Students Purportedly Wearing “Blackface” in Online Photos Rekindle Racial Allegations in Gardendale’s Bid to Form Its Own School System

An incident involving students at Gardendale High School has taken social media by storm and once again raised the issue of race as the city seeks to separate from the Jefferson County Schools and form its own system.

On Tuesday night, online photos surfaced showing four students – two from Gardendale High and the other two from neighboring Mortimer Jordan High, according to JefCoEd spokeswoman Nez Calhoun — wearing what critics call “blackface,” similar to the makeup used by white performers many years ago in minstrel shows to depict blacks in a negative way.

One photo appeared on the photo-sharing site Instagram, while the other appeared on Snapchat. Snapchat in its normal mode allows users to share photos and short videos that automatically are deleted after viewing, but the deletion can be subverted if a reader saves the photo in a screen capture, which allows users to save an image of what is on their screens. One of the photos also had a caption with a racial slur. Whether the slur was added by the students pictured or by another social media user cannot be determined.

Once copies of the photos were posted to Facebook by a resident of northern Jefferson County, they quickly went viral and spread to websites and news media as far away as Great Britain, where the national tabloid The Daily Mail took note.

On Wednesday, longtime Birmingham political activist Frank Matthews, who is president of the group Outcast Voters League, held a press conference outside Gardendale High to criticize the students and to call for the ouster of JefCoEd Superintendent Craig Pouncey. That call was also due in part to an unrelated issue involving a JefCoEd principal in Hueytown. In a press release, the group also called for the students’ actions to be investigated as hate crimes.

One of the images was taken several months ago, according to Neal Underwood, the father of one of the girls shown in the photo. Underwood, who is the director of transportation for JefCoEd and formerly the principal of Bragg Middle School in Gardendale, told that his daughter and her friend were using a charcoal beauty mask, and that there was no racial intent in their photo.

“These two girls don’t have a malice bone in their bodies,” Underwood told reporter Kent Faulk.

Underwood claimed the racial slur caption was added by someone other than his daughter or her friend.

A handful of social-media messages posted after the screen caps became widespread mentioned that one of the Gardendale girls had been removed from the Rockettes dance team because of the photo. Calhoun would not confirm that, but she did say that all four students “have been disciplined,” declining to elaborate further.

Pouncey said in an emailed statement to Birmingham Watch, “Public education is a microcosm of society. As educators, we should always strive to instill in our students what’s right and is wrong. We should always be sensitive of others at all times.”

Under other circumstances, the photos might have been handled as one-time incidents without any further repercussions. But that’s not the case here, as Gardendale’s effort to form its own school system has been called “racially motivated” by U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala, who nonetheless ruled that the city could proceed with a partial takeover.

Haikala said the Gardendale Board of Education could operate Snow Rogers and Gardendale elementary schools in the coming academic year and could apply to the court in three years to operate all four local schools, including Bragg Middle and Gardendale High, if the new system had made progress toward racial balance.

Haikala’s ruling was quickly appealed from both sides. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the plaintiffs in the original Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education desegregation case that began in the 1960s, wants the 11th District Court of Appeals in Atlanta to overturn the ruling on the basis that the racial motivation Haikala cited disqualifies Gardendale from operating its own system. The Gardendale board is in the process of filing a cross-appeal, in which it plans to argue that Haikala was wrong in assigning racial motivation to their effort and that they should be allowed to take over all four schools as soon as possible.

Both the Legal Defense Fund and Gardendale have filed motions asking Haikala to delay her ruling until the 11th Circuit can take up the case.

JefCoEd is also a party to the case, arguing that Gardendale’s breakaway would irreparably harm its own effort toward “unitary status,” which is the official declaration that the system is fully desegregated and no longer in need of court supervision. The county system has not filed any action in the court since Haikala’s ruling was handed down April 24.

Likewise, the U.S. Department of Justice has yet to make its intentions known regarding any appeals. The department had intervened in the case on behalf of Legal Defense Fund when the Gardendale portion of the Stout case was taken under consideration by Haikala in 2016, but their intervention came when the department was a part of the administration of then-President Barack Obama. Since the changeover to President Donald Trump’s administration, the department has largely remained silent about the Gardendale case.

Social media also played a large part in Haikala’s April ruling. She extensively cited posts in Facebook groups established by proponents of the Gardendale system when assigning racial motivation to their actions.