School was lifted, and in August of that year — just months after I graduated — the Tuscaloosa City School Board voted to split Central into three high schools.
To many, the move appeared to be a step backward in a state that had just begun to make progress after the civil-rights movement. Some saw the split as an act of resegregation, dividing the diverse student population that had once walked the halls together at the integrated Central High.
Today, there are three high schools in the Tuscaloosa City Schools system. The most racially diverse is Northridge, which was built in the most affluent part of Tuscaloosa. Paul W. Bryant High School’s student body is 86% African-American, according to the Alabama State Department of Education, and Central High School’s is 98% African-American. Because of Central’s low standardised-test scores, the department has designated it a “failing school” every year since 2013.
I went back to Tuscaloosa to talk to former Central students about their experience, as well as students who experienced the split firsthand. I also spoke with former school board members, the current Tuscaloosa City Schools superintendent, and the current mayor of Tuscaloosa, who graduated from Central in 1991.