Two weeks ago I saw a column written by one of my colleagues at NCCU, Dr. Jerry Gershenhorn. I wish to make some additional comments about the “integration” of Durham’s public schools.
In September 1963, only days after The March on Washington, I was among the first students to “desegregate” Durham elementary schools. In August 1959 the junior high and high schools had already been desegregated. My two older sisters, Joycelyn and Andree, had been among those students. My brother, Floyd, and I and several other black students walked into North Durham Elementary School, now the TROSA location. As the youngest to desegregate the Durham elementary schools, in the third grade, I have some reflections.
There is a significant difference between the terms “integration” and “desegregation.” As one of those first kids it meant being one among a bunch of folks who did not look like you and frequently did not like you upon sight. That was a lot to absorb as a third grader. But my family prepared us all, every day, with the armor to return the next. Durham’s public schools took almost 10 more years to actually intergrate finally in the early 1970s.
I have done extensive research on this topic. Of those first students in August 1959, none of them want to talk about their experiences. It is still too painful. I researched those first students’ opinions 20, 30 and 50 years later. In January 2011 my paper “Narrative Reflections of Participants in the Desegregation of Durham, North Carolina” was presented at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture during the conference on The State of African American Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy and Research.
It still angers me to this day that our story is being told by those not involved. There are a few exceptions such as my good friend Janice Guess, whom I encouraged to write her story, and she did in, “Little Black Girls Want Pearls Too.” But most of us have remained silent. I know my oldest sister, Joycelyn, did discuss her experiences before her death, but she was unable to write about it. The others do not want to discuss it at all. The hurt is so deep from the wounds of more than 50 years ago that they still feel the pain.
I know firsthand that those who endured the most unbelievable pain, anger, and hurtful actions and words were Andree McKissick and Henry Vickers. They were the ONLY blacks from eighth grade through senior year. They both refuse to discuss those times, even to me from a research perspective. I guess they want to forget those hurtful memories, and talking about it gives power to all those hateful memories.
We had some difficult times but nothing compared to the older students, including my sisters before me. I had it easier because the kids had not had enough time to learn and display their hatred, racist and their bigoted behavior. Yes, I was called “n-----,” and yes they did not want me to play on the playground with them. Even in the cafeteria they tried us. Someone would push the paper covering of the plastic straw down to the tip and then swell it round in the mash potatoes to then blow it across the room to hit me in the face, like a spitball. I remember being invited to a birthday party, but my parents and the community were unsure if they knew I was “the black kid.” My attendance became a topic of discussion for the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the local NAACP. I did attend and was, of course, the life of the party dancing to Beatles songs and doing the jerk.
But eventually they got to know me and I became the “smart kid” who won the weekly spelling bee, often the winner of kick ball and some even whispered I must have been rich since they believed I got a new perm in my hair every other day. There are lots of other stories to tell.
Some 50 years later, I wanted to provide a brief firsthand account in context, not just historical facts. This was an effort to allow the reader to feel the pain many endured. In some cases, some of those young students continue to suffer consequences with their continued silence.
Charmaine McKissick-Melton, Ph.D. is the youngest daughter of the late Floyd and Evelyn McKissick and is currently associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at N.C. Central University.