I, like a lot of Americans, have been thinking, reading, listening and reflecting on the demonstrations taking place in this country (and around the world) these past two weeks. It’s been a good time to take stock about the problems of racism that still exist in this country, 155 years after the last slaves were emancipated on June 19, 1865 and 56 and 52 years after the President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.
The protests, fueled by the death of George Floyd, have given rise to concerns that many may have thought had been resolved. The protesters, who risk their lives in the middle of a deadly pandemic, have brought widespread recognition to the fact that discrimination, inequality and profiling are still rife in the United States.
The announcement of the President’s upcoming visit to Tulsa, OK. for a political rally brought up that city’s terrible history when, in 1921, hundreds of black citizens were literally massacred. I’m ashamed, and a little shocked, to say that I grew up just 90 miles north across the state lines in Kansas and never knew anything about that tragic event during all the time that I lived there.
Likewise, I learned something else new earlier this week from my friend, Virginia, a friend who I’ve known since grade school. Years later, Virginia and I frequently got together whenever the two of us were back in our hometowns at the same time. She, like me, had moved away but returned occasionally to visit our respective families who still lived in town. We’d have long talks about all sorts of things but often our conversation drifted towards politics, family and childhood memories.
On one such visit, I recall Virginia telling me about a section of town referred to by a derogatory nickname because it was the ‘Black neighborhood’. It was the first time I had heard of it but Virginia assured me it was commonly used when we were both kids. (My memory fails to accurately remember the exact name so I’m excluding what I think it was, but if anyone reading this blog knows, please tell me and I’ll make the correction.)
Virginia has since moved back to a neighboring community and earlier this week was on her way to participate in one of the Black Lives Matter protests being held in my hometown. That was when I learned from her, indirectly, that my kindergarten class of 1958 at McKinley School was the first integrated kindergarten in town. I had no idea.
In fact, I remember little about kindergarten except for my teacher’s name, a few of my classmates (including Virginia), the fact that I was in the morning kindergarten and that one of the little boys in my class, Jeff, had to stay after school one day for crawling up during story time to give me a kiss on the cheek.
But Virginia remembers well that she was one of the first Black kindergarteners to attend McKinley School. As she says, she and the other Black children had never heard of McKinley and were scared to death because they didn’t know what they would find there. Previously, all the Black children, went to Douglass School which taught students from elementary age through junior high school. The school was eventually closed when enrollment declined as more Black parents chose to have their students attend the White junior high school, according to historian Jean Patterson who wrote “The Final Days of Douglass School” chapter in the book “Breakthroughs in the Sociology of Education.”
As Patterson reported: “To this day, many (White) townspeople believe the school board was being progressive in acting to desegregate the Parsons schools before the U.S. Supreme Court made its final ruling. However, many Black citizens of Parsons tell a different story. Although leaders in the Black community at the time favored integrating the schools, they were concerned about what would happen to their teachers. Their
worst fears came to pass when all but two Douglass teachers were either terminated
or forced into retirement. Most White teachers were not prepared to teach Black
students, nor did they welcome these students in their classrooms. In what many
Black citizens believe was one final act of hostility on the part of the superintendent,
Douglass School was bulldozed over with everything in it; nothing was salvaged
as trophies, photographs, books, and other artifacts were destroyed along with the
building. What remains of the school are the memories of the alumni and the pictures
and artifacts they kept over the years.”
Indeed, years later, when a local organization commissioned a company to include the school in its miniature historical building series, it had trouble finding any existing photos of the school. Local news reports say that the organization had to resort to drawings and sketches made by former students.
How differently history is perceived when the facts are either erased, ignored, forgotten or simply not known. As in my own case, I never knew that my Black friends, friends I kept all through my school years and continue to have to this day, were the first to be integrated in my elementary school. How could I not know this? I guess, like so many, other things, it simply wasn’t discussed. Or, if it was, I was too young or too sheltered, to know. Clearly, my friend Virginia and I’m sure others like her, were very aware and, like her, were frightened of being the first to break the color barrier in my small town.
Looking back, I imagine there were many other ‘firsts’ to which I was woefully unaware. The first Black cheerleader in our high school may also have been a member of my class, for instance.
Protesters on the streets today are strongly reminding us that this country has not ‘fixed’ the problems related to racism despite the gains made in the 1960s. The protests are shaking us back into reality and out of the complacency that had settled over this country. Maybe this time, the change needed will happen.