MAGAZINE FEATURE

Rural Schools and Hard History

The rich history and diversity of rural communities have largely been erased. Appreciating both charts a promising path forward.
Illustration By Lorraine Nam

Long before Madison County, Mississippi, became a majority white Jackson suburb, it was a supermajority Black and agricultural community, its dissonant history tilled into its very soil.

It’d be easy to depict Madison County’s past as a sad story—as one only haunted with pain and unequal opportunity. It’s a place where more than three-fourths of its residents were enslaved in 1860; where tenant farming and sharecropping exploited the labor of Black workers; where Black people’s access to an affirming education was subject to constant disruption—and required constant struggle.

It’s a single story that depicts Madison County as rural and bereft of promise. But for Oleta Fitzgerald, who grew up on a family farm there, living in the rural South meant more than that.

“It means what summers were like,” she remembers. “It means happier times of plums and blackberries and strawberries and peach trees and big gardens and making syrup, going to church and harvest festivals and knowing everybody.

“In times past it has meant strong community around education.”

Fitzgerald is the director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office in Mississippi, the daughter of a businessman and schoolteacher—an heir of their advocacy.

Madison County was home to a Freedom School. It was home to pioneering Black educators like Rosa Allie Lee Scott, who helped secure a Rosenwald School for her community and who now rests on the grounds of a school bearing her name. It was home to a tradition of demanding and charting a freer rural South.

That history matters. That nuanced story of the rural United States matters. A story largely missing from the popular conception of “rural.”

Erasing that story obscures not just the history of rural communities but their diversity, the unique needs of each of their schools and the opportunities to reimagine a better education—and future—for their children.

Rural Isn’t Singular

Paper art of several different students ready books.

“The prevailing narrative is that rural equals white,” says Mara Casey Tieken, Ph.D., author of Why Rural Schools Matter. “This invisibilizes a good chunk of the rural population.”

Approximately one-fifth of the nation’s rural population—more than 10 million people—identify as people of color. According to the Brookings Institution, roughly 1 in 10 rural counties is majority people of color.

The dominant narrative that erases this diversity, Tieken says, has consequences. Unique needs of rural communities go unaddressed; their strengths go unappreciated.

It means that rural communities of color rarely see their stories told in popular culture or the classroom. It means they are often erased from voting blocs and policy conversations.

That includes how their schools have been left out of the current conversation surrounding inclusive education. Though largely erased from that conversation surrounding the teaching of race and U.S. history, rural schools in the South are disproportionately shaped by it.

How History Shaped the South’s Rural Schools

The Mississippi Delta—a 4-million-acre region between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers—sits on fertile soil and, thus, sits on a legacy of slavery and exploitation that persisted long after emancipation.

“Those counties are the counties, historically, where there was the heaviest slave trade and enslaved population,” says Fitzgerald. For today’s rural South, that history creates “the great dichotomy between the rich and the poor that is the offshoot of plantation owners and the plantation economy.”

Then, backlash to Reconstruction helped set the stage for decades of white politicians stripping the region of local control.

“They’ve been drawn out of power,” Fitzgerald says. “The representation we have doesn’t by itself have the power to bring resources into the communities they represent.”

That systematic theft of power, compounded by racial and economic segregation, informs the conditions of rural schools.

In 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision stated that “separate but equal” was sufficient; the ruling upheld segregation under a guise of equality, in the same breath maintaining “distinctions based upon color.”

“Separate but equal was never achieved,” explains Valerie Grim, Ph.D., a scholar of rural African American history who grew up in the Delta. “In practice, Black land grants were never properly funded. And as a result of that, Black high schools, Black elementary schools were never properly funded by the state.

“Those schools struggled because there was not equitable money given for teachers, for salaries, for classrooms, for innovation in the classroom, for textbooks, for labs.”

Students get tired of reading about how their people were treated when you don’t get the story about how their people overcame.

— Valerie Grim

Brown v. Board of Education did not change that. Mass white flight to private schools, coupled with a school-funding model based on property value and political power, created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“What you see today with schools that are ‘failing,’ particularly in Black-majority counties like in the Delta … it’s because that system that created the failure hasn’t gone anywhere,” Grim explains. “The foundation of racism, institutional discrimination, structural discrimination—which led to poverty and which has sustained poverty in the Delta—is still there.”

According to the Rural School and Community Trust, 1 in 4 students in rural Mississippi schools lives below the poverty line; the state spends $2,000 less per rural student than the national average.

“This is not a tragedy of rural education,” Tieken says. “This is a tragedy of policymaking.”

If rural schools aren’t closed or taken over—practices that have devastated rural Black communities—underfunding may force them to persist through infrastructural disaster.

Fitzgerald says an audit report in Indianola, Mississippi, read: “It would be cheaper to rebuild all of these buildings than it will be to fix them.”

Facing these realities, it’s difficult for rural school districts to retain highly qualified educators.

“Grow-your-own” initiatives—designed to inspire and recruit local candidates to serve their communities as teachers—struggle when potential future educators are navigating the same historically under-resourced systems. This affects students’ access to college and ability to meet certification requirements. They witness firsthand the difficulty of teaching in underfunded schools—and the better resources and pay elsewhere.

“It really speaks to the importance of providing a quality education,” says Sanford Johnson, a former teacher and the Mississippi executive director of Teach Plus. “Because ultimately if we’re counting on students in a school to come back and be teachers at this school, they need to feel they had a good experience at that school.”

This challenge is exacerbated in communities with immigrant populations. Roughly 4% of rural students are English language learners. But there’s a huge ELL teacher shortage and few resources to recruit or train them.

In Hendry County, Florida, educator Sherry Blanset says Latino/a/e families are very involved but unlikely to ask for needed resources due to language and structural barriers. With several dialects of Spanish and Indigenous languages within Hendry County alone, stopgap measures like providing students with Spanish-English dictionaries do not suffice.

“It’s so incredibly frustrating to our students,” she says. “Staffing is an issue; having the money to provide those [ELL] positions is an issue. They’re doing what they can and they are helping those students, but it’s not enough.”

For all these reasons, the consequential history of “not enough” resources looms.

But the history of the rural South and its schools is not just a story of hardship and failed policies; it’s a story of resilience, resistance and innovation—a history that proves not all heroes of the story had to leave.

Paper art of different people enjoying time together on top of green branches.

Not Just a Place to Leave

Most rural students encounter one of two stories about “place”: Rural spaces either effectively don’t exist in history or, if they do, they exist as places to leave, devoid of opportunity.

“I had read enough history and I’d talked to enough folks in my life to know that, for a lot of people, Mississippi was a place where you escaped from,” Johnson remembers. “You ran as far away from the state as you possibly could. And that’s exactly what I thought when I was a high school senior.”

Educators can help shift this narrative, opening doors to historic precedent and future opportunities.

“When we tell [more affirming] stories, we offer them a really different frame of reference,” Tieken says. “Look at the important things that happened here and what kind of important things can continue to happen here.”

Across the rural South, communities of color are rich in admirable history.

“I think every kid in Mississippi should know about Fannie Lou Hamer. Every kid in Mississippi should know about Aaron Henry and the work of Bob Moses and Medgar Evers,” Johnson says. “We talk about patriotic education; these are some true patriots and we don’t really share those stories as much.”

From farmworkers’ labor movements to scholarship that arose from Black land-grant institutions, local history can be affirming for rural students of color—and can disrupt a dominant narrative that erases their power.

“Certain kinds of inclusion in the curriculum [are] the exact motivation [students] need to improve,” Grim says. “Students get tired of reading about how their people were treated when you don’t get the story about how their people overcame.”

Rural Education as Resistance

In downtown Hayneville, Alabama, where Shatara Clark teaches English at Central High School, two monuments tell two stories. In the courthouse square, a Confederate memorial reads, in part, “No men died there with more glory.”

Steps away, tucked under the shade of a tree, is a monument to Jonathan Daniels, a civil rights activist killed by an off-duty police officer in 1965.

The juxtaposition can feel emblematic of an ongoing injustice, especially in a state that, in 2017, passed a law to protect Confederate monuments—where, four years later, the same governor presided over a vote banning teaching about race and racism in schools, using the bogeyman of “critical race theory.”

“Because of where I teach and who I teach, predominantly African American students, I am concerned,” Clark admits. “If they’re not getting the truth, if they’re not able to understand that as kids, I would hate for them to go in the world thinking that certain things are OK that are not OK.”

Yet, rural communities are largely left out of debates about state standards and legislation regarding what history should be taught.

“I feel like we’re not represented,” Blanset says. “And then we’re handed whatever the case may be. … ‘This is what you’re teaching.’ And even just having a voice in that conversation would be incredibly powerful and send a message to our students that even though we live in a rural area, we still matter.”

The history of education itself presents timely lessons on how people overcame systemic neglect and sustained cultural values.

“When you look at educational development in Black communities from slavery through integration, you will find tremendous documentation that indicates Black people supported education for their children, for themselves, and what they were willing to do to make that possible,” Grim explains. “And they were making those determinations because they wanted education not only for literal reasons so that their children would know reading, writing and arithmetic, but [so] they could shape that education in a way to help sustain Black life and Black communities.”

It’s a tradition Grim calls “Black self-determinism”—a storied resistance by Black rural communities against white supremacy and paternalism.

For students of color in rural schools today, that history not only resonates; it charts a path forward.

Paper art of a school building surrounded by green plants and flowers.

The Promise of Rural Schools

Sanford Johnson inherited the duality of Delta education. He is the son of a principal who left home for education opportunities and then returned to do the work. His parents both cared deeply for the Delta’s communities. Yet, in time, his parents made the difficult decision to move to Starkville, a college town, where they knew their kids would have more resources and opportunities.

Today, Johnson and his wife, both education leaders, have two kids. They’ve reached a different conclusion.

“We don’t see the things that our kids need,” Johnson admits. “But we’re trying to see, ‘Can we build it here?’ … ‘Let’s see if we can create the place that we want, so we don’t have to move to another town to provide our kids with what they need.’”

Rural schools’ strengths present unique opportunities in the efforts to build something better. They are, as Fitzgerald says, “the center of community activity in rural areas.” They are, as Blanset says, a place where “if something happens to one of our own, the entire community pulls together.”

Those reciprocal relationships could create culturally sustaining partnerships.

“The education system must reimagine itself to be a space where the capacity to be, to create, to innovate takes place,” Grim says. “That you see rural areas as the places of opportunity.”

Already, Johnson has seen big wins thanks to determined advocacy in the Delta: state-funded pre-K, better-quality sex education, improved after-school programs.

The communities don’t need grit, advocates say; they need an equitable investment.

“How we can marry economic policy and education policy in ways that create equitable, sustainable rural communities is really critical,” Tieken says. This means decoupling school funding from property taxes; investing in “grow-your-own” programs for teachers, including alternative pathways to certification; fighting for curricular standards that include local histories; and fixing inadequate infrastructure.

In that vision, rural schools in the South can accomplish their promise: to become wrap-around, full-service schools—to become affirming spaces informed by the communities that surround them.

It’s the vision many Black educators pioneered in the Delta decades ago. And if part of learning history is about charting paths forward, the story of resilience already resides between Mississippi’s parallel rivers. And the soil is fertile for change.

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