Prompted by recent racial demonstrations, Juneteenth, and a discussion led by Daniel Johnson, I have been thinking of my own race relations journey through the years.
From my childhood through my first two years at a denominational college, the only black person I had contact with was Paralee, a sweet, older lady who, in her words, would “do” for my mother. I was fascinated by her soft, dark, wrinkled skin and her “rag” she wore on her head. I enjoyed the way she talked to me and made me feel special.
Much later, I had transferred back to MSU (U of M) for my last two years of undergraduate work, but because math classes were small and I did not live on campus, my white/black contact was minimal.
In 1968, I was hired to teach at an all white junior high. As I completed my third year and had received tenure, I learned my learning curve was about to accelerate. The following year, all young, recently tenured teachers were to be transferred to a school where they would be in the minority. My destination was Melrose, a Jr./Sr. school with over 3,000 black students. Other than a three hour seminar where my new principal me what NOT to do, I found myself in a portable classroom building on the teachers’ parking lot, a seven to eight minute walk from the school office. I found I was teaching (and learning) more than mathematics. My students were curious about my skin and hair, wanting to touch and feel. They wanted to know why I “talked funny” and why I had an out of character car. (My husband and I had inherited his aunt’s 1965 Cadillac.)
For my part, I learned they were just like kids everywhere. Some had to be coerced to learn; others liked to learn but hid it from their friends. All liked to be praised. I learned that my students were protective of me. My year in the parking lot was the year of the Elton Hays murder case. Three Melrose students stole a truck, went joy-riding, and were chased by police. The truck overturned and Elton died of a head injury. The other two students claimed the police hit the student, but the police claimed the injury was crash-related. Melrose students rioted for a couple of days – where? – in the parking lot outside of my room! I can still hear my young students surrounding me as I walked to my car telling me, “Gun it, Mrs. Jennings!”
My students were unselfish and giving. My first Christmas there, I was the recipient of sweet gifts from my students: barrettes, jewelry with only one or two shiny pieces missing, etc. My favorite gift came from Larry. He gave me a small, partially empty bottle of a potion not intended for perfume and beamed as I sprayed its acrid scent on my wrist and wiped my watering eyes.
At the end of that year, Melrose Senior High moved into a new building leaving the junior high. I had a real classroom. All of my students were still black, but a few more young white teachers came on board.
I must tell about Cletis. She had always been a very slow learner and was pretty much ignored. She knew she just had to be quiet and behave, and she would be socially promoted every two years. So here she was, 17 years old and in my eighth arithmetic class for slow learners. She could count and add/subtract small numbers on her fingers. I tried to help, but the class was overcrowded and time was precious. I made her a set of multiplication flash cards and showed her how to use them. I told her she would EARN a passing grade if she learned them. I don’t know who was prouder, Cletis or I, when she had mastered them at the end of 18 weeks.
The next plan by Memphis City Schools was pairing junior highs and swapping grades. For example, Melrose Jr. (black) ninth graders went to Sherwood Jr.(white) and all Sherwood Jr. seventh and eight graders came to Melrose. This did mix races in the schools, but the students’ backgrounds were too similar. Tensions rose as did the number of black/white fights, and I was given instructions on how to attempt to break up fights.
New Plan: some Melrose students were bussed to Ridgeway Middle with some Ridgeway Middle returned-bussed to Melrose. Students’ backgrounds were much different. The Ridgeway students were openminded and curious enough that school was calmer and many cross- racial friendships were formed that still exist decades later.
In 1981, Melrose Jr. was moved into Melrose Sr., and all teachers with the junior high were surplussed. I had three choices of schools and I chose White Station, my husband’s alma mater. Classes and faculty were racially mixed. For the first two to three years, my hardest adjustment was learning the first few weeks of the school year to fill out the attendance form at the beginning of class identifying numbers of BM, BF, WM, WF and Others. Race had become no longer the outstanding feature to me. For quick reference, I learned to code this in the back of my grade book so I could fill out the form without taking much class time.
Through my 40 years of teaching I worked with many outstanding teachers and administrators, black and white, and with some, black and white, that I felt lacked the dedication to provide students with the motivation to learn and reach for the stars. Of the two best principals I worked for, one was black and one was white. At my retirement party, my fellow honoree was a black coworker and friend.
I am only telling of my journey. I am not asking for approval but telling how I evolved. Becoming closer to others who are different from you in some ways is a process fueled by a willingness to see as God our Creator sees us, a varied people who are all God’s children and worthy of love. (1 John 4:19-21)