WYTHE COUNTY, VA, February 14, 2012 — When the word desegregation is spoken, one recalls iconic images of hate-filled white faces screaming vulgarities at a few very brave African American teenagers. However, there was also a flip side to this tale. In the grand scheme of things, this story probably deserves the obscurity it enjoys, but it should be heard.
In the late Sixties, I was cozily ensconced in white suburban bliss in central Florida. The population was segregated, which landed me in a housing development with homes that spewed large families of white playmates. Irish Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, it didn’t really matter as long as you were white.
At first, my siblings and I went to an elementary school that had a fairly well mixed ethnic population with both black and white children attending and to us they were all just potential playmates. After living in the isolation of the mountains with only each other to play with, any potential playmate was a treat, regardless of color.
This changed with the construction of an elementary school just five blocks away. The new school served the surrounding suburbia, which meant it was an all white institution of learning. It offered educational enhancement at all levels. Sleek, modern and close, it was a parents’ dream come true. We rode our bicycles to and from school, something almost unheard of today.
This all changed again with the advent of the new desegregation laws. As part of the balancing and mixing school districts, my siblings and I rode the bus for almost an hour, heading off to predominantly African-American schools and an environment as foreign as the moon.
As the issue of desegregation heated up, so did the climate at school. Children we had known in calmer times became our tormentors when bused into their neighborhoods. There were fewer incidents in elementary school, so we just acclimated ourselves to keeping our backs against the wall and our presence as inconsequential as possible.
After two years of busing and conflict, junior high school became very Darwinian with survival our only goal. We routinely got into fights and routinely got beaten up. The only offense was being white. My sister and I would find a wall, put our backs to it, and take on as many as we could before the inevitable beating. What confused us most was the same kids we knew and had played with from a more peaceful time were now enthusiastic participants of our beatings.
The closest building to where the school buses lined up was the auditorium, so naturally we sought refuge there. After a few days of looking, we found a ladder behind the stage and explored it immediately. Much to our glee it led us to an access panel on top of the roof. The beauty of this was that we could hold the door down against the few people who might follow us up the ladder.
So, the first two months of my eighth grade year were spent making mad dashes from the buses to the auditorium and back after school. After several futile attempts by my parents to assure our safety, they simply gave up.
“Where were the teachers?,” you might ask, a question our parents asked on a daily basis. I don’t recall a single white teacher coming to our rescue, and the African American ones just looked the other way. There was one beautiful African American girl, Linda, who stepped in wherever she could. I still think of her as an angel. I never held a grudge against the other children then and I certainly don’t now.
People are just people. It was easy to understand their hostility when watching the evening news. The ordeal their parents went through on a daily basis made the mini dramas we dealt with small potatoes indeed.
My father, never one to back down from adversity, understood the deck was stacked against us children. He headed to our mountain home and bought a small farm in southwest Virginia. He then came back to Florida and moved us away from the conflicts of the era of desegregation.
There were several advantages to moving back to the mountains, one being our wardrobes were no longer dated, but cutting edge for our new rural environment. Instead of dodging conflict, our biggest concern was dodging the refuse of chewing tobacco. Disgusting, yes, but never dangerous. We were definitely happy to be there.
There was no overt prejudice back in the hills. Perhaps because there were so few African Americans living there, but even so I think we all knew we were stuck in the boonies together and decided to make the most of it. Prejudice took a back seat to our own individual desires to make something of the isolation and later of ourselves. The move cleaned up our perception of the conflict and gave us another, broader view that was much needed.
The celebration of individualism that had existed in the mountains for centuries was and is alive and thriving to this day. Appalachians loathe any form of authority or preconceived notions. We like to figure it out ourselves. No input needed thank you. That is the reason our ancestors came here in the first place.
I’m not looking for pity here. Save that for the “Little Rock Nine” and the millions of African Americans who followed in their footsteps. However, for me, an important lesson can be learned from my experience: tolerance cannot be legislated. What we learned was America was in the Stone Age when it came to race relations, and this had to be changed one individual at a time on a very personal level. What my siblings and I endured was nothing compared to these brave pioneers.
But the story of two little mountain girls is part of the bigger story and it should be told.
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