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Originally published May 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 24, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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White grad makes history at black school in Alabama

Crystal Wadsworth is the first white student to graduate from a 107-year-old black high school.

The Christian Science Monitor

Integration trends


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, 29 percent of African-American students attend integrated schools and nearly half go to schools that are at least 90 percent black — a trend toward resegregation found in the North as well as the South.

The Christian Science Monitor

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Judging by Crystal Wadsworth's brisk stride through the worn halls of A.H. Parker High School, there's no doubt she belongs.

A natural roughhouser and a C-average student, the 6-foot 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, Wadsworth became the first white student to graduate from the storied but struggling 107-year-old school on Birmingham's run-down west side.

For Wadsworth, enrolling in a "black" school four years ago was a personal decision, not part of a districtwide desegregation plan. In that regard, her school career tracks with the national emphasis on school choice. It also is a choice few white teenagers make.

The life lesson she takes away from it all?

Integration trends

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, 29 percent of African-American students attend integrated schools and nearly half go to schools that are at least 90 percent black — a trend toward resegregation found in the North as well as the South.

The Christian Science Monitor

"It just showed me that if you set your mind to it and just be yourself, you can get along with anybody," she said.

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 graduated 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," said Theresa Perry, an African studies professor at Simmons College in Brookline, Mass.

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

Her family ended up in Birmingham six years ago after their car broke down. Wadsworth, her sister, mother, aunt and grandmother were on their way to Louisiana to start a new life, but instead found themselves at a downtown homeless shelter. From there, they moved to a predominantly African-American housing project and then to a house in the west end.

Wadsworth is the only breadwinner in the family. She works at a Subway sandwich shop.

Her formula for peaceful coexistence 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 said.

Technically speaking, Parker High was integrated in the 1980s, and some white students have attended. But the school graduated its first nonblack student, a Latino, last year.

Once the nation's largest black school, with more than 3,700 students, Parker now has 950, with a much more limited curriculum than 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," Principal Joe Martin said.

Classmates give Wadsworth credit for courage. "We're proud of Crystal," said 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."

Wadsworth wasn't shy about asserting herself. 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 joined the book club and drill team. After some resistance, she attended the prom last weekend.

None of her classmates seems to mind the recent attention on her graduation. "Everybody's kind of feeding off it," she said. "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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