Thinking this week about Martin Luther King Jr. brought back memories of St. Louis, Missouri, where my family lived from 1956-1958 and where my brother and I were white kids at a black school.
The year that we moved from California to Missouri, I was in third grade, Blake was in second, Doug was three years old, and Marla was one. (Dan was born about eighteen months later.)
Our parents enrolled Blake and me at Farragut Elementary because it was close to home. I doubt there were more than half a dozen white kids in the student body of several hundred. Blake and I, both fair-skinned red heads, attracted attention at first. But the kids and teachers accepted us without blinking, and we them. To us, it was just school.
Our family lived on the second floor of a brick house on Ashland Avenue. Our landlord Tony lived on the first floor, which gave off wonderful aromas of Italian food. Tony and his wife had two yappy little dogs which were probably harmless but which barked and scared me every time I had to take the trash down the back stairs, which spiraled down to the furnace room. I used to look over my shoulder to make sure the dogs didn’t escape from their apartment and chase me, although they never did. As soon as the trash can was empty, I’d run back up, taking the stairs two at a time.
On school mornings Blake and I walked one block, crossed Ashland and Wame Avenues, and arrived at Farragut. Three-year-old Doug often followed us part way on his little two-wheeler. Of course, he wasn’t allowed to cross the two streets to the school. But one day during recess he rode onto the playground where I was jumping rope with my friends. I can picture it like it was yesterday.
Two girls are holding a heavy rope, and a couple of us are jumping within its arc to the rhythm of some diddy we chanted. Then Doug appears, riding his tiny bike. I just laugh, but my friends fawn over him, telling me how cute he is. I catch him and walk him home. Do I even ask a teacher if it’s okay? I can’t remember. But I do recall that Doug enjoyed his celebrity status.
My best friends at school were Courtney Saunders and Margaret Hale. One day Margaret asked me to come over after school. After I got the okay from my mom, who probably checked with her mom, Margaret and I walked to her house. Fascinated with the texture of my wavy hair, Margaret plugged in an iron, telling me she wanted to see what my hair would look like if she ironed it like she did hers. But her mom intervened. I bet it would’ve worked just fine – after all, I’ve used curling irons and flat irons for years – but Margaret’s mom wasn’t taking any chances.
Another fun memory happened when our family went to the park during the summer and ran into my third grade teacher, Mrs. Wolf. Her calling me by name and speaking highly of me to my parents made me feel almost grown up. The way my friends and I remembered her name was that in winter she always wore a black furry coat, like a wolf. I wasn’t afraid of her because she always answered my questions.
Contrast the welcome we received at a black school with the rejection black students received at a white school. The year was 1957. As you may remember, the students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, taunted, booed, and spit upon them. This was already three years after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled segregation unconstitutional. President Eisenhower sent the National Guard to protect the black students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine.
According to The New York Times, the following conversation took place outside the school.
Terrence Roberts, age 15, said to the guards, “I was told if there is any resistance and if I’m not permitted to go in not to try to force my way.”
“Are you scared?” a reporter asked.
“Yes, I am,” he answered. Then he added, “I think the students would like me okay once I got in and they got to know me.”
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Live in harmony with one another. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (from Romans 12:14-18)
According to history.com, Martin Luther King Jr. “attended graduation ceremonies at Central High School in May 1958 to see Ernest Green, the only senior among the Little Rock Nine, receive his diploma.”
Thank God for Martin Luther King Jr. and students who were brave enough to stand up for what was right!
(By the way, I jumped at the chance years later to move back to St. Louis, this time with my husband. One of the first things we did was to drive past my house on Ashland Avenue and my beloved elementary school. Yep, still thriving.)
Posted on January 19, 2016