Mr. Ross's 5/6 Grade Class 1962-1963

Today in Duluth, we are facing a growing enrollment of minority kids in some of our schools. So far the growth is modest but it will continue. We are wrestling with how to deal with this growth. Should be spend extra resources on magnet schools? Should we change boundaries so that we don't trap kids in pockets of poverty or high minority concentration? I have my own opinions on how to deal with this issue, but for the now I'd just like to talk about my own experiences as a child in the integrating schools of Topeka, Kansas.

A Reflection

Mr. Ross, standing on the right, had been an elementary school principal briefly. He came to Loman Hill Elementary in 1962 and taught my sixth grade class. I'll give you a nickel, NOT, if you can guess which of the kids is me. Here's one clue. I'm standing by the only other Harry I ever knew (Harry O'Neil) until I got to high school. (That Harry didn't go by Harry because his last name was Hed so he went by Orville instead.  Back to the clue, Harry O'Neil is as black as I am white.  That should help a little.

My Father's impression of Mr. Ross was that he'd washed out as a principal and had been returned to the classroom.  I have no idea if this was true or not but I have little doubt that, in an era of woman teachers, Mr. Ross was viewed as a strong disciplinarian who could handle a handful.  He taught the first and only split grade class I was ever in with both fifth and sixth graders. It contained most of the rammy kids in both grades. Most of my friends, who tended to be high flyers, were sent to the highly regarded Mrs. Muxlow's all-sixth-grade class.  I was stuck in class with kids like Bobby who had a limited mental capacity but inordinate energy.  Bobby's desk was full to the brim with the pencils he found on the floor.

For years my parents had led me to believe that Loman Hill had been the center of the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case which was handed down by the United States Supreme Court two years before I entered first grade. I found out recently that it was another Topeka school but still, Loman Hill was affected like many other schools across the nation. 

One of my most vivid early memories of school dates from second grade. We were sent out to the playground for an extended recess during which I climbed up on the jungle gym and watched as a new enrollees were shepherded into my school. The students were all black children from what had once been a segregated black elementary school which was being closed. They formed a long line with the smallest children in the lead. Each child carried his or her chair stacked with school books. 

This was four years after the Brown decision and Loman Hill had already been integrated. I have two class pictures from second grade. The first was taken in November before the new children were enrolled. There are 21 white kids, 2 Asian kids, and 3 African-American kids in the November photograph. In the March photograph we have lost one Asian child and gained 5 white kids. Only two additional black kids are in the picture. Over the next several years the proportions of kids in my class pictures would change. White kids would decline from 26 to 14. Black kids would increase from 5 to 17. By Sixth grade there would be 14 white kids and 18 minority kids, including Sammy Big Knife an Osage Indian.  

I was raised with a respectably liberal attitude on issues of civil rights. My Father's mother, Ruth Welty was a Topeka junior high school teacher. She had many black students. My Mother's Father, George Robb, was the Kansas State Auditor and, although a staunch Republican he as good a small d democrat as you could hope to find at the time. As a thirty year old school principal in 1918 he volunteered to join the American Expeditionary Force. He became an officer in the all black 169th Infantry. His troops were all from Harlem. 

My Grandfather was a small town Kansas Kid. When he had been a child there was only one black person in Salina, Kansas an escaped slave named Larry Lapsley. My Grandfather wrote a speech about Mr. Lapsley in the 1950's. Although the speech betrays some of the embarrassing white attitudes of that era it does a fair job describing an evil which my Grandfather took quite seriously.

My parents raised me to disapprove of racism. When the little next door neighbor girl complained that she didn't want to go to school with "niggers" I felt compelled to lecture her about her bad attitude. Because of Loman Hill I learned my first lesson about black people, to wit: There were all kinds just like white people.

I liked Vicky Bryant and invited her to my Halloween party one year. Sherman Dixon was a smart ass. One day after school he took my school art work and scattered it all over the playground. Billy Moore was as cool and confident a leader as the school had. Larry Lindsay was a class clown. Cynthia Robinson was a spiteful gossip. 

I only lived three blocks from school and to break the routine would often walk to and from school by different routes. One of those paths took me past Tennessee Town where the poorest black people in town lived. The houses were all cracker boxes and many of them were propped up on concrete blocks. As near as I could tell all such houses were occupied by black families, some of them quite large. I think there were thirteen kids in Leslie Lewis's family though I can't recall if she lived in one of the cracker boxes.

I never questioned where that neighborhood got its name but a few years ago on PBS's American Experience I think I found the answer. Just before the turn of the century as Jim Crow laws were imposed on the black populations of the South and lynching became the preferred way of enforcing the law a black journalist in Memphis Tennessee led an exodus of her people north to Kansas to escape the oppression. I presume that's how Tennessee town got its name anyway. I wonder if the Kansas State Historical Society has some mention of it on a web page. I'll have to check.

My father found himself pigeon holed in his career about this time and got a job offer in southern Minnesota. I left Topeka and moved to North Mankato, Minnesota to begin my junior high year. Mankato and North Mankato had a population of about 30,000 people. There was one black man in town a veterinarian. He had not been able to start a clinic in town so had set up shop on the outskirts of town. To my chagrin my Kansas accent got me labeled a "reb" by the kids in my new school. These descendents of German and Swedish emigrants were oblivious to black America.

In 1968 my family got to help integrate the Mankato Public Schools. That Spring the AFS (American Field Service) Program was having a hard time finding families willing to host a foreign exchange student. They sent out a call for hosts and I obligingly brought home an application to my family thinking they would not be interested. To my surprise my parents were willing to be hosts. There was a lot of discussion when one of the questions asked pointedly whether we would object to having a student of a different race stay with us. My Mother was reluctant but the rest of the family shamed her into agreeing that we would take any student. Sure enough our assigned student would come from Ethiopia. His name was Bedru Beshir and he was, as far as anyone could remember, the first black student to attend the Mankato Public Schools. 

Years later my Mother would pick up her brushes and resume painting. One of her paintings reflected her memories of living in Mankato. She called it Lilly White Town.

I've never been able to completely get away from my Topeka Connection. Years later as a Duluth resident I read with interest about the infamous 1920's lynching of three black men. One of them had been from Topeka Kansas. Michael Fedo wrote a good history of the event since republished as "The Lynchings in Duluth." One of the attorneys for the family of one of the murdered men was represented by a black Topeka attorney. He was also one of the attorneys for the NAACP in Brown vs. Topeka.

When the gravesite of the murdered men was rededicated some years ago I took my family and joined a long procession of cars to the cemetery for the service. Topeka was still very much a part of me.