Local History: School’s Out, Pt. 1

The late 1960s was a time of increasing consciousness about racial issues in the United States. The mainstream civil rights movement won victories in 1964 and 1965 with large pieces of Federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. By 1968, however, because of issues like Vietnam, economic injustice, the conditions of urban life, and the nature of black identity some people questioned how much progress had really been made. The civil rights movement itself was fractured. Some advocated equality and integration within the framework of American society. Others, generally younger activists, promoted black power or black nationalism and saw little promise in continuing to fight so hard for what seemed to amount to only technical equality. After all, black Americans were still discriminated against in nearly every area of life–even in northern, supposedly progressive cities like White Plains. The following post primarily draws from contemporary newspaper articles, documents in the White Plains Collection, and, especially, High School Racial Confrontation: A Study of the White Plains, New York Student Boycott.

First Day of Student Boycott and Student Demands

At the beginning of fourth period on March 26, 1968, two assistant principals noticed a group of students heading out to the front lawn of White Plains High School. Thus began a set of events variously called a “disturbance,” “boycott,” and “confrontation.” This particular iteration of student action lasted two weeks and captured the attention of the White Plains community, though as we shall see through evidence from the White Plains Collection, this was not an isolated event.

From the 1968 White Plains High School yearbook

After a larger group of students gathered on the lawn, the administration engaged them and had an initial group go to Principal Manson A. Donaghey’s office along with the superintendent Carroll F. Johnson. The students wanted to “bring forth the black self-image,” and cited a lack of inclusion of blacks in the curriculum. They also charged staff members with racism. From this initial meeting, three students were chosen to represent the rest: John Fox, James Myers, and Glenn Rogers. About 150 black students were on the lawn trying to get others students to “come out and join them” and permission was given to the student leaders for a meeting in the auditorium. At this point, all protesting students peacefully moved to auditorium. Once there, they formulated a list of demands to bring back to the administration.

  1. Black history course at the high school level
  2. Assemblies every other week featuring black speakers with all students required to attend
  3. Instant implementation of Negro representation on the senior prom committee (there already was representation and this demand was withdrawn)
  4. More Negro books in the library
  5. Negroes to be employed in the cafeterias, since none are now employed there
  6. More Negro teachers and guidance counselors (The charge that guidance counselors were slow to move on any complaint was reiterated)
  7. Humanities class should be open to all
  8. White teacher attitudes must change
  9. All teachers should be required to attend summer courses in human relations
  10. The school must teach about blacks in all phases of the curriculum

The meeting in the auditorium concluded the school day and students were dismissed at the regular hour with no incidents. The first day of student action ended. In order to bring more context and shape to what followed, one needs to understand at least some of the racial, economic, and ideological factors influencing students who lived in White Plains during the preceding two decades.

Racial Balance Plan

We all have our own sense of the kind of city White Plains is, and that sense is heavily conditioned by our experience of it. For instance, if one works for the city government, one might think it is a government town. But if one has a successful bakery, one might think it is a great town for bakeries. Or if one is wealthy, one may think White Plains is a good town to be wealthy in, though one cannot imagine a poor person feeling the same way. The slim volume Children In the Balance does a remarkable job of revealing the context for our assumptions about White Plains and how residents experience their lives here.

Ina Schlesinger and Michael D’Amore, two educators who worked in White Plains in the 1960s and the authors of Children in the Balance, described White Plains’ black community as “a pocket of want in the midst of a truly affluent society.” How did this come to be? White Plains’ racial history mirrors the best and worst of America’s. The basic story however, has been one of discrimination, segregation, and institutionalized barriers to black advancement. As it pertains to the schools, White Plains found itself with a segregated school system in the late 1950s, years after Brown V. Board of Education and the Federal mandate to end school segregation. School segregation in White Plains persisted largely because of housing segregation, and when urban renewal and slum clearance work reshaped the historically black neighborhoods of White Plains, recreating affordable, quality housing for the people of the neighborhood was not a priority. Through the efforts of people like Errold Collymore and other citizens, some low-cost housing was built in the city, but segregation and discrimination persisted.

In 1963, the New York State Commissioner of Education sent a letter to school districts directly confronting the issue of racially imbalanced schools, which were defined as schools that were more than 50% black. These schools were almost always underfunded and low-performing, with dismal graduation rates and poor conditions for children. The Rochambeau School in White Plains was one such school, and in the early 1960s, 62% of its students were black children.

In 1964, the White Plains School Board, under the energetic leadership of superintendent Carroll Johnson, instituted a racial balance plan which was meant to more evenly distribute black students throughout the elementary schools in White Plains and stabilize the conditions in all schools. The school board could implement this plan unilaterally, without the explicit support of voters or parents. The board decided elementary schools should have no less than 10% and no more than 30% black students. Although they decided to implement unilaterally, they took lots of time to work with the community on the roll out of the plan and the people of White Plains largely supported the plan. The Reporter Dispatch and mainstream local opinion favored the plan. The only real opposition came from a citizen’s group called the Committee on Schools. They were a definite minority who opposed the plan for economic reasons and, sometimes, because of outright racial prejudice.

Progressive though the racial balance plan may have seemed, it generally fell in line with a conservative tradition in White Plains of only confronting racial issues when they became dire, and even then, seeking solutions on terms most agreeable to those in power, the white establishment. For instance, in the racial balance plan, there was no cross-bussing, the practice of taking students from more affluent neighborhoods to schools in less affluent ones. D’Amore and Schlesinger saw the black community’s response the racial balance plan in a few ways. First, they noticed that many black residents felt like they had no say in whether the plan happened or not, let alone any influence on the details. They chronicle the “tokenism” black members of the school board and PTA experienced–situations where boards or committees had one black member who was not in a position to seriously advance the interest of the people they represented. One community member put the black criticism of the racial balance plan succinctly: “If integration is so damned good,’ she concluded, ‘y’all come and get some.’” She added her belief that bussing black students to white schools only “fosters racism.”

Once the plan was underway, things went smoothly overall. The elementary schools were successfully balanced along racial lines and teachers got down to the business of actually working with the children, though the issue of civil rights and race were never far from the minds of either. D’Amore and Schlesinger wrote:

“The kids began to discuss civil rights issues. Most of the white students had never fully realized before that these problems existed in their own city. They all knew about discrimination against blacks in the South, but the majority rather vaguely and complacently believed that the North provided equal opportunity for all. Face to face with the realities of an integrated classroom, they began to reevaluate their ideas and to debate the problems of contact between the two worlds.”

By bringing together white and black children and eliminating the segregation that stifled dialogue between people, the racial balance plan moved White Plains residents toward a more honest reckoning with their racial issues. Black residents were aware that integration would bring new challenges, and one mother put it this way: “[Black children] must be strong so that they can stand up to the pressure the school will put on them. Teachers will make them feel inferior, and white children will put them down. They must know who they are and that they are somebody, so that they won’t believe all the things the white world will tell them about themselves.”

Her view is corroborated by the testimony of D’Amore and Schlesinger who tell many stories about the challenges black students faced. The challenges were not just academic, and often had to do with students’ lives outside of school- most often issues of poverty. For instance, a black student borrowed lunch money from the school and then had his name read over the public address system in the school to announce his, and other students’, debt to the school. D’Amore and Schlesinger recorded the negative affect of discriminatory treatment on student’s morale and sense of opportunity.

From “High School Racial Confrontation,” 1968

The class dimension to integration and school experience would come up again in 1968. it may have come up at the high school because of the school’s essentially middle and upper class character. It was considered a “prestige” school in the county, the kind of place that sent students to “good colleges” where they could get “good jobs” with “good pay” (these assessments are from contemporary students). More immediately, it was located in a suburban environment, far enough from the urban neighborhood most black residents lived in to necessitate driving. Most black families in White Plains could not afford to give their children a car and many traveled there by bus. Thus, the physical position of the school reinforced aspects of segregation that persisted even after the racial balance plan was implemented in the elementary schools. Further, although the most feared result of the racial balance plan did not occur–the diminishmed academic performance of white children–black students integrated into schools did not perform markedly better than they had before the plan according to studies done in the late 1960s.

While the full result of the racial balance plan had yet to be comprehended in 1968, black people in White Plains were still pushing for improvement and change. A critical consciousness had developed, and it did not go unrecorded. It was, however, overshadowed by the relentless tendency of local opinion to inflate small moments of progress into symbols of fundamental change.

Local Conditions

From the March 20, 1968 Reporter Dispatch

In March 1968, a series of articles called, ironically, “Tell It Like It Is” appeared in the Reporter Dispatch. The editorial voice of the article lauded the ‘improvement’ in the black experience in White Plains, but if one reads closer, it is easy to see a less peachy picture. A week before the boycott started, an article profiling Bessie Smith, the first black teacher in White Plains and first black student from White Plains to attend college, begins with a note that: “one of the brightest spots in the story of the White Plains community is the existence of a school system in which tremendous strides have been made toward equalization of opportunity.” Later in the article, Smith herself insists that the schools still do not do enough for black children, and we should note the echoes her criticisms have in the demands of the students who walked out one week later. Smith expressed hope that more support for attending college would be given to black students and said, “Negro history and contributions and African cultures should be taught in all the [text obscured on microfilm] parents should be encouraged to keep their native tongue, especially if its Spanish since that is the language of our nearest neighboring nations.” Not only was Smith pointing out the failure of the integrated school system to truly teach all of its students, she was presciently suggesting that Spanish might become a language one needed to know to get around White Plains.

From the March 21, 1968 Reporter Dispatch

In another “Tell It Like It Is” feature the next day, the paper sought the opinions of Harry Jefferson, a coach and respected figure at White Plains High School. The headline reads “Over-Emphasis on Sports Hurts Negro Student, Says ‘Coach Jeff’”. In the article, Jefferson admits that while sports was a great way for some black students to attend college and gain opportunities often only available to white or affluent students, the cost was a de-emphasis of academic work and a correlate disadvantage in intellectual or economic achievement. Additionally, Jefferson called attention to the students for whom athletics was not an option. “Too many of the boys who are not involved in athletics cannot see any chance for a breakthrough. No one is doing enough for them.” Jefferson even endorsed the prospective boycott of the 1968 Olympics by black athletes (the Olympics where American atheletes gave a black power or human rights salute from the medal platform). One wonders if White Plains High School students read of Jefferson’s endorsement and his statement that while the prestige and reputation of the Olympics were important, “…it is more important the Negro stand for a principle as a group.”

 

 

From the March 30, 1968 Reporter Dispatch

Another older, black leader used his forum in the newspapers to assert that “racial progress” in White Plains had not gone far enough. Errold Collymore, a leader in the black community for decades in White Plains and organizer responsible for some fundamental changes to housing and employment conditions, admitted that although some progress had been made in establishing the rights of black people, discrimination was prevalent and to some degree institutionalized. Keep in mind that Collymore represented the older, more conservative side of the civil rights movement–a man who found success as a dentist through a life of hard work and struggle within a white-dominated system. Younger activists who were taken as the promoters black power or black nationalism, like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis, rejected this model in favor of a more basic assertion: blacks deserved rights because they were human beings and members of American society. They did not have to “earn” them. After all, did white people have to “earn” their rights, or were they just assumed to be theirs by birth?

 

The students boycotting at White Plains High School were influenced by all these people and schools of thought. Their demands reflected the progression of the international black freedom movement. They were not simply pushing for integration, with its merely physical connotations. They were pushing for recognition, inclusion, opportunity, and power.

To Be Continued in Part Two. The featured image in the upper left is the title page of High School Racial Confrontation.

Categories: History.