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Protesters voice their opposition to federal judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.’s 1970 decision to desegregate Richmond schools by requiring busing. Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
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Writer Brandon Fox, age 8, in 1972
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Al Hutchinson stands in front of Mary Munford Elementary for his third-grade football photo.
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Clara Silverstein’s 1970-1971 Mary Munford school photo
I was beaten up with my own umbrella.
Or so the story goes.
I'd started taking an umbrella to school with me every day when I began third grade in 1972 at West End Elementary School, just south of Cary Street near Meadow. It had a bad reputation. There were fights, kids got beaten up and I was afraid that I might be one of them. It was a big, adult-sized umbrella. Every day, I tapped my way to school with it and then tapped my way up and down the halls from my classroom, outside for recess and down to the basement for lunch.
One chilly day that fall, I left school as usual, umbrella in hand. I walked fast because school was over, and I was in a hurry to get home and watch Gilligan's Island. Two bigger and older black girls approached me, and one of them said, "Give me that umbrella." I indignantly refused.
The next thing I knew, I'd been pushed to the ground, scraping and grinding grit from the sidewalk into my hands as I broke my fall. The umbrella had clattered out of my grip, and the girls snatched it up. I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that someone would simply walk up and take something that belonged to me. My umbrella was gone forever. Furious, I burst into tears and sat staring at my stinging hands as the cold seeped in from the sidewalk.
The next day, when I walked into class, the other third-graders were laughing, and I heard that I'd been beaten up. The day before, fear had fused with fury, and that complex tangle of emotion was now laced with humiliation. I was smaller than most of the students, not just because I was in the school's youngest grade, but because I was a small kid anyway, and I knew I couldn't fight back if it happened again, even if I wanted to. And worst of all, I might as well have been walking around with a neon arrow pointing at me, given my blond hair and white skin. It was impossible to hide or fade into the background. I had never felt welcome, but now it seemed as if the entire school was openly hostile to me. My 8-year-old self hated everyone there.
Over the years, my mother added the "beaten up by her own umbrella" part to the story, and it was cemented into the family mythos. She found the whole umbrella-as-constant-companion as annoying as my classmates apparently did — she always thought the incident was hilarious. I didn't, although looking back on it, being pushed down at school wasn't a particularly terrible thing to have happen to you as a child.
The terrible thing was the unrelenting message that you received all day, every day, that you didn't belong. You were an alien in a society that didn't want you there. That's the message that was sent to the students who integrated the Richmond Public Schools in the early 1970s.
It's a feeling that has stuck with me my entire life. But I wasn't one of the African-American students who braved integration; I was one of the few white students in a mostly black elementary school.
It's a hard subject to talk about. I don't know where my story falls along the historical spectrum of Southern race relations — do I have a right to talk about what it was like to be white and assigned to a former African-American-only school (as I was at West End Elementary) under federal judge Robert R. Merhige Jr.'s order to desegregate the Richmond Public Schools by mass busing? Or, because my skin color confers upon me a place of privilege in American culture, and especially in the South at that time, is my story invalid?
That's the tricky part. Deep down, I don't really believe I ought to feel aggrieved or mistreated based on my years in the public schools. After all, as happened with many white children, my parents eventually took me out of the system and put me into a private school. For black students in mostly white schools, that wasn't an option. But that feeling of unwantedness and otherness defines me, even now. The odd thing is that despite its overt negativity, it was probably one of the best things to happen to me.
In 1972, my family moved to Richmond from Chapel Hill, N.C., when my father got a job teaching art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. At the time, young couples and families were just starting to move back into the Fan District to renovate its old homes, many of which had been converted into boarding houses in the 1960s or were filled with apartments for college students. Almost all of them were in terrible shape.
In Chapel Hill, I had lived in a new, little box house on a circle where even my 3-year-old sister was allowed to roam from our yard to the neighbors'. I went to the Carolina Friends School, a Montessori-style Quaker school where students, gently guided by teachers, learned at their own pace. Apparently my pace was very slow; I didn't know how to read when I left first grade.
I also didn't know anything about segregation. That's not too hard to understand. I was young, and I rarely saw any black people because segregation, despite being illegal, was still pervasive in North Carolina. There were no African-Americans in my school and none in my neighborhood. My parents were, like most young academics in the '60s and '70s, open-minded, peace-marching liberals who also had a few adult black friends, but those friends didn't have any children for me to get to know.
Clara Silverstein, author of White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, had a slightly different background. "When we lived in Chicago," she says, "my parents had chosen to live in a racially integrated neighborhood." Her father, Joseph Lee Silverstein Jr., founded some of the early legal-aid programs in this country. Her mother, who was from Richmond, thought that integration was the way of the future. "She just felt like it was the right thing to do," Silverstein says.
After her father's death in 1968, Silverstein, her mother and sister moved to Richmond to be closer to her grandmother. The atmosphere in this Southern city was very different from her neighborhood in Chicago. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one way Richmond circumnavigated the legal obligation to integrate was by simply self-segregating. Whites lived in their neighborhoods, blacks in others. Silverstein started at Mary Munford Elementary in third grade because it was just a few blocks from her house.
Although Massive Resistance, U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.'s policy to evade federal court-ordered desegregation through state legislation that empowered the governor to close public schools (among other things), was over by 1963, the Richmond School Board had merely swapped it out for another racially influenced attendance plan, Freedom of Choice. Under this plan, parents could choose their child's school, and most families, unsurprisingly, chose one within walking distance of where they lived. In addition, the school board set up a Pupil Placement Board, which created a lengthy application process for students who wanted to switch schools. In reality, it functioned as just one more stumbling block to prevent black students from attending white schools.
Silverstein's friend Al Hutchinson was one of a handful of African-American students who attended Mary Munford Elementary with her. "I don't know how my mother got me in," he says. He was zoned for Munford prior to busing, but wasn't afterward. "The blacks who did attend [before busing] were part of the black middle to upper-middle class. They were the children of doctors and politicians. I was probably the poorest one there." When the school zones changed to include economically deprived neighborhoods in the city, Hutchinson saw a shift in the makeup of the African-American student population. "What you had at that point [was] a class issue," he says. "That's when the challenges really presented themselves … you could see tension because everyone felt different — [they] came from different parts of the city."
On Aug. 7, 1970, Merhige ordered an interim busing plan to desegregate the schools and bring the Richmond school system in compliance with federal law. On April 5, 1971, fed up with the glacial manner in which the school board was implementing the plan, Merhige ordered immediate, mass busing. White schools would be paired with black schools, and children from each would be transported across the city to ensure that the paired schools would be 70 percent black and 30 percent white. In a Richmond News Leader story that appeared that day, Merhige said, "We should not lose sight of the basic fact that in our society it is a primary mission of all governmental agencies to provide equal treatment regardless of race." In Merhige's view, if the school board hadn't managed to desegregate the school system in the 17 years since Brown v. Board of Education, only immediate, dramatic action could force change.
For Silverstein and Hutchinson, the real change came when they finished Mary Munford and began to attend Binford Middle School. Here, their roles were reversed: Hutchinson was in the majority and Silverstein was in the minority.
"Mary Munford was smaller," she says. "The tumult in the hall [at Binford] was really striking to me — I'm not sure if that had anything to do with race, but what did have to do with race was the elbowing and the tripping … I know, because I've read a lot about it and talked to enough people — [that] is what happened to African-Americans in white schools."
"I think my mom saw Mary Munford as a way to protect me," Hutchinson says, "to keep me out of the craziness of my community. Once I went to Binford, I was sort of reunited with the people I grew up with — I was back with the same kids I played ball with on the playground."
At the same time that Silverstein and Hutchinson were adjusting to their changing schools, Mark Merhige, Judge Merhige's 10-year-old son, was undergoing a very different kind of experience. When his father's interim order was issued in 1970, the family was put under federal protection. Federal marshals were posted along their driveway and inside their Henrico County house; a marshal drove Mark to school and walked him to class throughout the school day.
He remembers picketers coming every week on Sunday to the bottom of his driveway. For Mark Merhige, the picketers were less frightening than sad. "You had the Ku Klux Klan [and] American Nazis out there — to see someone coming down your street dressed as a Nazi makes you pretty sure that you're playing for the right team," he says. His grandmother lived in the guest house on the family's property, and Mark arrived home one day to find fire trucks surrounding it as it burned to the ground. "That was scary," he says, "but [I] was young enough not to comprehend why it happened." He was told it was an electrical fire and only learned the truth when he was older. The family dog was tied up and shot (it survived), and instead of frightening Mark, it only underscored his disgust for the picketers: "I thought, what kind of coward shoots your dog?"
But he was still a child when it all started, and he wasn't completely aware of the implications of what was going on around him. "The reality for an 11-year-old boy was that this was kind of cool. I had a chauffeur to the movies, someone to play pickup basketball with whenever I wanted," he says. "[The marshals] were young guys — nice guys." But a large part of the way he felt was because of the way his father dealt with the situation.
"Kids pick up things relatively quickly. And my father was never scared — so I wasn't," he says. Judge Merhige didn't go into the legal details with his young son. "He essentially said, ‘I'm sorry you're going through this — and that this isn't your decision but my decision. I do what I have to do and what I think is right,' " Mark says. However, his father "was concerned enough that for two summers he had my mother and I leave the country," he says.
Mark Merhige says that he was aware enough politically to know that there was something wrong with the fact that he was the one who got to leave the country while other children his age were dealing with the chaos that busing had created. Nor did he attend a public school; he had started kindergarten at Collegiate School (then separate boys' and girls' schools) in the West End and graduated in 1978. His father was vociferously attacked for the hypocrisy of forcing other children to attend schools that they didn't want to go to while his son attended a private school above the fray. It's a hard position to defend. Judge Merhige explained that his son had always attended Collegiate and that there was no reason for a change at the time.
In her book, Silverstein writes about encountering the younger Merhige during ballroom-dance lessons at Miss Virginia Davis' Cotillion. "His father ordered me to go to a school where I was tripped in the halls and spit on in the cafeteria, but spared his own son that kind of treatment," she says. "I glared at him from across the room. I hated Judge Merhige for not making his son go to the public schools."
Mike Toms, who is white, lived on Richmond's North Side and went to Ginter Park Elementary. After busing, he was shunted to five different schools in as many years before he attended Open High School. "I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I'd gone all the way through Ginter Park, then Westhampton and then T.J., which was the path my older sister had been on," he says. He had two good friends from his neighborhood that attended each school with him. "I didn't think it was that unusual because we were all going through the same thing."
Toms was involved in his only real fight when he started Chandler Middle School, but by the next year, he had African-American friends who headed off any attacks. Later, he attended Trinity Episcopal School but lasted only one year. "The 45-minute bus ride was a killer, and I really wanted to go back to public schools," says Toms. "[Trinity] may have been better for me academically, but about life, I learned a lot more [in city schools]."
If you had asked me last year, before I started thinking about this story, I would have had only negative things to say about my own experiences. As a child, I would sit on the jungle gym cemented into the asphalt of the playground, looking at my classmates and trying to figure out why no one wanted to be friends with me. I thought it might have something to do with the way I talked; I didn't sound like they did, I sounded like our teacher. Who wanted to talk to a kid like that?
During the 1960s, the demographics of the Fan District shifted because of the exodus of white families out of the city to the suburbs, and William Fox Elementary had become almost entirely an African-American school. During my first year in Richmond in 1971, my mother invited every single girl in my second-grade class in turn to my house to play, but none of them ever said yes. Later she thought that perhaps it was because their mothers had to work or that their parents didn't have a car to pick them up. Those things may have been true, but for me as a kid, thinking about the fact that hardly anyone spoke to me most days, I was more inclined to believe it was because they didn't want to come.
Moving up to third grade at West End, I was in a school that was every parent's worst nightmare, black or white. I'd learned to read the year before I started. Not because I finally tried to learn how, but because I was bored. Bored to death, and I had to find something to do to pass the time. I began reading during class, I read at lunch and I read on the playground.
As I read my way through my days, I learned almost nothing outside of those particular books. West End originally had been one of the city's segregated black schools, and therefore its infrastructure was left to deteriorate, and its resources were limited. The teacher's primary job was to keep order. It was the kind of school that made white parents in the city sell their houses and move to the county. It eventually made even my own liberal parents enroll me in a private school.
In a lot of ways, when I look back, I see that my problems were actually the result of a socioeconomic clash, as Hutchinson pointed out, as well as a racial one. I lived in an old house in the Fan, but my parents were fixing it up because they'd chosen that old house, not because we had to live in one. A college professor, then and now, can't be accused of an excessive salary, but our family still had more than most of my classmates. Tim Harriss, who is white, lived on the South Side and was bused to Baker School, next to Gilpin Court. "I wasn't rich, but I felt super-rich at Baker. And I felt privileged to have parents who cared — lots of kids around me didn't have that support," he says.
But despite being both picked on and ignored, I've realized that there couldn't have been any change in this city if something drastic hadn't been done to the city's schools. When I finally switched to a private school (Collegiate), the bus ride took more than an hour — longer than it would have been to get to Maggie Walker, my zoned high school. Proximity, a rallying cry for anti-busing groups, complicated the problem of busing, but at the same time, it provided cover for the racism at the root of the furor in Richmond.
At the beginning of 1972, Judge Merhige ordered the Henrico and Chesterfield county school systems to consolidate with Richmond's. White flight had accelerated after the first busing decision, and consolidation was seen as the next step to even out the black/white ratio in the schools.
Merhige wrote in his opinion, "Powers enjoyed by the State Board and State Superintendent before and after 1954 have been exercised openly and intentionally to frustrate desegregation of the three school divisions of the metropolitan area and others throughout the state." This was obvious to anyone living in Richmond whether they were for busing or against it. However, when the counties' inevitable suit against the order reached the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the measure was struck down, and it then went to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a former chairman of the Richmond School Board and in his first year on the bench, recused himself from ruling on the case, so with a 4-4 decision and no options for breaking the tie, the lower court's decision against consolidation remained standing. With that, the legal props were kicked out from underneath the busing experiment.
It was a failed experiment, integration through busing. But for those of us, black and white, who were part of it, a positive frame has etched itself around our memories.
Of Baker School, Tim Harriss says, "It didn't feel dangerous. I can remember at one point being walked down the street with my class by my teacher, Mrs. Dunn. I could see her concern when we were harassed by a guy driving by in a car. I didn't feel scared but I remember I could see her [fear]."
Although his parents sent him to a private school when he began high school, "I've held onto that time in the public schools," says Harriss. "It was an important part of my development that I'm proud of. Integration made me feel part of the city and the entire community."
Al Hutchinson says, "I had a very positive, enriching experience at Mary Munford. You can ask other black folks what it was like for them, and it may have been different." He continues, "For me, it laid the core educational principles that helped me be successful ... . I went to the University of Alabama for college, which at the time was only 10 percent black. As an African-American, you're always straddling both worlds, and Munford, I think, helped me learn how to do that." That positive take-away is unassailable for Hutchinson, despite problems he encountered, like being accused of cutting another boy's sneakers or being discouraged from writing a paper about Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, the three men he admired the most, for an essay contest, instead of one about Civil War-era leaders (his paper on his three heroes ended up being displayed at the Museum of the Confederacy).
"As hard as [busing] was," says author Clara Silverstein, "it definitely opened my mind in ways that never would have happened if I'd stayed in my pleasantly integrated neighborhood in Chicago." She better understood what it was like for her black classmates when they moved through the majority-white culture in America. And she also knew what it was like, as her friend Al Hutchinson did, to have a foot in two different cultures. "I feel lucky. Not that many people can go between those two worlds."
I feel the same way, although I must confess, my insider status can disappear in an instant to be replaced with an outsider status, like those plastic hologram stickers that flash between a happy face and a sad face when you move them. I didn't feel like I belonged when I went to private school either. But perhaps that isn't so terrible. Just as lots of kids get pushed down on the playground, plenty of people feel alienated and different while growing up for all kinds of reasons. Nestled in my experience, however, is a tiny gift. I understand what it's like to be judged as an outsider at a glance, just by the way I look. Although busing didn't solve racism in this city (many would say not much has changed in the city schools 40 years later), for a few of us, it gave us a profound understanding of what the implications of it meant and a lasting empathy for those who've suffered from it. It's an education that I'm grateful for.