As I read the Charlotte Observer online this morning, a huge header caught my attention: A Picture Speaks, 50 years after integration, regret and forgiveness. I was all ready to read about App’s big blow on No. 5 Michigan yesterday (34-32), but that dang header was loud and it was calling me. I had to explore.
The article, The Dorothy Counts story, was a good one, but the photo gallery was even better, and the interactive graphics and video were absolutely fantastic. Although I wasn’t quite yet born in 1957, I do remember the day my own Oakboro Elementary School was integrated. I was in Mrs. Parker’s third grade class–located beside the classroom where all the black students were routed. It was a day I couldn’t forget if I tried. It was 1966 and I was 8 years old.
That day, in fact that whole week, was the quietest week I can ever recall about school. The black students, about a dozen altogether, were brought into the school about an hour after the morning bell rang. They were lead past open class doors to a room where all were to be together, regardless of grade or age. As they walked past the open doors, the entire school went from its usual buzz to complete silence. As a third grader, I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew it had to be something big enough to bring silence to a schoolful of kids. I still remember the sound of their footsteps on the wooden floor outside Mrs. Parker’s class and the staggering echo that resounded through the high-ceilinged hallway.
The black students stayed in that single classroom for two years before they were integrated into the “white” classes. My first day of fifth grade was also the first time that I sat beside a black student. I think there were about four black students in my class: Victor, James, Dorothy, and Gloria. We all got along together, especially on the ball field at recess, but it was kind of awkward in the more social settings like lunch and gatherings in the auditorium. As we progressed to the next grade and then the next, I got to know Eric (our school’s star basketball player), twins Jane and Jean, and Rodney, Amos (AT), Vivian, Trudy, and a few others whose names I can’t remember right now. The pre-adolescence years were short, but the “adolescence ones” were somewhat troublesome for a few of the black students as well as the white ones. Eighth grade marked a cross roads where some left for high school while others just sort of disappeared.
I can’t recall a single racial issue during my four years at At West Sanly High School. It was a school of about 400 students. We all got along together pretty well. Close friendships developed between members of black and white students through the athletic program and the band. I think almost all of my class of 1976 made it through graduation. About 25% of us (black as well as white) went on to college. I lost touch with all most everyone after graduation.
In retrospect, I can see an interesting picture of my own experiences of integration. There weren’t any black cheerleaders, homecoming queens, or student body officers; but there were black athletic heros in football, basketball, and track–both boys and girls. While popularity was an undeniable quest during all our teenage years, the black students had a social circle of their own. Some were leaders within their group, just like the white social circle. Although we all got along together within our boundaries, those polarized circles never fully merged.
By the time my own daughters came along and started school, things were alot different. Both went through schools in Scotland County NC where the student body is pretty equal in the number of black, white, and Native Americans. There was never a question about integration, race, or color that I can recall my girls ever asking. When my youngest went to her eighth grade prom, the limo she and her friends hired carried three white, one black, one Asian, and one Native American to dinner and on to the dance. Nobody thought a thing about it. Maybe we’ve made progress after all.
If you’re hovering somewhere between 50-60, the Charlotte Observer article might really interest you. And watch the video, too.
Have a safe and happy Labor Day.