I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I started elementary school in the Fall of 1969. This was the very first year of desegregation in our school system. I guess the county like many small Southern towns contained much prejudice. However, I don’t recall any tension between the races when I was in elementary school. We were just small children taking that big first step of starting school. We banded together and offered solace and protection for one another. Not only we were in a new setting, but we were also the survivors of Camille, the flood that nearly devastated our entire county.
We were not afraid of each other and did not immediately see the differences that adults saw. We saw that we all liked to color, sing, slide down the slides, ride the see saws, and play dodge ball. We like to play tag, and we all wanted to be the little red caboose. And we all took great delight in doing the cocka-a-doodle-doo at song time! The only race that mattered to first graders was who took the blue ribbon in the turkey trot. We were innocent and eager to make friends and learn new things.
We were intrigued with one another’s skin and hair. We rubbed our hands along one another’s arms and played with each other’s hair. We shared our snacks and laughed together. While our parents focused on our differences, we knew that although we looked different we were still very much the same. We were a family away from home.
I quickly became friends with a little boy named Marvin. He was silly and fun and I adored him. And he was short like me, so that sort of sealed the deal. However, he was always chasing me down and trying to kiss me. I knew I was not supposed to kiss boys, so I complained to my Daddy. He told me that the next time that little Don Juan tried to pin me down to take two fingers and black his eyes. I replied to my Daddy that I couldn’t do it. He demanded to know why and I said, “Cuz his eyes is already black.” From the mouths of babes. I really don’t know if my father was mortified that his youngest child’s first boyfriend was a different race or more tickled with my reply, but that quote has gone down in family history. Marvin and I remained friends throughout school. I was devastated to hear shortly before our twentieth class reunion that he had died. If he could read this, he’d probably chuckle.
My first “nonwhite” girlfriend was Tootie. She was the most fun of anyone in the entire school. She made me laugh so hard my belly hurt. I had the joy of having many classes with her throughout my school years and rode the bus with her. It was a great joy to see her at my 20th reunion. Like old times, she had me rolling on the floor in no time. Her humor and down to earth manner were what I’d always admired about her.
The biggest obstacle we had between the “whites and blacks” as we were called then was music. We had a large meeting place in the center of the school. Our school had been selected as a site for some sort of learning pilot project. It was one of those learn at your own pace rather than specific curriculum for an entire class. They had torn out the auditorium style seating and replaced it with carpeting, tables and chairs and renamed it “the space”. All that remained unchanged was the stage. Anyway, every morning we would take sides in a show down of music and dancing. We pushed all of the chairs against the walls and set up the portable record players on the tables and started turning those 45’s. It became Donny Osmond and the Osmond Brothers against Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five. We would argue relentlessly about who was better until it was time to get down to academics. I don’t think we ever really agreed, but I think you can look back at music history and see how clear the answer is in hindsight! With music being the biggest obstacle in uniting us, I’d say that was not too bad. I’m sure there were other things throughout the years, but this is what jumps out in my memory. Those really were the good old days. Changes were coming, and they were good ones.
My high school graduation class of 1981 was the first class to have gone through the system completely desegregated and was a proud moment for our school superintendent, Henry Connor, who stated that he started that year with us in first grade and walked with us on our journey. Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby!