The forgotten pawns

May 04, 2004|By Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din

FIFTEEN YEARS after Brown vs. Board of Education, I was part of a busing experiment designed to help desegregate schools in Wicomico County. I was 10 then, in 1969.

In recalling the anniversary, I've concluded that busing young children to help them achieve a "better" education was futile. I achieved a quality elementary education not because of busing, but in spite of it.

My formal education began in the womb of a small, tightly knit black community.

My teachers at Salisbury Elementary were, in several cases, neighbors. Many of them had been trained at Maryland State Teachers College at Bowie, where both my parents had matriculated. The principal labored alongside my father in the local NAACP. We students were neighborhood friends who chanted the same rhymes, shined our ashy knees with petroleum jelly and greased our scalps with hair pomades.

On our daily treks to and from school, we passed First Baptist Church, where we studied Bible stories on Sundays, and Mabel Hoy's house, where we stayed after school until our parents arrived home from work. During the school day, we sat wedged in our little wooden desks, tracing letters on freshly dried ditto sheets and creating art objects with colored construction paper and lumps of thick, white paste served to us like mashed potatoes from a large plastic jar.

We fiddled with math paraphernalia, played "Ring Around the Maypole" on the playground and devoured bologna and mustard sandwiches at lunchtime. At day's end, we skipped lively and securely through our safe, sober, segregated communities. Little did I know that after four years at Salisbury Elementary, after total assimilation into the school experience, I would be prematurely expelled from the womb and bused to an all-white school across the tracks.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ordered an end to segregation "at once." The order was spurred by an escalating number of protests and large-scale riots in 1967 and 1968 and by the Kerner Commission's formal recognition in l968 that despite Brown and other legal efforts to desegregate, America was still two separate and unequal societies.

Until 1969, the Wicomico County school system had no identifiable plan to help desegregate schools. Like many other counties throughout the nation, Wicomico had been dragging its feet on civil rights.

My arrival at Prince Street Elementary was culture shock and alienation. Abruptly severed from people and things familiar, I was placed as the only black child in an all-white classroom.

My seat at the rear of the classroom provided a unique vantage point from which to observe all the students and their behaviors. And observe I did. In fact, my entire fifth-grade year at Prince Street was a preoccupation with the reality of being culturally different.

While the teacher taught, I studied my classmates' hairstyles, their attire, their body types, their mannerisms, their speech. I tuned in to the conversations they whispered and paid attention to what annoyed, humored or angered them.

I am certain that I, too, was the subject of great scrutiny, with my stiff, bushy mane, dark brown skin and generic clothing. I stood in stark contrast to girls with long, straight locks they toyed with between assignments - girls with hair like the white dolls my friends and I yearned for at Christmas.

At recess I played alone; at lunch I ate alone. Unfortunately, I cannot recall my teacher or any others making overtures of welcome or friendship. Throughout the year, there was no warmth from anyone, not even my teacher, whom I vividly remember because of her engaging appearance - she had a soft, fleshy thickness and a slight curvature at the top of her spine.

And she was the first teacher ever to give me a D, a grade I did not earn. Thanks to my parents, she re-evaluated my records and found that she had made a "recording error." Still, the rest of the school year, I found myself struggling against the gravity of her perception of me as "dumb." At the end of sixth grade, after engaging in adolescent culture wars and failed attempts to "integrate" myself, I accepted that I would remain the class pariah.

Certainly, elementary school busing was part of a grander scheme to desegregate a nation. But given the close-knit nature of most segregated black neighborhoods during the 1960s, young children should not have been used in that effort. Doing so amounted only to experimentation, because no one knew what the immediate or net effect of busing would be on the children.

When young children leave home for school, they need to be educated in a familiar and nurturing environment, regardless of the ideological wars being fought all around them, the intricacies of which they are unable to understand.

In the final analysis, busing young children to achieve school desegregation was ill-conceived. Public school integration, particularly with children ages 6 to 11, should have been a natural outgrowth of integrated neighborhoods, which theoretically would have developed as a result of desegregation in housing, higher education, employment, public accommodations and recreation - the necessary targets of the desegregation effort.

It does not seem too idealistic to think that young children should have been able to attend school within the same neighborhoods where they lived and played and that those schools should have been adequately funded. The logical fight, I believe, would have been for increased funding for material and human resources and not for busing little children to a foreign and hostile environment. Such an act in this case was throwing out the babies with the bath water.

Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din teaches writing and humanities at Morgan State University.

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