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Reading 3: Perspectives on the New Kent County Experience
Dr. Calvin Green, founding president of the New Kent County Chapter of the NAACP, sued the New Kent County School Board. Jody Allen conducted this interview on November 2, 2001 at Dr. Green's home in New Kent County.
Topic: Dr. Green on the impact of Brown
Question: In the early 1960s, what was the NAACP trying to do to bring about school desegregation?
Question: Did you ever have any regrets?
[Dr. Green said, "segregation was a way of life" for so long that he didn't question it. An incident that occurred while he was in college opened his eyes. As a pre-med major at Virginia State College (VSC), Dr. Green, along with a group of students began pressuring the college to provide stats on how many alumni were accepted into medical school. In response, VSC threatened to suspend the students. Dr. Green responded by deciding to transfer.]
In Dr. Green's words:
Cynthia Lewis Gaines, former George W. Watkins student, one of the first students to integrate New Kent School, under "freedom of choice." This interview was conducted by Brian Daugherity and Jody Allen on November 13, 2001 in Mrs. Gaines' office at William Fox Model Elementary School in Richmond.
Topic: First day at New Kent School
Question: What other types of experiences did you have at New Kent School that first year?
--When we first got there, if we came out of the cafeteria line and sat at a table the entire table would get up. So, after about two days of that I said, "you know what? We are going to the cafeteria today and everybody's going to sit at a different table and we are going to clear 11 tables" (there were 11 black high school students that year). They [her friends] were like all right, let's do it. So we go in, each one comes out of line and we sit at a different table. We cleared 11 tables, kids standing all around the walls with their trays in their hands just eating and we're just laughing because after a while we had to make it funny. If we didn't make it funny, we couldn't have made it [pounds hand on table with each word]. So we just found ways to make it funny.
--At the high school, there was really no attempt by the students or teachers to make us fit in, so we were charged with making ourselves fit in. So I'll give you an example: the first year I was there I tried out for the girls basketball team, and I was the first black girl to ever play basketball for New Kent. But at that time the varsity team, the cheerleaders, and the girls team all rode on the same bus because we didn't have JV (Junior Varsity) girls way back then. But no one would sit by me on the bus the entire basketball season; I don't care if we went to Matthews, Middlesex, Yorktown, for miles no one would sit by me on the bus. And they would sometimes sit three in a seat to keep from sitting by me on the bus, so after a while you just had to make things funny so you wouldn't be hurt. So I would cross my legs, stretch out on the seat put my suitcase up, and prop my feet up and just ride.
And there were girls on the team that did not mind passing me the ball because they knew I could play, so I would pass them the ball. If I got out there and it was somebody who had been mean to me, and I mean I was a child, I know that's not right now, but.... [laughter] I wouldn't pass them the ball. I didn't care if we missed the basket or the points, I wouldn't do it.
And I remember my first basketball game. My parents could not attend and they said "but you go ahead. You'll be all right because it's at a school." Actually it was a private school, and it was a Catholic school, so you're going to be all right. I went to that game and I was the only black person in the gym. And I saw the janitor come by and look in there because he, I guess, wondered where I came from. When they did the starting line up, 'cause I was in the starting line up, and back then there were six girls on the team, just like guys had six, and so they did the starting line up, and I was the last person they called. This man who was up there in the stands, he stood up--and you know how it's quiet because you've just done the Star-Spangled Banner and then they introduce the team--so it's kind of quiet and they had clapped and then they called my name. And this parent stood up and said, "Oh my God, five white girls and one African," and the entire gym just broke into laughter and there I was on the floor in the eighth grade.
Question: What were your classes like?
Question: How did the schools compare?
Question: Were there any white teachers who interacted favorably with you?
Question: Did you ever become friends with any of the white students?
Question: How did the community respond to the lawsuit?
Howard Ormond was one of the first black teachers transferred to New Kent School in 1967. This interview was conducted on October 30, 2002 by Sarah Trembanis and Brian Daugherity at Mr. Ormond's Office at the New Kent Middle School (formerly the New Kent School).
Topic: Teacher preparation for desegregation
We all got along because we were all adults so we had a pretty good relationship as far as a staff was concerned. So we didn't have a problem as far as dealing with the kids and they [students] saw us [teachers] getting along. I guess they said, "well this is going to be OK."
Topic: Physical Education and athletic opportunities at George W. Watkins
So I started the first basketball team. I had 12 kids; they didn't know how to do a lay up, they didn't know how to do a jump shot, they didn't even know how to play defense and offense. So what I did, we would have to go to Charles City and practice after their team practiced. So we had a student who drove the bus. We drove from New Kent, G. W. (George W.) Watkins School all the way over to Charles City, which is Ruthville.
Question: How far was that?
Question: How did the white high school compare in terms of facilities?
The only thing that the black school had...was a baseball team. Where we played baseball teams and where we practiced baseball was in a black parent's field for the community team...which was two blocks from the school. The school did not have a field at the school site to play softball.... The Dixon family had a field behind their house because their sons liked to play baseball,... and that's where we played.
Question: Did the community feel that the lawsuit was forced on it by outsiders?
Senator Henry L. Marsh, III was the primary liaison between the New Kent NAACP and the NAACP's State Conference attorneys who argued the suit. He was involved in the legal preparation of the case. This interview was conducted by Brian Daugherity and Jody Allen on November 25, 2002 in Senator Marsh's office in the General Assembly Building in Richmond.
Topic: On choosing New Kent
So the neighboring county was New Kent, and it was simple because it had 2 schools...The population [black and white] was about equal. It was a logical solution. We had strong plaintiffs in New Kent. Green, the president of the NAACP, was a strong leader. That's important--to have a case with a strong leader, so the people won't back out on you, and they won't be intimidated. So New Kent was the logical choice.
Topic: The importance of Green
That's when we had real meaningful desegregation--all over in 1968. Before we had the decision, desegregation was stymied because you only had desegregation where you had black applicants willing to run the gauntlet in white schools. After Green v. New Kent as long as "freedom of choice" was not working, it was unlawful. So HEW took that decision and implemented desegregation on a wide basis--before that decision it didn't happen so that was a crucial case.
Questions for Reading 3
1. What do you think Dr. Green meant by "living in the love of Brown?" Why was Brown II ineffective at forcing school desegregation?
2. Why did Dr. Green take on being the lead in this case? When did he first realize that the system of "separate but equal" was not right?
3. According to Cynthia Gaines, what techniques were used to isolate the African-American students? What techniques did African-American students use to cope with isolation at New Kent School? Do you think you could have survived in a similar situation?
4. According to Ms. Gaines, there was some opposition to the lawsuit from the black community. What do you think might have been the reason for that?
5. Based on the interviews with Ms. Gaines and Howard Ormond, who seemed to adjust more easily to integration--the students or the teachers? Why do you think that was the case? What made the difference in both of their experiences for getting along with their peers?
6. According to Senator Henry Marsh, why was New Kent County chosen as the lead case?
7. According to Senator Marsh, what role did the HEW play in slowing down the process of desegregation? What did HEW do after the Green decision?
8. List the differences noted in the given perspectives between George W. Watkins and New Kent School. How were blacks being deprived of an adequate education because New Kent County maintained segregated schools?
9. Who were the people involved in integrating the New Kent County public school system? What were their roles? What does this tell you about the role that local activism plays in changing society?
10. Do the oral histories presented in this reading help you better understand the experiences of the individuals involved in the fight for educational equality? Why is it important to preserve the stories of these individuals? Do you think studying oral histories is an effective way to learn about historic events? Why or why not?
¹ By the time the Brown decision was handed down in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was already known as a moderate and so it could be argued that his response to the landmark school desegregation ruling was in keeping with his established mode of operation. Eisenhower believed it problematic to express his feelings regarding any Supreme Court decision. He did send a message to the 54th annual meeting of the NAACP in which he said, "We must have patience without compromise of principle. We must have understanding without disregard for differences of opinion which actually exist. We must have continued social progress, calmly but persistently made..." This did not satisfy the NAACP and others who called for immediate implementation of the ruling. James C. Duram, A Moderate Among Extremists: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the School Desegregation Crisis (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981), 111.