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Integration and Innocence

Enlisted in a cause they barely understood as first-graders, Memphians look back at desegregation.


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Do you remember the fears you had when you were 5 or 6 years old? Maybe it was printing your name legibly, or losing your teddy bear, or falling off your bicycle.

You probably weren't afraid of being ridiculed by your classmates, isolated by your teacher, or called names by grown-ups. But that's what 13 first-graders were up against when they desegregated the Memphis City Schools in 1961.

The first-graders who integrated the Memphis City Schools in 1961.
Front row, left to right: Jacqueline Moore, Harry Williams, Pam Mayes, Leandrew Wiggins, Dwania Kyles, Alvin Freeman.
Back row, left to right: Clarence Williams, Joyce Bell, Sheila E. Malone, Sharon E. Malone, E. C. Marcel Freeman, Michael Willis. (photo courtesy of Ann Willis)

Seated from left to right, in a photo taken this week at the National Civil Rights Museum: Sheila Malone Conway, Sharon Malone, Menelik Fombi (formerly Michael Willis), E. C. Fentress and Dr. T.E. Northcross, plaintiff in Memphis desegration lawsuit

Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren read the 2,000-word opinion which concluded that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." One year later in Brown II, the high court ordered lower federal courts to implement desegregation plans "with all deliberate speed."

A series of iconic photographs document the national story of school desegregation: Autherine Lucy being pelted with rocks and eggs by students at the University of Alabama in 1956; Elizabeth Eckford hugging her books to her chest while a mob of screaming women harass her as she walks alone to Central High School in Little Rock in 1957; and James Meredith arm-in-arm with federal marshals trying to register him for classes at Ole Miss in 1962.

By comparison, desegregation of the Memphis public schools was nonviolent, but the photographs stand out for another reason. The children were so little, just 5 or 6 years old, possibly the youngest and most innocent integration vanguard in the South.

On the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it has almost become a clichÇ to say that urban public education has returned to separate but equal, or "separate and unequal," as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards liked to say when he was still in the race. But the self-segregation of Memphis and other school systems today is not the same as legal segregation. Memphis has an open-enrollment policy, all schools are air-conditioned, some inner-city schools are newer and better equipped than suburban schools, and the faculty is integrated. A look back at Memphis schools in the 1950s and '60s, through the eyes of the students and parents who integrated them, shows a very different world of unequal opportunity, segregated faculty, dilapidated buildings, fourth-hand textbooks, cruelty and discrimination.

In Memphis and the states of the Deep South, "all deliberate speed" meant slow. After Brown II, the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, organized by Thurgood Marshall in 1946, told NAACP branches to file petitions with school boards and, if no action was taken, to follow up with lawsuits. By 1960, there were still no black students in mixed schools in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.

In 1958, 8-year-old Gerald E. Young tried to enroll at all-white Vollentine Elementary in Memphis but was turned away by the attendance officer, the assistant superintendent, and finally the superintendent and school board. The board was composed of what used to be called "leading citizens," including attorneys Walter P. Armstrong and John T. Shea, schools administration building namesake Frances E. Coe, Jane S. Seessel of the grocery store family, and Wells Fargo Armored Car Services chairman Julian B. Bondurant. They were backed up by the mayor and the opinions and delaying tactics of U.S. District Judge Marion Boyd, whose response was typical of federal judges in the South.

"The Supreme Court's decree [in Brown II] seemed to encourage the Southern states to design an almost endless series of plans designed to thwart desegregation," wrote author Roger Goldman in Thurgood Marshall, Justice for All.

In 1960, the Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit, Northcross v. Memphis Board of Education. Dr. T.W. Northcross was a Memphis dentist whose daughter Deborah was 8 years old.

"I was on the executive committee of the NAACP when we decided we needed to file suit," says Northcross, who celebrated his 84th birthday last week. "There were several plaintiffs. Being an independent businessman, I could handle it better than some other folks. I couldn't be hurt, really. We looked at segregation as a sin [that gave] some blacks an inferiority complex and some whites a false superiority complex."

Northcross said reaction to his participation in the lawsuit was "terrible." He remembers one white woman calling him when he was on his way to a football game, demanding to know where his children went to school and why he was doing this. The caller signed off, "I'm white, you're black, you kiss my ass." The school board, he says, "did not give us any relief." Asked about Mayor Henry Loeb, Northcross merely laughs and says, "Oh, Lord have mercy."

The NAACP leadership also was criticized by some blacks.

"They were satisfied with the predicament they were in," Northcross says. "Or they were employed by individuals who did not want their employees to participate in anything like that."

But Northcross and Memphis NAACP leaders Jesse Turner, Maxine and Vasco Smith, A. W. Willis Jr., Benjamin Hooks, and others were not cowed. On their side were two of the great lawyers of the civil rights era, Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, described as a foe of segregation "tougher than Grant at Vicksburg."

Forty-four years later, Deborah Northcross vividly remembers her.

"My clearest vision is going to court one day in my blue and white sailor dress and seeing Constance Baker Motley, my first exposure to a 'negro' female attorney," she says. "She was tall and imposing and commanded everyone's respect."

But Deborah Northcross and her siblings would not be the desegregation pioneers. The upshot of the NAACP's victory in the Northcross case was this: Black children could integrate schools but only one grade at a time, starting with the first grade. And the 13 students whose parents eventually agreed to participate were assigned to four schools, with no more than four black students at any one school.

The NCAAP wanted them all to look sharp in their Sunday best. In fact, some of them couldn't afford new shoes and wore borrowed clothes.

In an interview with Memphis magazine in 1996, the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles recalled taking his 6-year-old daughter Dwania to her first day of class at Bruce Elementary School in October 1961.

"Some of the other parents of the 13 black children who were integrating the schools were getting uneasy and were going to pull out," he said. "Then Claude Armour, who was the police chief and a segregationist, told his officers, 'If you can't protect these little nigra children, then you can turn in your badge and gun tonight.' I appreciated that."

Dwania Kyles said classmates were asking to see her tail, "because black people were supposed to have tails." Her art teacher called her work "unusual" because "she colors the faces of all characters brown," including Dick and Jane and Santa Claus.

For one student, the experience was especially painful. Michael Willis, who later changed his name to Menelik Fombi, was assigned to Bruce along with Kyles and one other student who later transferred back to his old school. In pictures of the 13 students, Willis is the smallest one. His father, A.W. Willis Jr., was a well-known Memphis lawyer and co-counsel in the desegregation lawsuits.

Three months before the schools were desegregated, A.W. Willis Jr. made local news when he was named to the board of the Memphis Transit Authority only to be replaced days later by Loeb for being "extremist." Willis did not take it lying down. The afternoon newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, published a long statement by him in which he called Loeb a "racist dictator" bent on a "race terror campaign."

Two months later, Michael Willis was in the newspaper as one of the 13 students desegregating the schools. Making matters worse for him, the Willis family and their friends were reasonably well-to-do professionals at a time when many of the white students who went to Bruce Elementary lived in the Lamar Terrace public-housing project. Michael came to school and was picked up in a Cadillac. He was, he recalls, not just "nigger." He was "rich nigger." He was called names, pushed down stairs, mocked at the water fountain about not being able to "get the brown off," and isolated by his teacher and classmates, with the exception of Kyles.

"I was already going to my neighborhood school two blocks from our house when I transferred to Bruce," he says. "A few people befriended you, but you might have a friend Monday through Thursday then on Friday they were not your friend. I really feel like the teacher did not like having me in her class. It was a very difficult year. I felt like I was always on the defensive.

"My parents were hell-bent on keeping me there. Deep down inside, I wish it had not happened to me. I have three children myself and going to first grade in a loving environment is so important. I was just not on a solid foundation. It made me more reserved as a person, more defensive, and never sure if I was doing the right thing."

After graduation from high school in 1973, he moved to Atlanta for college, then to UT-Knoxville, dropping out twice. He picked up the nickname "Fombi," which means "peaceful one who is kind" in Cameroon. In the eighties, he came back to Memphis to work with his brother Archie, sister Roslyn, and "the old man," as he calls his father. In 1986 he legally changed his name. "Menelik" is Ethiopian for "son of a wise man." In 1990 he completed his undergraduate degree. He now works for the Tennessee Department of Human Services as an eligibility counselor in the child-care division.

The Brown anniversary, he says, has caused him to reflect on his identity search and possible connections to his elementary school experience. His name gives some people the impression that he is subversive or radical. His children have African first and second names and Willis as their last name.

"I really think now they are at peace with their names," he says.

For E.C. Marcel Freeman, the desegregation experience was not as traumatic. Now E.C. Fentress, she was one of four black students assigned to Rozelle Elementary School.

Her mother, Mattie Freeman, was a civil rights activist whose three oldest children did not have the opportunity to attend integrated schools.

"The doors are open for you. The opportunity is there, and you are going," she told E.C.

Fentress has good memories of her first-grade and second-grade teachers.

"That opportunity to learn what other students were learning was magnificent," she says. "I can only guess that my experiences were different because I was quiet. I kind of stayed to myself."

Fentress graduated from Hamilton High School and the University of Memphis with honors. She has been a fifth-grade and sixth-grade teacher at Coleman Elementary School since 1978. When she started, Coleman was approximately 40 percent black and 60 percent white. Now it has 620 black students and 14 whites. One of her students recently won a poster contest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

"We are a Title I school but the opportunities are there," she says. "We have laptops, library cards, science clubs. The integration process had to take place. That door had to be opened. We have open enrollment in city schools. If you apply yourself and qualify, I don't know any door that isn't open."

Twins Sheila and Sharon Malone attended Gordon Elementary School in 1961. The NAACP's original plan was to have 12 students integrate the schools, but the Malones' mother insisted that both of the twins participate. The first day at Gordon they were separated, supposedly so their teachers could tell them apart. Sheila Malone, now Sheila Malone Conway, was shunned at recess and went off to play by herself. A white boy followed her and kept calling her nigger.

"On the fourth time I hit him in the mouth," she recalls. "After that I didn't have any more problems with him," although she regrets the whole incident today and realizes it could have been a major problem if the story had come out in the news.

"The first six weeks was rough," says Conway, who works for a medical group. "We were 6 years old. We couldn't hurt anybody."

The 12 years that Fombi, Kyles, Freeman, and The Malones spent in the Memphis public schools from 1961 to 1973 spanned the major milestones of both desegregation and resegregation of the Memphis City Schools. The grade-a-year plan held for five years, then the pace of integration increased all across the country. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In 1966, the Memphis City Schools faculty was integrated and all 12 grades were technically integrated, although in reality that might mean 20 black students and 2,000 whites in a high school.

Integration began in earnest with the Supreme Court's 1971 decision approving busing as a means of desegregation. Student enrollment reached an all-time high of 148,015 in the 1970-71 school year, making the Memphis City Schools system the tenth largest in the country. By 1973, all deliberate speed had become full speed ahead, thanks to busing and Desegregation Plans A and Z. Over the next two years, more than 34,000 white students left the system. For the whites who stayed and rode the buses, the experience was as memorable as 1961 was for the Memphis 13.

"It was chaos," says Jay Cooper, senior vice-president for Archer Malmo. "It was life-changing, and I'm not sure it was in a good way. I went to Melrose first, then dropped out and went to Central because that's where all my friends were. But I wasn't even enrolled."

White flight from city schools is still very much an ongoing process. On average, 1,000 white students have left the city system each year for the last 10 years. Memphis today has one of the 20 largest and one of the most segregated school systems in the country. The current enrollment of 115,461 students includes 101,232 blacks, 4,897 Asians and Hispanics, and 9,239 whites. The number of whites would be lower had the city system not absorbed four county schools with racially mixed enrollments in 1999. Ten years ago, there were nearly 20,000 whites in the city system.

Explained another way, the chances are better than nine out of 10 that a black student in Memphis attends a school where enrollment is at least 90 percent black. Nationally, only 38 percent of black students go to such schools.

The Shelby County School system has 47,042 students including 31,455 whites (67 percent), 1,461 Asians (3 percent), 1,270 Hispanics (3 percent), and 12,618 blacks (27 percent). The trends that swept the Memphis schools in the 1970s and '80s are now taking place in some county schools. Germantown High School, which was 65 percent white in 2001, is now 44 percent white. Southwind Elementary, which was 32 percent white in 2001, is 15 percent white this year.

Deborah Northcross graduated from Central High School in 1969, went to college at Mount Holyoke, and is director of the Memphis McNair Program for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where she tries to help minority students -- who still lag behind white students -- enter the doctoral program.

She is grateful to Central for giving her a good education, newer textbooks than the ones used by her friends at all-black schools, and a heavier homework load. But she feels whites then and now often got the wrong message. "Desegregation gave whites the impression we wanted to be with them, and that was not the point. It was a matter of school choice and educational equity."

Marshall was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. As a justice, he had one more close encounter with Memphis as the author of the court's decision in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Secretary John Volpe which prevented Interstate 40 from going through Overton Park and Midtown.

Motley is a federal judge in New York. Part of the story of her impact on Memphis and Ole Miss is told on murals at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Northcross v. Memphis is one of the most frequently cited cases on the awarding of attorney fees because it shifted the burden from the plaintiff to the defendant when the plaintiff prevails. Motley also successfully argued two landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Turner v. Memphis in 1962 outlawed segregation at Dobbs Houses restaurant at the old airport, and Watson v. Memphis in 1963 opened recreational facilities to blacks immediately instead of over 12 years as the city proposed. n


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