In my last column, I said I would try to explain to my daughters why they were raised in Johnson County, instead of in an integrated urban setting. It’s humbling to admit that despite all my soul-searching, research and reflection, the answer is that we moved from a public school district, which didn’t serve its students academically, to one that could.
In pursuing this enlightened result, I consulted my own life, which was integrated, by Oklahoma standards. We lived in a neighborhood that became mostly African-American by the time we moved out in 1967. Six years later, I enrolled in Booker T. Washington High School, the only traditionally black Tulsa public high school of nine county schools.
It was slated to close because of its separate-but-unequal status. Instead of closing the school and completely dispersing the neighborhood student population by busing everyone to other schools, however, Tulsa decided to see whether enough whites would volunteer to keep the school open.
This would take some delicate planning.
Let’s time travel back to 1972, when the first “experiment” of quietly enrolling a few white seniors in the existing, “unequal” Booker T. Washington High School occurred. Maybe a dozen participated in a program called Metro-Plex.
Its result was to enable Tulsa’s educational movers and shakers to survey a small sample of whites about what would improve their integration experience. The result was inconclusive, so the city adopted a magnet program.
Instead of drafting just seniors, an appeal went out to white rising sophomores through seniors. Tulsa scoured its public high school faculties and staff for the “best” of each one, and transferred this block of talent to the Booker T. Washington High School building. Thus, instead of asking whites to experience a traditional black school as is and be in the minority, Tulsa offered this curriculum: Chinese, Russian, Great Books; journalism, drama, art and English classes taught by award-winning teachers with advanced degrees and years of experience. The projection: half the students would be white, half black.
The academic carrot danced before us.
Whites were offered the chance at an above-average education in return for integrating. The black students we ousted were bused to majority white schools, where it was assumed they would be exposed to an equal level of academic education but integrating in smaller numbers. Black students who had already attended Booker T. Washington High School were not bused out, which helped keep the junior and senior classes mainly intact.
Looking at my three yearbooks 40 years later, I see integration and participation. After Booker T. Washington High, Tulsa began using this magnet system to mix traditionally black elementary and middle schools.
Maybe it was a start, but it didn’t end racism. It wasn’t fair.
I went to college, graduate school, married, had kids, and then….moved to a Kansas county that offered a good education, even though we realized, uncomfortably, that everyone was white.
To update Dorothy, we weren’t in Tulsa, any more.
I have always owned my liberal guilt, meaning I care which way the political wind’s blowing, and will gladly discuss it. I married another Booker T. Washington High graduate, coincidentally, and raised kids who, despite the defining whiteness of their upbringing, are actively engaged with other races more than I ever accomplished.
Racism, violence against minorities and racial profiling are still top issues that all Americans, not just liberals, should recognize daily. Yet I don’t regret moving so my children could attend an academically adequate public school. Everyone has the right to a good education, and race shouldn’t dictate its quality.
We didn’t move to get more white; we moved for better schools.
I learned at Booker T. Washington High School that every generation has its responsibility to eradicate racism. I happened to be there for Tulsa’s attempt to get its young people involved, even on a small and lopsided scale. One thousand students were a piece of the conversation.
Olympian John Carlos said it best last week in a National Public Radio interview. When he thrust his fist into the air on the medal stand in 1968, he said it was to protest racial inequality.
When asked how current black Olympians should demonstrate their humanitarian politics, he said: “That was my thing. They should do their own thing.”
As we said at Booker T. Washington High School in 1976, “Right On!, John Carlos.”
Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space on months with a fifth Wednesday. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.