Segregation Q&A

One Impact of Telling Your Story

Every so often when a blog post gets a lot of traction, I receive messages from people I knew in the past. One interaction with a former elementary school friend was the subject of the blog a few weeks ago. As a result, more people from my past are reaching out to me.

I received one Facebook message from an elementary school classmate. Note, I said a classmate. We weren’t friends, and honestly, I don’t remember her. But she remembered me. After an introductory exchange, she posed a few questions. 

The Facebook message I received from a former elementary school classmate.

My initial reaction was, “I’m not responding to this.” My second thought was to turn the questions around and ask her the same things from my perspective. How did you feel about Black students coming to your school? Was it scary? Why? Were you mad at everyone Black?

Then I took a few breaths and decided that I would answer the questions in my blog. Pre-COVID after speaking engagements people would ask questions like these during the Q&A. And truthfully, since I wrote a book and continue to write about these issues, I decided to share my answers.

How did it make you feel to go to a desegregated school then? 

I missed my old school, teachers, staff (my mom was a lunch lady at Langston), and friends who were assigned to different schools. I was not looking forward to attending the new school in any way. I knew I had no choice in the matter. One interesting note was I had to take a bus to school, which was a new experience. 

My sisters and brothers had attended Stratford Junior High School with White students following their respective promotions from Langston. I always knew that I would go to school with White students one day. I just did not expect it to be so soon, in second grade. 

I didn’t think that attending a White school was going to be better than going to Langston. I knew the books, desks, balls, and art supplies would probably be better because even in the first grade I knew the government always gave Black people the worst version of anything available. But I knew I would miss the feeling of family that we had at Langston, where everyone knew everyone, and many of us were related. 

Was it scary? 

I don’t remember being scared at all. In my comparison based on what I knew about White people, I didn’t expect it to be more fun or exciting. Everything I personally knew about White people came from television. And at six years old, the family life I saw on tv did not touch the experiences I had at my home. They may have had a bigger house, a color tv, and a community with paved streets and sidewalks. But the home and community life I knew was full of experiences that were never shown on television in those days. Granted, not all of them were good, but that’s true of all homes and neighborhoods.

The way White children played on television didn’t appear to be as much fun as the things my friends and I did. Except for the fact that they could go places that we were not allowed to enter. Parks. Playgrounds. Pools. Movie theaters. But integrated schools weren’t going to change that. I wasn’t going to be able to join the Overlee Community pool. Nor was I going to be able to go swimming at Lake Barcroft. 

Allowing 300 Black students to attend five White schools wasn’t really going to change our life for the better.  Our neighborhood school, our beloved Langston, now educated kindergartners, both White and Black students. The government wouldn’t let us continue to use the building as a neighborhood school because the White parents didn’t want to send their students to a school in a Black neighborhood. But now white five year olds were sent to the school?! It was another slap in the face to our community by the school board. 

Were you mad at everyone who was white? 

Why would I be mad at White people?! 

From my perspective, it was White people who didn’t like Black people. Initially, I didn’t know any White people to be mad at them. 

I was a happy child. I was spoiled by my parents, six siblings, aunts, and uncles. I had a large community of people who thought I was a great kid. I had lots and lots of friends. As a little kid, I lacked nothing because my life was full. The adults in our community made sure that although we couldn’t go everywhere, we had the things that mattered most. So I wasn’t mad at White people, nor did I envy them. I felt like my life was better. They may have had more money. But there were Black people in my community who had more money than my family, so that didn’t mean a lot. After I began to get to know some of the White kids at my school, I knew I didn’t need to be mad at anyone. The type of family I had, I knew everybody didn’t have. 

I didn’t understand then, and I still don’t understand now, why people don’t like other people because they are different. My mom told me that “it takes all kinds,” when I would ask her about someone being different. Explaining that God made people different, that no two people ever in existence would be exactly the same. 

My perspective as a child was that the government was designed to keep Black people down. To keep us below White people in every way. But I knew that was only because they had power. At six years old, I was well aware of institutional, systemic racism, although it didn’t have a name.

Image from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I knew Black people were just like White people and honestly, I thought we were better. I knew we had more style. I thought our music was better. I knew our church services were better. And the more I became exposed to other things created by Black people, I knew that no other group of people was better than us. Then I began to feel like maybe White people wanted to keep us down, because they were afraid that if (when) we came into our own, we could potentially exceed their accomplishments. 

What happened to your old school and the teachers who taught there?

I talked about that in this blog post. Here’s a little piece:

The final decision was made to disenfranchise the Black students and the Halls Hill community. In June 1966, Langston was closed as a neighborhood elementary school. Proposal 6 was approved. The 300 students were transferred to five White elementary schools. This was because the School Board succumbed to pressure from White parents concerned about Black children comprising the majority of students at any of the previously Whites-only schools. The School Board made sure that Black children would not exceed 35 percent of the school population.

The Halls Hill community was denied a neighborhood school, unlike every other established Arlington community. However, the School Board assigned kindergarten classes to the Langston building – both White and Black children! That decision was an insult to the Halls Hill community. And as my old elementary school friend, King Prather’s message advised, the influence of two Black males teachers in elementary school impacted him greatly. How many White children could have been positively impacted by the influence of the Langston teachers and administrators?

On the Arlington Public Schools website the information about Langston is not included in the history of desegregation of schools.

In Closing

One of my favorite poems about Black people, our families, and community perspective is Nikki-Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. It speaks so clearly of the opinion of many Black people who grew up in segregated neighborhoods in America. The opening and closing stanzas are:

Childhood remembrances are always a drag

If you’re Black

You always remember things like living in Woodlawn

With no inside toilet

And if you become famous or something

They never talk about how happy you were to have

Your mother

All to yourself… 

…And I really hope no white person ever has cause

To write about me

Because they never understand

Black love is Black wealth and they’ll

Probably talk about my hard childhood

And never understand that

All the while I was quite happy

Buy My Halls Hill Family: More Than a Neighborhood at AMAZON!

3 Replies to “Segregation Q&A”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your response to your former classmate’s questions. As always, you were so on point, and every time I read anything you write, I’m educated, empowered, and so proud of our village. Thank you for being a vessel of historical knowledge of not just the history of Arlington but of the small diaspora that called Halls Hill home!

    1. Thank you, Carolyn. I appreciate your support and I love your poems that so lyrically describe our experiences!

  2. Wilma, thank you for your responses. I continue to learn, from the experiences of others, and it shocks me that you and I are the same age, grew up in the same town, and you were prevented from having access to swimming pools, while my family had a membership to Donaldson Run. Unfortunately, I grew up in a racist family, and so I’ve had to evolve from certain family members’ views to form my own. I also worked for the Arlington School Board for 10.5 years, and hated when boundary changes came up. The level of bigotry and entitlement displayed by some of the parents was disheartening. Of course, they didn’t see themselves that way. They wanted their kids to experience “diversity,” but didn’t want them inconvenienced by classmates they deemed to be of lesser intelligence.

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