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Under the Surface

At the school I was assigned, racial misunderstanding went both ways. It was a time of big Afros and black power, and a white girl like me just wasn’t welcome.


In January, I returned to Richmond to attend commemorative events with the national Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission — and to confront my lingering questions about race and education.

I was 10 when desegregation started in Richmond, too na‹ve to understand the depth of suspicion and resentment around me. I didn’t know that massive resistance had shut schools around the state just 12 years earlier. My liberal parents had raised me on Langston Hughes as well as Dr. Seuss, but a lot the white adults around me still viewed integration as an affront that would ruin the public schools.

At the school I was assigned, racial misunderstanding went both ways. It was a time of big Afros and black power, and a white girl like me just wasn’t welcome, even though my presence was supposed to be a sign of positive change. I kept my head down and dutifully did all my homework, figuring that things would eventually improve once we all got used to each other. Not much changed during the eight years that I attended the public schools. My classmates and I didn’t fight across racial lines, but we didn’t really make friends, either.

The 50th-anniversary programs I attended in Richmond made me realize that the real legacy of Brown is carrying on the work that should have been done when I was in school 25 years ago. The courts brought black and white students together, but the school officials, in their ineptitude and anger about being forced to integrate, did nothing to help us work together. Instead, after-school activities were canceled, and no effort was made to bring us together in positive ways outside the classroom.

How wise the adults around me would have been to realize that integration starts by acknowledging differences. Each racial group comes into school — or any other setting — with a different history and perception of what it means to be an American. What should be equal is the opportunity for education to bring out the best in each child, regardless of race.

My two children, ages 10 and 13, attend their public schools at a time when racial differences are smoothed over with inclusive “celebrate diversity” and “teach tolerance” programs. On the surface, everything looks harmonious, with children of different races happily pairing up for classroom exercises. Yet I worry that the real issues have been reduced to slogans. Do my children and their peers know that diversity frightened people when I was in school? That the man who drives their school bus was forced to attend colored only schools when he was growing up? That the interracial couples who are now sending their children to the schools could not legally marry just a generation ago? How can children truly celebrate diversity if they don’t understand why it is something to celebrate?

A Brown commemoration I attended at the Robert R. Moton Museum in Farmville underscores the importance of teaching history. The museum was once a colored-only school with overcrowded classrooms and no running water. At the program, former students stood in the spot where in 1951, they had led a walkout to protest these conditions. Their subsequent lawsuit for equal schools became part of the Brown decision. The obstacles they faced included death threats. Anyone who heard these courageous men and women tell their story would never again take diversity for granted.

The most surprising thing that happened to me during the Brown commemorative events was finally feeling proud that I had participated in desegregation. When I was in school, I always felt like an outsider in a majority-black environment. I heard little encouragement from the white community. Some white people I met actually gasped in horror when I told them that yes, I was in the public schools, and yes, I was willing to be bused. But a funny thing happened when no one was paying attention to me. Brown improved my education in a way that was not foreseen by the courts. My perspective as a white person enlarged. I learned why race relations are vitally important to every American. The real work of learning to get along still remains to be done. S

Clara Silverstein is a writer and editor in Boston. Her memoir, “White Girl: A Story of School Desegregatio,” is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press.

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