Make Black History Personal: #5 The Negro Girl at School

We’ve all read about school integration, especially the experience of then 6-year old Ruby Bridges, who was the first Black child to attend an all-White school in the South. In November, 1960, Ruby walked to school with federal marshals when she integrated an elementary school in New Orleans. This iconic Norman Rockwell painting memorialized that day in Black history:

ruby bridges rockwell painting

Six years later, I integrated a junior high school in Detroit, Michigan. Because of pioneers like Ruby, there were no death threats, parents didn’t pull their kids out of school and U.S. marshals didn’t have to escort me to the door. But that difficult experience is branded on my memory as clearly as if it were painted on canvas.

Integration was no walk in the park.

By the time my parents decided to send me to the all White Arthur Junior High School on the East side of Detroit, the 1965 Civil Rights Act had been passed and they felt more comfortable sending me into a segregated environment. Here’s a picture of Arthur Junior High in recent times. It’s been closed and for sale by Detroit Public Schools since 2005.

Arthur Middle School

For me – integrating Arthur Junior High was a little slice of hell. There were four Black students who integrated the school that year but we were all assigned to different classes. So we only saw one another passing in the halls with no chance to really connect. Ninth grade was a lonely time for me – both at school and on the three-hour bus ride each day to get there.

During my entire year at Arthur Junior High, no White student talked to me except for one girl who obviously didn’t get the memo about not talking to the Negroes (as they called us back then) or maybe she didn’t care. It was also the year when I was called “nigger” for the first time.

I remember coming home one day early on and sobbing to my parents, asking why they had given me this miserable assignment called “integration”. My father was the one who sat down with me to explain. He looked me in the eyes and said these words that have echoed in my mind ever since –

Because somebody has to.

For that time in history, that somebody was me and the trying times of being the Negro girl at school was my role to play in the positive change we all hoped was coming. What my 14-year-old brain didn’t process then is that this tough experience would lay a foundation for things I would do later in life to continue opening doors for people like me.

How can you make Black history personal?

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