The year was 1970, and I was entering the public school system as a first grader. Mine was the first class in this East Texas town to be fully desegregated, the “separate but equal” elementary schools having been closed the year prior. This makes me a unique breed: the first generation to have never known segregated schools. Of course, we still had a long way to go. It would be nearly twelve years later before our class of ’82 stopped electing separate class favorites for blacks and whites. Our senior yearbook contains only one set of “Most Popular” and “Most Beautiful” and all the other miscellaneous “mosts”, thus eliminating the last vestiges of sanctioned segregation.
Several events along the way stick in my mind.
1971 – Second Grade: A black teacher had been moved to our school from the “separate but equal” campus. There was a bit of a dust-up because many white parents did not want their children in her class. Apparently, the whole “equal” part hadn’t been true after all, because she was judged to be an inferior teacher. She probably was less qualified, but she had a heart of gold, and the students loved her, even if their parents didn’t. I had the white teacher. She was mean.
1976 – Seventh Grade: I became friends with a black kid. He was a nice guy, and I was a nice guy, and we just happened to get along well. I’m sure he knew, as did I, that our friendship was outside the mainstream, but to us it was no big deal. One day I called his house to invite him to go somewhere and do something, and his father answered the phone. He demanded to know who I was, and was openly hostile, refusing to let me speak to his son. It stung. It still stings. In the years since, I’ve tried to convince myself that maybe he was just having a bad day, that maybe this had nothing to do with the fact that I was white. But I knew then, as I know now, that fear and resentment existed in both our worlds.
1978 – Ninth Grade: After football practice, some of the team walked to Mac’s, a favorite local hamburger joint two blocks from the school. Mac’s still had a rear entrance and separate dining area for black patrons, and some of the older folk still used it. But our black teammates went with us through the front door and we all ate at the same tables. Not the first, to be sure, but among the first to think nothing of it. On some level, we must have known that our generation was turning a corner at a historic crossroads, but at the time, I didn’t really understand the significance. I wonder if the black kids did.
We grew up in modern times, in a not-so-modern place. School was the overlapping subset of two circles, a place where we learned to share a society with people we could not really know. We learned of Cornelius Vanderbuilt’s railroad empire and of Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad; of George Washington’s cherry tree and of George Washington Carver’s peanut butter. We faced a future that promised a post-racial society, and we were the first generation who did not fear it.
Forty years after that first grade fall morning, I’m still in the same town, and that future is not yet present. There are more circles now, smaller and more diverse. Their overlapping intersections are more complex, but still they are separate circles. I see some of my African-American classmates around town from time to time, and we usually give a genuine smile and say hi, though we never call each other up to go to dinner together. Acquaintances have become friends on Facebook, and a look at our wall posts shows that we still travel in somewhat different – if not separate – circles. Still, I like to think that those of us in that subset share a tenuous bond – an uneasy tension combined with an unspoken pride in the Henderson High School class of 1982.