This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of public schools in Durham, North Carolina. Charmaine McKissick-Melton wrote a retrospective here for the Pauli Murray Project of the Duke Human Rights Center and has been accumulating stories from those who were children then, thrust into a national upheaval more traumatic than any kid should have to experience. I am honored to feature one of these stories as written by my friend and colleague, Janice Mack Guess.
Little Colored Girls Want To Wear Pearls Too
by Janice Mack Guess
This is dedicated to the twenty young black boys and girls who courageously integrated Brogden Junior High School in 1964. During an unsettling and difficult period in American history, we endured extreme prejudice, humiliation, and insults in the struggle to break the color barrier to achieve diversity and quality education. This is my personal story of the sacrifices we made to desegregate the public schools in Durham, North Carolina.
I was twelve years old.
I will never forget that hot September morning in 1964 when my father dropped us off on the first day of school. We entered Brogden Junior High School on the heels of the sweeping passage of the Civil Rights Act of July 2, 1964 and the violent climax of “Freedom Summer,” an intensive voter-registration campaign in the Deep South where three young civil rights workers were killed trying to register blacks to votes.
We were four of the twenty students hand-picked to integrate the public schools, a Supreme Court decision of 1954 and mandated through forced integration by the State of North Carolina and Durham County in 1964. My brother and sisters, Jerry (deceased), Jennifer, Joyce and me, Janice (two sets of twins to our parents), Rev. Benjamin and Mrs. Ollie Mack, and sixteen other Negro children set out on a journey that would change us and our world forever. Ironically, we did not decide we wanted to be activists and it certainly was not our intention to upset the status quo or to become unwilling martyrs and change the world order. We were simply obeying our parents and going to school to get an education.
The schoolyard was full of students, children that acted like us, played like us, had the same desires like us, except for one difference, they were all white and we were Negro. The word “black” was not part of our vocabulary at that time. James Brown had not made it popular and acceptable with his song, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” until 1968. The schoolyard was a sea of white children! Blond hair, blue eyed, white children filled the courtyard as far as the eye could see. When we leaped from my dad’s 1962 green Rambler, it was definitely not a giant leap for mankind! We entered school with the same expectations they had! I was eager to get started, eager to learn new things, eager to experience this new world and become a part of it, and yes, eager to show them that I was as smart as they were. I believed in my little “colored girl” innocence or maybe I should say, ignorance, that they would accept me and welcome me with open arms. After all, I had been taught all my life by my preacher dad that “Jesus loves all the little children, red and yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight. . .”
It seemed that everybody turned around and stared at us. Not only were they staring, they were glaring and the look in most of their eyes was pure hatred! Fear began to knot in my belly and for the first time in my life, I was afraid. I swallowed hard, and managed to move into the circle my sisters and brother instinctly formed for protection. I heard someone say, “What them niggers doing here?” The sneers and stares followed us as we made our way to the school entrance door only to be greeted by the same contemptuous looks on the faces on the adults. I remember my dad saying,” what don’t kill will make you strong” and I thought to myself, “Please God, give me strength to make it through this day and they don’t never have to worry about seeming me again!”
Somehow we made it through the day, but not without several unpleasant incidents. During our lunch hour, the cafeteria workers didn’t know whether to smile or cry, but because most of them were black, we did get a bigger serving of food. Of course we all sat together but that peace was broken as some students threw their food at us while taunting us with ugly epithets. Needless to say, that was the longest day of my life and when my dad picked us up at the end of the school day, we tumbled into the car exhausted and bewildered.
The first week passed, and then the first month, until after awhile all the days seemed to roll into one. Even though the taunts seemed to become less brutal they were replaced with the ever present looks of contempt.
The students that did not hurl mean comments, instead, just treated us as though we were invisible. Those students that may have empathized with us, did not provide any support.
The teachers acted like we were invisible too. The gym teacher, Mr. Mizell, (we nicknamed him “Mr. Hell”), made us walk around the track field during class to keep us from participating with the white students (I think they were afraid we would touch them and the blackness would rub off).
Each day we returned home, our mom and dad would kiss away the hurt, brush us off and send us back. I noticed the pain in their eyes when they thought we were not looking as they dropped us off to school. I wondered why we had to walk home from school each day when all the buses were lined up outside waiting to take all those little white children home. I guess back then, buses were not assigned to our neighborhoods.
I didn’t realize how poor we were until that first year at Brogden Junior High School. I noticed the white girls wore a different pair of shoes each day along with their little pleated shirts and white blouses with Peter Pan collars and a string of beautiful, petite, pearls. The idea that some children had options on what color or type shoe to wear amazed me because I had only two pairs of shoes, one pair to wear on Sunday and one pair of Buster Browns for school.
However, it was the pearls that I wanted more than anything in the world and I vowed that one day I would own a string.
Of all the humiliation we endured, the most disappointing moment for me was being denied a reward that I rightfully earned. It was the recognition and a scholarship promised to the 7th grader who made the highest grade on a comprehensive science test following a month-long science project. I studied day and night and made a 99, the highest grade of all the seventh graders. I was excited and proud in anticipation that I would be presented in assembly and publicly awarded the coveted prize.
To my utter disappointment, the science award was not given to me. In fact, it was never mentioned as if it never existed. I don’t know if another student was awarded or if the project was discontinued. At times I wondered if it was a figment of my imagination. It left a hole in my heart and took away a little of my childhood innocence. I could not understand what motivated adults to destroy the hopes and dreams of a child.
We finished that year at Brogden and did not return the next year because my parents purchased a home in South Durham so that we could attend a predominately black school.
Forty-six years have passed since that eventful year. I finally got a real string of cultured pearls, a closet full of bright shining shoes and I regained my confidence and self-esteem. But most importantly, the wisdom to forgive and to understand that we were part of something bigger than all of us.
As a twelve year old, I often asked myself during that turbulent year, “Why don’t they know little colored girls want to wear pearls too?”
And yes, I am still waiting for my science award!
Janice Mack Guess retired in 2004 after 30 years with GlaxoSmithKline in Marketing and Sales Training. Ms. Guess wrote, implemented and managed the National Preceptorship Program, considered the “benchmark” in the industry for sales training. Ms. Guess is an alumnus of North Carolina Central University and currently works in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, enjoying her job and proud to “give back” to students. Ms. Guess is active in her community where she has served on several municipal boards and held leadership positions in her church and civic organizations. She is a freelance writer and owner and president of her own event-marketing company, Red Carpet. Ms. Guess is the proud mother of two children, grandmother to four, and lives in Durham, NC, with her husband, Larry (Sully).