Unlikely pioneer: Parker High's first white graduate

Crystal Wadsworth, a native New Yorker, gets her diploma Wednesday from the mostly black Birmingham, Ala., school.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There's no doubt, judging by Crystal Wadsworth's brisk stride through the worn halls of A.H. Parker High School, that she belongs.

A natural roughhouser and a C-average student, the 6-foot-tall senior jokingly pockets CDs from a friend's desk, not-so-gently punches her history teacher's shoulder, and huddles with her best friend, Katrina Abrams, over lunch plans.

For a white girl from Syracuse, N.Y., it's been an unusual but satisfying road to graduation. For mostly black Parker High, it is nothing short of a historic moment.

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On Wednesday, Crystal became the first white student ever to graduate from the storied but struggling 107-year-old school on Birmingham's run-down west side.

For Crystal, the step of enrolling in a "black" school four years ago was a personal decision, not part of a master desegregation plan. In that regard, her school career tracks with the national emphasis on school choice and increasing abandonment of the goal of integration.

She chose Parker High, though, in part to make a broader point about crossing the racial divide. (OK, OK, she says, it was partly because that's where most of her friends were going.) It also is a choice few white teenagers make – and one that takes not a little courage.

The life lesson Crystal takes away from it all? "It just showed me that if you set your mind to it and just be yourself you can get along with anybody," she said this week, as she prepped for the graduation ceremony.

To some, her choice is a reminder that, because America's integration experiment has faltered, it is increasingly left to individual families and students to buck racial lines when deciding where to go to school. Some see poignancy in the fact that she's graduating from a black school in Birmingham, a cradle of the civil rights movement.

"She's a pioneer of sorts ... and what her decision highlights is that while we're technically in a post-civil rights era, it looks very much like the pre-civil rights era," says Theresa Perry, an African studies professor at Simmons College in Brookline, Mass.

US trend is toward resegregation

Public school integration peaked in 1988, when 43 percent of black students attended integrated schools, according to The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Today, 31 percent do; in Alabama the figure is 29 percent. Indeed, nearly half of African-American students in the state go to schools at least 90 percent black – a trend toward resegregation found in the North as well as the South.

The US Supreme Court is expected to rule within the month on two cases that could further define the degree to which race can be used as a criteria for assigning students to schools – and possibly whether school districts will be permitted to maintain the status quo established, ironically, by 40 years' worth of court orders requiring desegregation.

Though Crystal is proud of her achievement, she's an accidental activist.

Her family ended up in Birmingham six years ago after their car broke down. Crystal, her sister, her mom, aunt, and grandmother were on their way to Louisiana to start a new life, but instead they found themselves at a homeless shelter in downtown Birmingham.

From there, they moved to a predominantly African-American housing project and then to a house in the west end. Crystal is the only breadwinner in the family. She works at Subway sandwich shop most nights until 10:30 and is often up past midnight doing homework.

"She's a hero, but these kids are all heroes," says Gene Edelman, one of Crystal's former teachers at Lincoln Middle School.

Her formula for peaceful coexistence as a minority is simple: Act natural. "You've got a handful of people who have hostilities [toward whites] still, but when I think of black people here, they're at ease, just laid-back," she says. "It's when you start tensing up ... and start acting the way they expect you to act, that's when they start kicking at you."

It hasn't always been easy. She's been called "Q-tip," "snow bunny," and "cotton ball." The words seem harmless enough, but they stung, she says. They made her question whether people were really as accepting as they seemed.

Technically speaking, Parker High was integrated in the 1980s, and some white students have attended in the past. But it wasn't until last year that the school graduated its first nonblack student, a Latino.

Once the largest black school in the US, with more than 3,700 students, Parker counts among its alumni former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Oscar Adams Jr., Tony Award-winning actress Nell Carter, and Alma Johnson Powell, wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Today it has a student body of 950 that endures shabbier facilities and a much more limited curriculum than those at the high school in nearby Mountain Brook, Ala., one of the richest enclaves in the South where the student body is 98 percent white. "Our school is struggling because our neighborhood is dying," says Principal Joe Martin.

If choice is the trend, Mr. Martin says, Crystal's precedent could begin to change enrollment patterns and, in the long run, help revive Parker's legacy.

Others, though, are less sure about what her graduation portends for the school.

It "is important," says Marvin Lynn, an education professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. "My concern is that it's one person, and in this society people follow the numbers. A lot of people will see this as more of a fluke."

Classmates are proud of Crystal

Classmates give Crystal credit for courage. "We're proud of Crystal," says fellow senior Jessica Warren. "We've had other white students, but they all left. She's the only one who had the courage to stay."

Crystal can be unassuming, but she wasn't shy about asserting herself at Parker. She joined ROTC as a freshman and is going into the Army this summer. She tried out for volleyball but didn't make the cut. She was a member of the book club and the drill team. At the last minute, she overcame her resistance to the prom and attended last weekend, staying out until 3 a.m. at the IHOP. None of her classmates seems to mind the recent attention on her graduation. Quite the opposite, Crystal says.

"Everybody's kind of feeding off it. It's kind of making them proud and making me proud, where we're realizing we've come a little bit of a way ... and that maybe there might be a change sometime soon."

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