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WFU class studies social inequalities in the South

May 30, 2007

New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward will be among the stops a group of Wake Forest University students make as they travel through the Deep South by bus to explore issues of social inequality.

The sociology course, Social Stratification in the American Deep South, was designed by Earl Smith, Rubin Professor of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest, and Angela Hattery, associate professor of sociology, to help students better understand social, economic and political issues in the South.  The two-week field seminar runs from May 25 to June 8.

Using civil rights sites as a roadmap, the students will make stops in Birmingham, Selma and a handful of other places.

En route to New Orleans, the class will stop at the small Gulf Coast town of Waveland, Miss.  There, the students will collect oral histories and compile scrapbooks for the Hancock County Library in Waveland.  Susan Smith, the head of information technology at Wake Forest’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library, will accompany the group and provide specialized assistance to Waveland’s library.  

While in New Orleans, the students will meet with a nonprofit group called Acorn Housing, established to help low- to moderate-income people become and remain homeowners.  The class will also tour the area and learn more about the socioeconomic complexities of the 9th Ward. 

"The aftermath of Katrina provides a virtual laboratory for students of social stratification,” Smith said.

The two Wake Forest professors will coordinate lectures, documentaries, statistical information and other course materials with visits to places like Tunica County, Miss., among the poorest counties in the country’s poorest state, and Montgomery, Ala., home of the Southern Poverty Law Center.   In between stops, the students will watch documentaries, hold discussions and research upcoming destinations. Laptop computers will allow the students to access and present information while they are on the road. Students will use their laptops to plot maps of social inequality, create charts showing marriage and housing patterns, and chart industry and employment for the communities they visit.

“The goals of the course are to show students how stratification unfolds in the American South and to show that America is not a classless society,” Smith said.  “We’re hoping that when we’re done each day, conversations will carry over, unfolding from what took place that day.”

The professors plan to use these important places from the past as a springboard or an examination of current imbalances between rich and poor, black and white. The journey will allow the students to reflect upon not only the milestones of the civil rights movement, but also contemporary social class structure in areas such as housing, employment opportunities, education and criminal justice.

The bus will stop for a day at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. At Parchman, the students will talk with inmates and prison officials.

The prison population is 80-90 percent black in a state that is only 40 percent black, Hattery said.  “One-third of the state’s blacks spend time in Parchman, so the prison shapes the lives of people who live in Mississippi in profound ways.”

In many communities, the class will meet with local ministers, civil rights activists and workers at social service agencies and mingle with ordinary citizens as much as possible to learn about day-to-day life in the South.

Smith and Hattery have led the course twice previously, in 2003 and 2005.

“The course is constantly changing,” Smith said.  “There are changes in the social and political economy.  There are changes in historical events.”

To follow the students’ journey, visit the course Web site at

Press Contacts:

Cheryl Walker
(336) 758-5237

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237

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