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