I have talked about how I attended the Arkansas School for the Blind from kindergarten up to halfway through the 9th grade, and then switched to the public school system. I have also posted about being born in the midst of the Civil Rights era in the south, with everything that went on at Little Rock Central High School in the mid-1950’s.
The United States Supreme Court handed down an order to the school to admit African-American children, and 9 brave black kids were chosen. Governor Orval Faubus resisted the order and called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration.
President Dwight Eisenhower triumphed, and Little Rock Central High School was integrated. See for yourself what President Eisenhower had to say:
I am brought back in time, to 1965, when I was a student at the Arkansas School for the Blind. The school was not yet integrated and there were no black students. I didn’t realize there was a completely separate school for the blind for “colored children.” Half-way through the school year, we were told that black students would be joining us. See Arkansas School for the Blind, Colored Department (Little Rock) from which I am quoting (emphasis mine):
Integrated with the Arkansas School for the Blind, 1965
The Colored Department of the Arkansas Institute for the Education of the Blind was opened in October of 1889. The principal was Mr. T.R. Ish, who had been chosen by the Board of Directors “on account of good work and a peculiar adaptability.”1 Mr. Ish’s wife, Jennie, was the housemother and also taught the students sewing and other domestic tasks. The Colored Department employed a cook, laundress, and gardener. At the end of 1890, the department had enrolled fifteen students, nine boys and six girls.
In 1955, after Brown v Board of Education, the wrestling teams of the Colored Department began practicing with the white students. Although the students continued to attend separate schools, they traveled as one team to away wrestling matches. The music departments of the two schools entertained each other with band and choral music concerts. The two schools were not integrated in one location until the 1965-66 school year, when the students at the former black school (the “Madison School”) joined the students at the “Markham Street School.” (The Madison Street school was built expressly for the Colored Department in 1953, one year before Brown v Topeka.) According to Margaret Johnson, a senior in that year, the atmosphere was somewhat tense, especially at first. The principal canceled the school dance in the fall, fearing whites and blacks would dance together and antagonize parents. However, “we weren’t bothered by it, so our parents weren’t bothered, and he figured it was a bunch of fuss over nothing. He didn’t cancel the Christmas dance and we all had a good time.”
Biennial report of the Arkansas School for the Blind, 1896-1898.
Searching back through dim memories, I can recall the teachers nervously preparing us for the arrival of the black students. I was too young to be aware of the kerfuffle about the dance. But I do remember that the coming of the black students was a non-event for we white students. What did it matter? We were blind, so we were color-blind, and most of us couldn’t see the color of one’s skin. We simply had more friends like us who also could not see.
It’s not 100% true, however, that the “parents weren’t bothered.” At least not in my mother’s case. A kind black boy joined my 3rd grade class named Duke. Duke later on played trumpet in the school band and I played clarinet. Except for the few of us who lived in Little Rock, most of the students resided in dorms and went home to visit family over the weekend.
Duke’s family was too poor to afford a weekly bus ticket home. So he had to stay at the school on the weekends and was very lonely. Meanwhile, I was bullied by neighborhood children, and was lonely as well. So I gave Duke my telephone number, and he would call me on weekends and we would chat and laugh and keep each other company.
Until that is…. my mother discovered I was talking to a black boy on the telephone. She grabbed the receiver out of my hand and screamed at him, “Don’t ever call here again.” I was embarrassed and humiliated and thought I’d lost a friend. Floyd, however, did not hold my mother’s actions against me or even complain. When we were old enough for band, he sat behind me with his trumpet while I played my clarinet. Thank for understanding, Duke, wherever you are.
Love and friendship are color-blind even if one has perfect eyesight. I am fortunate to have learned that lesson even in the cauldron of bigotry I grew up around. Perhaps that’s why I go on fighting the battles against injustice still today. Whether one is transgendered or gay or lily white, we all bleed red. We hurt, we cry, we live, we love. What counts is what is in the heart and making a difference and doing the best one can in trying times.
I offer this:
And a 2010 remake of one of the most inspirational songs ever…
Always remember the infinite capacity of hope and smile at someone today!
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