Friday, February 18, 2011


On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year I watched Oprah's special show about race in America and thought of growing up in Dallas in the '60's. When they talked about the Little Rock 9 I was reminded of the desegregation of the schools in the '70's. I was in the eighth grade then.

The youngest of three children in my family, I followed my older brother and sister through the neighborhood schools where the teachers were well acquainted with my family and sometimes slipped and called me by my sister's name. From first through fifth grade I walked to school or rode my bike since the school was just five blocks from the only home I'd ever known. It was a neighborhood where Beaver Cleaver would have felt at home... simple houses with trees waiting to be climbed, basketball hoops above garages, and everybody knew which house on the block had the best yard for a game of baseball or football. Mine did (level yard, no fences, no trees).

I didn't think much about how white my world was. It was just my world. The people in my school were white. The people at my church were white. I saw mostly white people on all three channels on my black and white TV, too. Except for the news.

On the TV news shows we saw the Vietnam war and race riots and a man named Martin Luther King, Jr.. I can't remember any specific comments my parents made about such things but I know they didn't want to see anyone hurt or killed and they didn't think that we were any better than black people or anybody else. They spoke in respectful tones about Dr. King. At church we sang about Jesus loving all the little children, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” In my home, we believed that.

When I visited friends in my neighborhood I sometimes heard words of anger and derision directed toward black people and it caught me by surprise. I thought my neighbors were good people, so how could they say such things? How could they think such things? Why would they speak in such hateful tones about people they didn't know, who had never done them any harm?

I began to realize that not everybody will see the world the way I do.

In sixth grade it became clear that I would take a slightly different path through the educational system than the one my older siblings had taken. A new school had been built and the line dividing our neighborhood went right down the middle of my street. I went to the new school. New teachers had never met my family, new students came from different neighborhoods. Paint fumes and sawdust and construction crews were still on site. We ate lunch at our desks for months because the cafeteria hadn't been completed yet. Neither had the gym so we played outside during recess, climbing on the ladders and giant cable spools that littered the schoolyard.

We were all getting used to something new and we had to work together and do the best we could with the inconveniences.

While I was getting used to this new school, my brother was a student at Hulcy Middle School that met in the top floor of Carter High School because the new middle school building was still a work in progress. When I became a seventh grader the next year, I joined him there. That year my brother and sister and I were all attending school in the same building again since my sister was a student in the high school.

With two schools squeezed into a space intended for one, conditions were very crowded. Desks lined up in the alcoves near the stairwells became study halls. Each locker was shared by at least four or five students. I can't imagine the logistical planning it took to get all of the students from both schools in and out of the one cafeteria every day for lunch. PE teachers would flip a coin to see which class would go outside while the other class used the gym. And if there's anything worse than being a lost little seventh grader running into a big ninth grade football player it's running into a big high school senior football player.

That year I had a black classmate for the first time. Robert Ware was the only black student in my junior high and he was my friend. If I remember correctly, the high school had three or four black students.

And then we got word that busing to achieve racial desegregation would begin in the Dallas schools the following year. Buses would start bringing black kids from their neighborhoods to our schools. Black families wondered why their kids were the ones who had to spend hours on the buses every day. Many white families moved to the suburbs or sent their kids to private schools because they didn't want their kids going to school with black kids.

Looking around my crowded classrooms my only question was, “Where are we going to put them all?”

The answer was... here and there.....

The ninth grade stayed at the high school. Half of the seventh grade stayed at the elementary schools where they had just finished sixth grade. The other half of the seventh grade and half of the eighth grade shared space with the rival junior high a few miles away, which I understand made life interesting the week the two teams played each other in football.

I was in the half of the eighth grade that attended classes at the Texas National Guard Armory out on Red Bird Lane, much further from my house than the high school and definitely off the beaten track.

Each morning, my mother would drive me through the familiar subdivisions near my house, out onto the two lane country highway, passing plowed fields and barns. Turning into the unpaved, caliche parking lot of the Texas National Guard Armory and driving around the military trucks and tanks, she deposited me on the doorstep of my new, makeshift school.

Inside I found a cavernous drill hall that I thought was bigger than several gymnasiums. I saw school desks lined up and grouped into four different classroom areas with a few movable blackboards and temporary partitions placed around them as dividers. They didn't help much because we could easily see and hear what was going on everywhere. If someone was in trouble in the English class, everybody at the other end of the drill hall heard the drama play out. Occasionally, a few soldiers in uniform would walk by and students would turn to face them and salute. Teachers had their hands full trying to keep the classes focused on their work. And every other week we helped the teachers pack things up to be moved out of the way while the paratroopers came in to train over the weekend.

The students at the armory were organized into two teams. One team attended each of the four core classes in turn – English, History, Math, and Science – while the other half went to Music, Art and Physical Education. Music class met in an actual classroom, Art class in the armory's Mess Hall. PE was outside when the weather was nice or squeezed into another small classroom inside when it wasn't. We all brought our lunches and ate wherever we happened to be when the lunch period began. After lunch, the teams switched places. The core classes group moved on to Music, Art & PE while the other team took it's place.

You might notice I haven't mentioned that for the first time in my life about half of my classmates were black. To me, this was just another year of classes with students and teachers who were new to me and with circumstances that were less than convenient.

Once again, we were all getting used to something new and we had to work together and do the best we could with the inconveniences.

Oh, and I just happened to have classmates who were black, too.

We spent one semester in that armory. Just a few short months. And little by little we got to know each other. The black students and the white students. The smart ones and the not so smart ones. The funny ones and the serious ones. Some were artistic. Some were scientists. Some were loud and some were quiet. Some you knew would be football stars next year. Some would clearly be voted most likely to succeed or star in the senior play or dance at your wedding.

I would like to tell you that the next semester, when our new school building was finally finished, we entered with hands clasped, singing as one a chorus of “We Shall Overcome”. But of course, we didn't.

Once again, we faced a new environment with lots of new teachers and students to get to know as the rest of our classmates came together from their scattered locations. Some adjusted more easily than others and yes, there were fights. We had police officers assigned to our building, as did other schools throughout the city. I had friends who were drawn into conflicts and some who were targeted. Small incidents could quickly become big ones and as I look back on it I greatly admire the best of my teachers who were able to win our trust and confidence and help bridge the gaps and ease the way for us along with teaching us decimals and literature and the periodic table. I'm sure the students brought their parents' attitudes and prejudices to school with them, just as I carried the lessons my parents had taught me.

I don't recall ever having a conflict with with other students based on race. I do recall some interesting talks with a couple of girls who seemed to always get in trouble and frequently found themselves in the principals office for fighting. We talked about why they got so angry and how they wanted to do better. I'm not sure why these tall, strong willed, outspoken black girls felt so comfortable talking with me, a skinny, artsy-nerdy white girl with long blond hair who was usually the teacher's pet. But I'm glad they did. Sometimes when I saw them getting in trouble again I'd catch their eye. And we both knew that they wanted to do better. And sometimes they did. I recall admiring their strength and hoping they would figure out how to put it to good use. I remember having similar conversations with white friends, too.

When I was an eighth grader I learned that it's not just about race, it's about culture. And I learned that what our respective cultures had in common was much greater than our differences.

I no longer attended a school in my small neighborhood, but my neighborhood grew a little larger that year. 


  1. I enjoyed reading this post very much and I appreciate your excellent recall of that era.

    Isn't it ironic that community developed with such diverse ethnic groups in an environment designed to promote war and violence?

    For example, music class. I recall learning the basics of playing the violin, cello and bass in music class - skills I never would have thought possible. Learning these instruments provided me a healthy does of self-esteem which I needed at that the time.

    Though I was never be labelled a musician (lol), I learned that music was more than rock and roll and electric guitars.

    In fact, at a school concert I played the cello - my favorite instrument of the three - alongside kids with whom I'd otherwise be in conflict.

    Music united us, but, it was the teacher who made it happen.

    I don't recall the teacher's name who "made" us learn these instruments, but, wherever you are, thank you for providing an environment of peace and unity in an environment intended to promote war and conflict.

  2. Donna, first of all, you are beautiful.

    Reading this post made me both happy and sad. The whole civil rights movement is such an inspiration and people like you really get it and are able to pass it on.

    At the same time, I am sad because racial issues are still so prevalent in our society. I just watched a show on PBS yesterday about "The Orangeburg Massacre" - an event I don't remember ever hearing or learning about before.

    I went to an all or mostly white school growing up. It was a small town and there really weren't any people of other races. There were prejudiced people on one side of my family, and on the other side, people that were ignorant and paranoid but not hateful. When I was in high school, a lot of Mexican people moved in to work on the farms in the area, and even in the 90s, we had racial battles in our school.

    In the past few weeks, Louisville/Jefferson Co. KY has been having a lot of debates on how to handle keeping things equal in their schools and there is a lot of controversy over morning commutes and equality.

    Also, the comments about music make me a bit melancholy as we hear a lot of screaming about funding for the Arts, but despite that, less and less music and art are taught in schools every year. The government wants to cut funding to PBS, orchestras are going bankrupt, and Arts teaching positions in schools are being eliminated because schools can't afford them.

    Thank you for this blog post! If enough people talk with love and wisdom, maybe someday they'll listen to us!

  3. Thanks, Donna. The present is such a tumultuous gift. In a time of historical sanitation, it is no wonder that we seemed to be doomed in the repetition of our mistakes.

    I was a little too young to have experienced first hand the cultural clashes of the initial integration of our high school. African American students were mandated to ride an hour each way to school with little regard to the emotional toll this would take. I remember the hushed voices commiserating about the enforced hardships of home school. What I remember more is that it was hard on everyone.

    I eventually attended that high school in the short-coming years, the only difference was a quiet unrest. There were no more picket lines, no more public outcry, no more confederate flags flown on the radio antennas of upper-classmen. There was just an untapped, unstated unrest.

    You know me, I was just who I am every day. I asked questions, I bucked the system, and I abhorred the status quo. Social injustice of any kind doesn't sit still with me, so I made waves...and I also made friends.

    Several years after I graduated from high school and was living in Europe, my mother called to tell me she had run into a friend of mine at the mall who said to say hello. Upon inquiry, I discovered that friend to be Sharon, the pretty girl who sat behind me in homeroom for years. Sharon was late to school often due to the inherent traffic problems of a one hour morning commute from the inner city, so I often checked her "here" though she wasn't in her seat yet. She NEVER missed school. My mother said she and Sharon had a nice chat and that Sharon had said something to her that I will never forget, and it's one of my most heartfelt moments. Sharon said to my mother that of all the memories she has of our alma mater, what she most remembers is that I was kind to her...every day.

    If I have accomplished no more in my life, then I am fulfilled.


  4. Donna,

    What a wonderful post! I don't have any experiences with segregation because of race due to the area where I was raised being 99% white. In our school district you could count on fingers and toes how many non-white students there were in the entire district.

    At one time Mother had all three children in three different school buildings. Little Man was in elementary, I was in junior high and Big T was in high school so everyone knew our family. It also didn't hurt that I was the oldest student in the district with a disability to not have any "special" classes.

    I was loved going to school but I hate being at school. Kids were cruel to me. I endured name calling, physical violence and harassment while at school.

    A strange thing happened when I was in 8th grade, though. I almost died. I had staph infection in my cerebral spinal fluid and then I caught c. diff. Luckily, I survived but while I was gone my choir was a huge support for me. They would call. I would pop in during class to visit while still attached to a PICC line since we lived less than a mile from school. I had one friend, Jennifer, who lived right the road who would walk to my house and hang out with me after school. After I returned to school, Jennifer would walk with me back to my house after choir practice. I'm still friends with her and I still have fond memories of her walking me back to my house and staying with me until my mom got home from picking up my brother at school. That one year made up for all the others before and after when I would be relentlessly taunted. Because of Jennifer.

  5. Donna, thanks for a great article! You've got a keen memory.

    In the 40+ years since LBJ occupied the White House so much has changed. Unfortunately, today's generation has no clue about "whites only" water fountains and the real struggle for Civil Rights during the 60's. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a folk hero and today's youth have been deprived of studying the dynamics of the entire struggle since the days of the Civil War.

    That's what I worry about most. Today's generation of students really aren't taught the truth about everything we went through in the last century. Unfortunately, history is written by those who score the victories. Many don't even realize that a hot spot for segregation of schools was right here in Boston.

    I honestly hope this generation of parents recognize the need to get back to educational basics. They were robbed of well rounded educations - not by teachers unions, but by politically motivated elected officials who were in charge of public education. As the young educated people of the Middle East have demonstrated these last few weeks - there is such value to education! These people, regardless of faith, have been given the gift of a well rounded education which included history, the arts, music and reason.

    This is 2011 in America. Our best days could be ahead of us if we just took the time to invest in our children - the next generation. We owe it to ourselves and to them to insure that they are fully prepared to accept the torch when it is passed as John F. Kennedy was in 1961. In America there is no longer room for cultural, religious or racial divides. Let's learn about each other and why we are the way we are. In that mix, we can find our collective voice and make this nation great once again.

  6. Donna: You described your life (our life) back then so well. Attending Adelle Turner, Atwell and then Carter, my perspective was a little different from yours but the same none the less. My parents and church, also taught me “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” and I believed it, as did most of my like-minded friends. I can look back at that time and definitely say I am grateful for the way things worked out and the forced mingling of all different kinds of students. I truly believe it has made us into more loving and caring adults. I always say we were so blessed to have been raised in Oak Cliff during the 1960's and 70's. Thanks for writing this wonderful insight to the past. Susan Remele