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“The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is one of the most pivotal opinions ever rendered by that body. This landmark decision highlights the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in affecting changes in national and social policy. Often when people think of the case, they remember a little girl whose parents sued so that she could attend an all-white school in her neighborhood. In reality, the story of Brown v. Board of Education is far more complex.” From the National Park Service Web page (bold and italics added)
WRITTEN BY: NORA JANE PALMER FOX, EASTERN HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE CLASS OF 1955
I grew up in Washington, D.C. We lived at 120 13th Street, S.E., the corner of 13th and Massachusetts Avenue, just 13 blocks east of the United States Capitol and the Supreme Court.
My home in 1955
Eastern High School was also my home.
There, I did a little cheer leading, a great deal of journalism and labored through geometry and algebra. Walking to Eastern, arms laden with books, I sang all the way. I looked forward to my senior year in high school, 1954-1955. Just one thing was missing and I never noticed it prior to that year – what were then called “colored people”.
That was the fateful year of integration and Eastern was one of the first schools to integrate.
“After the 1954 ruling, President Eisenhower had declared that DC’s desegregation should be a model for the country. DC school officials touted their integration program and its “miracle of social adjustment,” but a subcommittee of mostly Southern congressmen held hearings that featured sensationalist stories of black boys fondling white girls in DC school hallways.” http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/the-decision-that-changed-everything/ Italics and bold added.
I would agree that the year was chaotic but I would add the atrocious behavior of many white students. Not an easy year. There were fist fights, knives and bloody hallways. To my mind, at that time, there was not black and white. There was a depth of ignorance combined with pure hate that left no room for a path out of the deteriorating violence. Those of us not mired in the hole, felt terror as we were pushed in the hallway and even mocked while at our lockers. Because of the violence, all after-school activities, including journalism, ceased. Policemen stood, arms length apart, around Eastern and for many blocks as I headed home.
Prior to that year, I looked forward to the walk home. Now, as I departed school, the hang out across the street was filled with white punks yelling obscenities at the police and at our new classmates. As I walked just a little farther, away from the protection of the police, I was followed by caustic gangs threatening me because I was “white.” Resentment, close to rage, filled my soul. What saved us that year was the coming of winter.
My school chums and I were not part of these groups, most of us struggling to finish our senior year. My contribution to the civil rights movement is so small that, for years, I felt it hardly worth mentioning. ‘Just a little incident’ I thought. In those days I had not yet learned that reasoning with ignorance and hatred did no good. A young black girl and I unwittingly became the center of that bigotry.
It happened in the girls’ hygiene class, now a mixture of black and white girls. My partner was another young lady like myself but she was black. Both of us shy, we made a good pair. I asked her about her kinky hair and she asked me about my straight hair, sometimes curled overnight by toilet paper strips. How could she even imagine that?
Our assignment was to take each other’s temperature with the brand new allotment of mercury thermometers. (Have you ever dropped one of those things and watched the mercury form into little balls? What could be the harm?)
My turn first, putting the thermometer in her mouth, waiting and then removing it. I saw that her temperature was right at 98 degrees. Hurray! Then it was her turn to take my temp. As she began, shaking the mercury down and cleaning the device with soapy water, then alcohol and then rinse with water, we both stopped moving. There was an eerie silence from the other girls in the class. She and I looked at each other and without saying a word, we continued as she placed the thermometer, only recently in her mouth, in my mouth. The remainder of the hour was filled with a deadly hush, not a word, just looks of shock zeroing in on the two of us. The bell rang and my new friend sprinted out of the room, her face filled with fear. Outside the classroom the other girls surrounded me, “How could you put that thing in your mouth after that “n..” had it in hers?” “What were you thinking?’ “You’re going to be sick.”
Eventually, I learned that what she and I did took tremendous courage. Courage, yes courage. I have puzzled over why I, a shy and frightened teen -ager, had the gumption to take a stand. And why and where did my new black friend find her courage.
About the same time, my father walked door to door around our large block of houses, begging our white neighbors to please go across the street and meet our new black neighbors. My father was shunned and spat upon. Soon, almost every white resident moved out of our area. I am proud of my dad. Maybe courage is inherited.
In our 1955 graduation class, I see only one black person. Each day I trudged home during 54-55, I was terrified but I overcame that fear. Many of us, black and white, without knowing it, changed history.
DISCOURAGEMENT 20 YEARS LATER
In 1976 I took my family to Washington, D.C. in celebration of our nation’s bicentennial. We drove to EHS. I hopped out of our car and approached the front door. Two armed guards greeted me. I explained I just wanted to glimpse at my old school again. One guard asked, “Are you carrying any guns?” Finally, he let me just step inside the door. Once again, I heard the chaos but now it did not include white folks, only black students.
So, I ask myself, “What was the point of living through all the hatred only to find my previously all white school, is now mostly black?”
My conclusion, now 61 years later, with a life time of experience tells me:
I know of no injustice in our country that was corrected without a strong law and even stronger enforcement of that law.
Segregation was wrong. No nation climbs to greatness while one section of that society is suppressed. From what I now read, Eastern High School is, once again achieving excellence after years of turmoil.
Go to Eastern High School web page and click on “The Eastern Legacy” and find ….
“Since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation, Eastern has welcomed members of all races to its student body and faculty.
In 1964, Mr. Madison W. Tignor became the first African American principal to serve at Eastern. Mr. Ralph Neal was our longest serving Eastern principal who led Eastern from 1984 to 1997 and is remembered fondly by our Eastern alumni.
Mr. William Chiselom became principal of Eastern in the fall of 2008. Prior to his tenure, Eastern was led by eleven principals in ten years and had experienced difficult times. Principal Chiselom began the turnaround of Eastern Senior High School, overseeing an impressive $77 million renovation to the campus. He presided over the graduation of the class of 2011, the last class to graduate until the class of 2015 take their walk up the honored marble staircase.” From Eastern High School; The Eastern Legacy web page. Italics and bold added.
It is with great pride that I recall a time when I became a part of correcting a terrible injustice. It is my sincere hope that, in the near future, Eastern High School will become fully integrated, white, black, yellow, purple, polka dot all striving for excellence, tolerance and Kindness.
1955 Student Council Officers on the famous marble steps.
Below-Recent photo of famous marble steps with people moving onward and upward!
GOD BLESS AMERICA
Post Script: I received this beautiful invitation to Eastern High School’s Homecoming. I wish I could attend but I am thrilled to see what this amazing school is now accomplishing.