Last updated 4/14/2021 at 4:47pm
Thank you to the Rosenwald alumni who provided questions for what became a collaborative interview that follows. For background, the person that we are asking questions of was a white teacher who taught at an inner city Cleveland public school in 1978. This was the same year they decided to desegregate the county schools. The teacher's seventh grade school was 100 percent black, with only 12 white teachers. This teacher was one of them. It felt like a valuable exploration to be had and an opportunity for conversation.
Rosenwald: How come it took so long (1978) to integrate? Our school, by comparison, started partial integration in 1962, almost completed it in 1963 and had full integration by 1966.
Teacher: I was born and raised in southwest Pennsylvania, not in Cleveland, Ohio. So, it is not a question that I would readily know the answer to. After some research, it seems that Cleveland worked very hard to not integrate their public city schools. They put money into new buildings in the black neighborhoods, hoping this would appease everyone. Knowing this now, it makes sense that the school I taught at, F.D. Roosevelt Jr. High off of 108th and Sinclair, looked pretty darn new.
I didn't question any of the actions taken by the school board at the time. I needed a job and they had an opening for me.
What I remember is starting the school year 1979-1980 with a 100 percent black student population. There were 12 white teachers. I can't remember how many teachers total. I'm going to guess 60, if not more. Some had been at that school for years and years. It never occurred to me to think it was weird/concerning to be a white teacher in a black school.
My memory tells me we stayed segregated until January of 1980. The students were bussed to the west side of town, and the white students on the west side of town were bussed to the east side. That bus ride could last a good hour. Bussing changed the whole dynamics of the school. Teachers were given "how to get along" type workshops. The purpose was to help the bussed students feel welcomed and part of the school. Our theme song was "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge. To this day, I can't go without singing that song when on the radio, seeing the expressions on those bussed and not bussed kids' faces as they watched their entire school year be disrupted. The morning announcements would start with that song! Like a song was going to change years of west side vs. east side mentality!
Rosenwald: Were the students bussed to you all or were teachers bussed to black schools?
Teacher: No teachers were moved during integration – only the students. The goal was to bring a percentage of whites over to the black school and a percentage of blacks to the white. In my opinion, very little thought was given to how this would impact the students – the hour-long bus ride to a neighbor you are unfamiliar with. Bussing pretty much put an end to after-school activities. The loss of a community school atmosphere and interactions with the parents, to me, are a very serious and sad consequence to integration. Everything revolved around bussing. Getting the kids on the bus, getting them off, waiting for a late bus, admitting kids to class due to a late bus, which has been in session for 30 minutes.
Rosenwald: How did you feel having black students?
Teacher: I didn't think much of it. They were kids who were looking to learn. I was a teacher. I grew up in a rural area known as the MonValley. We had integrated schools when I started school in 1962 and when my sister started school in 1956. Seeing a black face and interacting with a black person was not anything out of the ordinary. I knew there were towns in the MonValley that had greater percentages of black families, but there were whites living in those towns as well. I had classmates who came to my birthday parties who were black. My parents never brought up the topic that black people are not good or less important. I remember thinking as a kid of 10, during the Civil Rights marches and watching the clashes shown on TV, "Boy, am I glad we live where we do. We don't have this happening here."
When my students started to ask me how my hair felt, it brought me full stop. Many of these kids had never really interacted with a white woman before. Some would ask if they could touch my hair. One class we spent the entire time talking about hair and hair products. I learned from them and they learned from me. I have always felt I could learn from my students. They have something to share. I ran a very democratic classroom.
Rosenwald: Did you feel prejudiced or were you open-minded? What position did it put you in to deal with your emotions?
Teacher: I can't remember thinking any prejudiced thoughts. I wasn't raised with them. I didn't surround myself in college with anyone who did. I know it sounds repetitive, but I didn't think much about racial inequality when teaching. I had a job to do and I did it. Each student was unique and I was responsible for enlightening them.
Rosenwald: You mentioned bussing being a "mess" in your second semester and said that your biggest regret was the loss of community involvement because of bussing. Could you elaborate?
Teacher: The whole affair was a mess. Bussing was forced on these kids. They didn't ask for it. They were expected to correct the social inequities facing blacks. They were to become good friends with whites and vice versa and all would be fine. Civil unrest solved. There was little thought to how bussing an hour away from your home school would impact that child's education.
All schools should be equal. They should provide the same opportunities. This should have been true then as now. Should they be diverse in race? Should the communities be more racially balanced? Would that have been a better solution to the segregated school situation?
My second year at FDR and bussing did go more smoothly. Kids who were bussed over from the west side were still angry, but many accepted their situation and decided to make the best of it. I left at the end of the 1980-1981 school year.
This school was in the middle of a community. Parents walked their kids to school, waited for them. Siblings walked together. We had after-school activities since most were able to walk home or take a public bus home. I was required to make home visits to meet parents. This would be the one time I felt out of place. Driving up to a strange home to introduce myself, yikes. I didn't know the neighborhood and would get lost. I managed to get over it but never really liked it. A white woman driving around a predominately black neighbor did draw some attention. There would be smiling and giving a wave. What else was I to do? It was a job expectation of which I had to document.
Once the schools started to integrate, this wasn't really feasible. The extra time allocated prior to bussing was taken up with bussing. When we had Open House, parents were there. They were involved with their child's education. Taking that child and bussing them on the other side of the city is not conducive to parents showing up to a school. The white parents from the west side never came over to FDR. There were some siblings who were separated by bussing, one staying at FDR and the other going. This would cause much frustration and totally makes no sense. Just think how a student who was bussed to another neighborhood must have felt coming home at night and not having anyone or very few people to talk about the school with? No one to work on group projects when back home. No one to help with homework unless they were lucky enough to have fellow classmates bussed as well. Think about what would be the odds of that?
Rosenwald: How did the 12 white teachers and school as a whole respond to this change?
Teacher: The principal and the vice principal were white. I seldom went to the teacher's lounge during the day. I had too much work to do in my classroom during my planning period. I'm sure there were conversations there about the bussing. During faculty meetings we would address the fights that started shortly after bussing started. When I say white kids came from the west side, most were of Hispanic heritage. There seemed to be groups/gangs on the east and west side that would clash. The fights were mean and nasty. What was a peaceful, albeit noisy, lunchtime became a war zone after bussing.
Reflecting On 2015 Reunion
From this collaborative interview with our Rosenwald alumni, my memory goes to all of the various anecdotes, stories, events, activities, history, projects and more that we have shared over the past few years.
The overall feeling is such a joyful one. When I was thinking of a few pictures to add that could possibly capture the essence of our journey together, I go back in time to 2015 and the first Brevard Rosenwald reunion. The mood was jubilant, precious really. Being present to witness old friends coming together, their hearts wide open to see, was an honor. Being allowed to capture some of that experience on tape and camera continues to be a privilege. I am glad to be able to share some of those moments with you here. Have an amazing rest of the week!
(Newsworthy items for submission for Rosenwald Community News are welcomed from community members, churches, clubs and groups. If you have an idea for a story or interview for me to capture, let me know. Enjoy your week! For submissions or information, contact Nicola Karesh at [email protected] or call (828) 421-8615.)