How Do We Confront the Racism of Our Nation’s Past?
I attended segregated Langston Elementary School in the Halls Hill neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia for kindergarten and first grade. In June 1966, Langston was closed. All of the students were divided by address and forced to attend five white schools, to ensure that the percentage of Black students would not exceed 35 percent of the student population at any of the schools.
I was enrolled at Walter Reed Elementary School and began second grade in Miss Harmony’s class. I was one of four or five Black students from Langston in the class of about 25 students. In Arlington County, third-grade students were tested for admittance into the talented and gifted program, called “Seminar.” To the school administration’s surprise, two Black students at Reed would be among the 24 Seminar students in the upcoming fourth-grade class. By fifth grade, the School Board cut the budget. The funding would support only 12 students and I was to be the lone Black Seminar student. Trust that there was a lot of communication between the school and parents because there was a major effort to keep Black students out of these programs. Unfortunately for the school, my parents were well versed in the strategies used to delay and deny Black students their rightful accommodations, and I remained in the program.
I knew that many of my fellow students were racists. I knew many grew up in racist households and that their parents did not want us in class together. I didn’t know any White children before I started school at Reed. I developed a friendship with one White girl in elementary school. We were in Seminar classes together for all three years. She was Jewish and her mom had earned a graduate degree at Howard University. For most of the other White kids, I am sure the Halls Hill kids were the first Black people they had interacted with at that level in their lives.
I have since reconnected with many of my fellow classmates from high school on Facebook. Very few from elementary school. A few years ago, my White friend from Reed school reached out. It’s been great to re-establish our friendship and meet each other’s children.
After I published My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood, I heard from a lot of my old classmates. They gave me feedback and discussed their thoughts of those old times. But most of the interactions were not deep exchanges. I often wondered after those exchanges what they really thought and experienced during those times.
On Thursday, June 25, 2020, I received a Facebook message that let me know my book was bringing back thoughts for an old classmate. He wasn’t afraid to address his family history and have courageous communication with me about how the book impacted his perspective.
You may or may not remember me, although I am cursed with a memorable name. We met when we spent time in school together in Mr. Marsh’s and Mrs. Scharff’s classes at Reed elementary. I remember you as curious, and very confident. I also remember that you were very fast. Funny the things we remember.
Last week I read your wonderfully personal book about Halls Hill. I was envious of the familial feel you described, the sense of community. I was proud that you were describing a neighborhood in my hometown. I lived in Woodlawn at 14th and Buchanan. Through your eyes I was able to see what I had missed growing up. Four blocks away, on the other side of the wall, my perspective was different. My perspective was mis-informed.
I should tell you that I hovered over the purchase button for your book a few months ago. Sometimes I don’t know why I act or procrastinate, but this time it is clear. George Floyd sent me back to buy the book. And he sent me to you because our paths crossed way back when. Black lives matter.
Whoa! I was like, what the what?! Needless to say, I was shocked.
He goes on to explain the disconnect in his elementary school mind, of the things he heard from his Alabama relatives about Black people, compared to the experiences he had in his classroom in Arlington, Virginia. And based on his experiences with Mr. Marsh, our Black male fifth-grade teacher.
Although my parents were very rarely overtly racist, I never recall speaking about differences. I do recall being exposed to overt racism when visiting extended family. Our vacations in Alabama were littered with relatives who laughed at dropping fireworks into the bathroom stalls when the rest rooms were integrated, or who taught their dogs to bark at the N word. Really.
I do recall trying to square the impression I was getting from this environment that blacks were inferior with the experiences I was having that would tend to indicate otherwise. As a traveling PE teacher, Coach Willie Jones was assigned to Woodlawn as well. I remember him encouraging me with my sprinting form. I also remember his “no cuttin’ up” rules, applied equally to black and white kids. He was a good role model. Hank Aaron was my baseball hero. I recalling being sad when I read about the death threats and ugly notes he received while chasing Babe Ruth. Mr. Marsh was a hero.
These are the tough conversations that are starting to happen with more frequency. I am happy that my book helped to drive this dialogue with my old elementary school friend, N. King Prather as he confronts his past with his present and the efforts he is making to be anti-racist in his village in North Carolina today.
Fast forward……..Throughout my professional career, I worked with my employers on diversity efforts. Today I am working on Governor Cooper’s DRIVE Task Force here in North Carolina in an effort to increase the number of minorities teaching in the classroom. Life has taught me the invaluable advantages of diversity, and the reality of systemic racism in so many areas that remain impactful today. I also believe that we all owe a contribution to the community woodpile. It takes a village.
Today, King sent me a link to an article published on WRAL.com, We are all ancestors of ourselves where he states, “Black lives matter. Justice is a process, not an outcome. Silence is complicity.” I am proud that the “rambling letter” he sent to me last summer was the beginning of the thoughts that became this article.
As I wrote to King this morning, “I think it’s through this type of introspection…that real change in this country will finally happen.” And he responded, “We have to wrestle our demons in the daylight.” Well said, my friend.
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