Monday, August 29, 2011

Destiny and the Desegregation Storm

Effanbee's School Picture Day Libbie

From grades first through eleventh, I attended schools in a segregated independent public school system.  Before mandated desegregation occurred in my eleventh school year, by way of busing mostly African American students from their neighborhood schools to white schools, my educators had all been African American.  My fellow classmates were, too.  Most of whom (teachers and classmates) were dedicated, focused on teaching and learning.  I excelled in all areas except higher levels of mathematics.  I paired myself up with those who did excel in math to gain a bit of their knowledge in order to pass math with at least a B average. 

My teachers gave me a sense they actually cared about my academic achievement, but I knew I cared more.  I also knew I would have to deal with my mother's wrath had I not been a high achiever. 

There were one or two teachers who became frustrated with the occasional unfocused or disruptive student. This led them to make such arrogant statements as, "I've got mine [education]. You have to get yours." It was in these classes that I worked harder.

Claudia by Gotz for FAO Schwarz
School Day Ginny by Vogue

Leroy (I should rename him) and his sister, Leneda.

Decades after I graduated with honors, school uniforms become a requirement in the local school system.  The only uniforms I wore were those dreadful white gym suits in PE and my band uniform from seventh through tenth grade. 
Fatou by Annette Himstedt wears a cotton school dress.

Carin by Tonner and big Calista by MGA are both redressed.

My primary grade school attire, selected by my mother, was always dark cotton dresses in solid or plaids for the fall and pastel colors during the spring.  Cable knit knee-high socks in a variety of colors with penny loafers or saddle oxfords covered my feet.  By grade seven, I chose my own clothes and by grade nine, I "needed" at least 10 different outfits or 10 different ways to wear my "new" school clothes to ensure that an outfit would not be repeated within a two-week school period. 

Philip Heath's Aaron looks like an avid reader, eager to learn.

Little Calista and Only Hearts Club Briana Joy fashionably dressed.  (Briana Joy wears Calista's original fashion.)

The school dress code prohibited girls from wearing pants until my freshman or sophomore year.  After repeated requests by students and as many denials, pants were finally permitted after a one-day student protest.  I was one of the protestors.  We all decided to wear pants on the same day, knowing the principal could not expel everyone.  It worked. 

Sometimes "you've got to fight the powers that be."

Hearts 4 Hearts Girls Rahel wears her new School Time Play Set, which comes with a soccer ball, her composition notebook, note pad, and pencils.  (I was prepared to replace the outfit's orange flip-flips with penny loafers, but after seeing the flip-flips on her, I decided against restricting Rahel's shoe choice.)

During my sophomore year, I submitted an application to attend the first school in the United States to offer a magnet curriculum.  Applicants could apply for full- or part-time status to study specialized courses.  I opted for part-time attendance and was accepted.  I would attend my home school in the mornings to take my core classes and ride a school bus to the magnet school to study business courses in the afternoons.   

Before the end of my sophomore year, I learned the 12-year school I had attended since the fourth grade (my home school) would only offer first through seventh grade classes beginning with the next school term.  I was given a choice to choose one of three different high schools as my home school in addition to attending the magnet school part-time.  None of these optional home schools were in my neighborhood.  With either school, I would be forced to ride a school bus to and from it.  Two of the optional schools were in white neighborhoods, the third was in a predominantly black neighborhood, quite a distance from where I lived. 

Wilma depicts the African American girl in Rockwell's painting, "The Problem We All Live With."  The 1963 painting illustrating school racial integration originally appeared in Look magazine in 1964.  The painting was inspired by the first African American child to attend an all-white school in the South, Ruby Bridges.

The optional predominantly black school had been labeled a "fashion show" because many students focused more on wearing the latest fashion than on their education.  Without a desire to compete in their fashion show, and open for change, I opted to be among those blacks mandated to desegregate one of the two all-white optional schools.

"You're a radical," one of my eighth grade teachers to me.  "What's a radical? "I asked.  "Look it up," he said.

After taking the first yellow bus ride from my neighborhood school to the chosen school, I protested by not getting on the afternoon bus to attend the magnet school where I was to study business.  I was not about to spend the majority of  my school time riding a yellow bus to one school, then to another, and back home again.  To and from one school was more than enough bus riding for me.  So, I marched my 16-year-old self to the counselor's office and requested a full class load at the new, desegregated home school.

Determine your own destiny and be radical about it, if necessary.

My first desegregated school year was quite eventful.  I heard about several fights between black and white students, mostly boys.  Differences in culture, skin color, and prohibited racial slurs from whites toward blacks caused these physical altercations.  An ambulance was summoned after one event that caused a head injury during a stairwell fight where several boys attacked another.  Many white parents removed their children from the school.  The majority toughed it out.  By the end of my junior year, the unrest settled; there was quiet after the desegregation storm. 

Was it worth it?  Would it have been better to staff all schools with teachers who possessed the same qualifications and equal desire to educate in equally equipped schools than to uproot children from their communities to others where in most cases they were not welcome?

At my all-black schools, I knew most of my teachers cared about me as a person and as one of their students. Fights were usually only verbal and physical ones were usually limited to the-last-day-of-school-fights between rival students who knew they could not get expelled on the last day.  Racial slurs were nonexistent.  You knew your teacher would contact your mother with sincere concern if you made even the slightest mistake; your neighbors would, too.  So you were usually always "on" your best behavior.  They (the teachers and the neighbors) all knew your parents, so you had better behave or there would be definite and swift consequences.  There was no calling 911 on your parents because there was no child abuse at least not what is defined as child abuse today.

At the desegregated school with its predominantly white staff, the majority of the teachers cared about educating us as a whole, but only a handful gave me the impression they cared about me as a person.  None of them knew my parents.
School kids looking eager to learn and uniformly or individually fashionable. 

Because those AA teachers had years before arrogantly proclaimed they had gotten theirs, long before I entered that desegregated school setting, I knew full well that I had better get mine, too.  So I did, sometimes fashionably dressed in an outfit that had not been worn in at least 10 days, but by senior year, I didn't care who had seen me in what.




  1. Very interesting recollection. It's always neat to find out what it's like to go to school in a very different culture. :) In my case the infrastructure is the biggest difference- in Poland where I went to school there are no school buses (at least not in the city), so I was forced to take the city bus, often standing room only. How I hated that :D
    You seem like you were a very driven and focused person even back then- very admirable.

  2. Hearts 4 Hearts Girls Rachael is so darn cute!

  3. The Little Rock nine and other students in the vanguard of desegregation have received a lot of attention but the story of what it was like to be bused all over the place and separated from caring community in the later stages of integration is a story that has not fully been told yet. Thank you for this excellent memoir and the beautiful pictures of all the dolls in their school clothes.

  4. What a wonderful post! First I will address the dolls. You do look like School Day Libbie. I can't believe you have Heath's Aaron. I LOVE that doll. No, I don't have him. Rahel is just too adorable. I am a sucker for a child in a plaid skirt, which is strange, because I don't think I ever had one. I was bussed to one of my elementary schools, but it wasn't because of desegregation. I think it was because of just pure numbers. I passed two schools on the way to my school. I typically had the opposite experience. Me and my best friend were usually the only black kids in our classes. She and I were also two of the top producers. There's a lot of pressure being the only black kids in the class. You know you better perform and perform well.

  5. I have that Norman Rockwell print hanging in my entryway. I had no idea there was a doll. Can you tell me something about her? Is she still available?

  6. Dear Ladies,

    Thank you for taking the time to read this rather lengthy blog, which actually wrote itself and took hours for me to complete.

    I had no plans to divulge this piece of my primary and secondary education journey until I sat down to write about the dolls dressed in school attire.

    I had gathered the ones already dressed in school clothing, redressed others, and found pictures of dolls from the past that I had photographed to use for this blog even before I sat down to write about them. But the story developed and I had to incorporate the dolls into after it was written.

    Amazing that you say I resemble Picture Day Libbie, Vanessa. I had not even made that connection when I choose her as the first doll. She's so tiny and cute and looks like she's in first grade (well... she is in Effanbee/Tonner's eyes), so I allowed her to be the leading doll for that reason alone.

    Yes, Vanessa I do own Aaron. He remains one of my most cherished and favorite dolls. He's been redressed for years in clothing my now 10 grandson wore when he was 3. You're right, we had to be the highest achievers in integrated settings and for me even in segregated ones.

    Alrunia, I would have hated to ride the city bus to school, too. At least on those big yellow buses, I knew my riding companions.

    EbonyNicole, Rahel is so darn cute with her big-old eyes. I visited Target yesterday and just had to have that school uniform when I saw it. The $17.99 price caused a bit of hesitation. I even went back to place it on the rack but then talked myself into buying it anyway. I think dressing her in the Ethiopian school "uni" prompted me to write this blog.

    Limbe Dolls - You're welcome. I am glad I was inspired to write and follow through and publish this piece. More than once, I thought, "This is too personal," and I almost deleted it. But "Something," influenced me to keep writing. Your comments confirm that I did right thing.


  7. Hi Betty,

    I discovered Wilma during the 1990s at a local doll gathering I attended. One of the ladies brought her Wilma doll as a show and tell. I asked to hold her and fell immediately in love. It took several years for me to find her, but I did. I now actually own two.

    You can read more about Wilma in a blog I devoted to her this past February. Here's the link.


  8. I really enjoyed this post.

    When I was in high school, I played one of the students from the Little Rock Nine in a play. It's always better to hear from someone who actually experienced what I pretended to know.

    I LOVE all of the doll photos. Carin and Aaron have stolen my heart and won't give it back.

  9. Hi Ronni,

    I'm glad I was able to share this with you and that you enjoyed it.

    Carin and Aaron are both keepers. Especially Aaron. He has his own story to tell. Maybe I will allow him to tell it soon.


  10. I truly enjoyed your story. Learning what it was truly like being bused. I love the dolls. They show different looks and different times as well.

    Thank you

  11. Dollz4moi,

    Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment.


  12. The dolls were beautiful, as always, but I found the post even more captivating than the dolls. I think you're very brave to share such a personal story on your blog.

  13. I enjoyed this post a lot.

    I was born in 1968 and Texas de-segregated in 1972. This means my oldest sister's class was the first to start school without ever knowing segregated schools. My second sister's was the second class. My class was the third.

    The claim by white-supremacists was that if schools desegregated, race mixing would ensue. What a ridiculous claim. by the second grade I had a crush on a black boy. My sister and I both married black men. Ha!! I guess they were right. Pretty freaking funny if you ask me!!

    Anyway, you stop short of saying that in some ways segregated schools were better. But I will say it - in some ways, segregated schools were better.

    This was especially true in city schools where, like you said, the teachers came from the community and knew the parents. Unfortunately, kids in rural areas were receiving abonimable schooling. Were it not for them, I think many children would have fared better in segregated schools.

    Of course, de facto segregation should always be a choice, and prior to the court case it was not a choice.

    In a school like yours, the kids like you who were focused were going to do well regardless. The really bad kids were going to do poorly regardless. What we (as a society) lost were the kids in the middle. The mid-range kids, under the care of white teachers who couldn't or didn't care to intervene with parents or some other means, more than likely wrote those kids off - where black teachers probably could have saved half of them.

    Great post - I love it when three of my great loves: race relations, public policy and DOLLS come together in a single place.

  14. Thanks Kristl for letting me know you enjoyed this post and for sharing your experience with desegregation and/or your interaction with people of other cultures.

    Typically, young children are able to interact with their peers without allowing racial prejudices to interfere. This ugliness surfaces when their young minds are tainted by adults (usually parents) against people whose outer shell differs from theirs. Skin... that's all it is, an outer shell.

    Yes, I did stop short of saying segregated schools were better, but I knew the educated reader would get my point. For me and people who had been in segregated school systems like mine for as long as I had -- where educators did their jobs to educate and actually had a personal connection with the students and their parents -- the situation was better than being uprooted to a new environment where few if anyone cared about you personally.

    But as you indicated, I would have done well in any situation based on my upbringing and determination to succeed. Before leaving the home school, I was voted the Most Likely to Succeed girl in my sophomore class. The male counterpart went on to become a dentist in the Colorado area and was one of the students with whom I sought math help. He had a major crush on me during our freshman and sophomore years, but I thought of him as too nerdy.

    Thanks again for reading and for commenting.



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