“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that our destiny is tied up with their destiny.”
– from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream…”
Fifty years ago Wednesday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his monumental “I have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.
Only two years later, Decatur public schools admitted their first black students, ending segregation.
As students return to school Monday, nervous about the first day of classes, few can grasp how different it was 48 years ago, in 1965, when blacks and whites in Decatur attended school together for the first time.
“We were a little nervous – we didn’t know how we would be accepted,” said Mike Bell, 60, of Decatur. “It’s like going through that door, you don’t know what’s on the other side of that door, but you gotta go through it. But we learned to adapt.”
In 1965, Bell’s freshman year of high school, public schools in Texas yielded to federal law and integrated. After attending East Side, a black school located in Decatur, from first through eighth grade, he had to transition directly into Decatur High as a member of the school’s first integrated classes.
“There were words called,” Bell said. “I don’t have to go into detail. You have a pretty good idea of what it would have been like.
“When I first got there, they decided the blacks would sit at the front of the classroom. And if the teacher wasn’t in there, there would always be conflict. We would get things thrown at us. There would be laughing and cutting up. You know how kids are. There were quite a bit of fights there early on because some people didn’t like it. They didn’t like the change. That was on both sides of the aisle.
“It was a big change, and sometimes that change we’re afraid of. It can make you hesitant … It took a few years before we found comfort zones between the two races, but we got there, and it was worth it.”
The conflict at Decatur was minimal compared to what many other districts throughout the South experienced.
J.E. Carson taught math at the middle school the year desegregation arrived.
“I thought Decatur’s integration went as smooth as it could get,” Mr. Carson said. “I think the town of Decatur can stand tall as far as integration goes. I credit that to the black students, the faculty and the townspeople.”
The administration at Decatur stayed on top of potential problems to keep things from getting out of hand.
“The administration would call kids who were disruptive to the office,” Bell said. “Some kids got suspended for using racial slurs, throwing things at us, pulling pranks and starting fights. It wasn’t just put to the side. They dealt with it because they knew they had to. When you are put in that situation, you have to make some tough decisions about how you are going to handle it.
“They did, and they handled it pretty well.”
Part of the credit for the smooth transition goes to the tolerant attitude of educators like Mr. Carson and his wife, Betty, who taught home economics at the high school at the time. The two had known for years that the idea of separate-but-equal facilities for education was just not true.
“We knew they didn’t have a chance if they weren’t given the same education as everyone else,” Mrs. Carson said. “We had thought for a long time that that was the way it needed to be. It didn’t need to be us over here and them over there. They were never going to be integrated into the culture if they weren’t integrated into the schools.”
Prior to 1965, black students in Decatur attended East Side School.
“We went to East Side up until eighth grade, then we were bused to Denton to high school,” Bell said.
East Side held between 50 and 60 students. A partition in the building separated elementary from junior high. Grades were grouped together in bunches, and only two teachers provided instruction for all the grades.
Donna Williams, 67, of Decatur, attended first through eighth grade at East Side.
She graduated in 1959 and spent the next four years being bused to Fred Moore High School in Denton. Fred Moore had students from several communities including Decatur, Sanger, Pilot Point, Carrollton and Ponder. For four years, she got to the bus stop in Decatur at 7 a.m. every morning and didn’t return until 5 in the evening.
“We had the smallest bus because we only had about a dozen kids coming from Decatur,” Williams said. “I would hate to go to school because they would always make fun of our bus. The other buses were always long. Ours was so small they called us the cracker box.”
At the time it was hard for Williams to imagine school any way other than segregated.
“I hate to say it, but I didn’t want to integrate,” she said. “Because the way we were treated, the prejudice, and the way it was for me coming up – I had to go into a lot of places by the back door only. It was kind of like a terror, facing such change. I had developed a complex from it … but I knew something had to give.”
TIME FOR CHANGE
“We went through quite a bit of conflict at Decatur High,” Bell said. “Some didn’t want us there at first. But after a while we learned to accept each other. Betty Carson was very instrumental in that. She was friendly to everyone. She was willing to get to know the new people at the school. She was always open to the idea of integration.
“She was the leader of getting to know everybody, and everybody liked her on both sides of the aisle.”
Mrs. Carson said it was a conscious effort.
“Almost everybody our age grew up with a disrespect for black people,” Mrs. Carson said. “But when we had our daughter, we made a conscious effort not to do that. Maybe that’s what helped. Maybe more families did that than we realized did that.
“I think kids always have to be treated equally. I don’t care if one has parents that are millionaires and one has parents on food stamps, the person has to be treated equally. They have to be given respect. I felt like I would have been a little scared, too, if I was going to a whole new school where I wasn’t part of that culture.”
Mrs. Carson recalled one time where it appeared she was attempting to segregate her three new black students.
“I had 24 girls in my class, and we had four kitchens,” she said. “I had to split the girls up. So I’d put numbers in a bowl, all mixed up, and have the girls draw the numbers out at random to see what group they were in. The new black girls were kind of apprehensive about getting split up because they were new and didn’t know the other girls very well. I was passing the numbers around, and I would write the numbers down as soon as they were passed out so they couldn’t trade.
“Would you believe that every one of those three black girls got in the same group? I don’t know what the odds of that happening could be. I went straight to the principal’s office after and said, ‘If you hear I’ve been discriminating in how I split them up, it’s not true.’ I did it the way I’ve always done it, and they wound up in the same group.”
CHANGING THE SYSTEM
Mr. Carson had no tolerance for institutionalized racism, especially after an encounter he had in the U.S. Army.
In many respects, the military was way ahead of the rest of the nation in regards to desegregation and equality, starting to desegregate its ranks as early as 1950. But racism persisted long after integration arrived.
“I was in the army in 1951,” Mr. Carson said. “They’d already started integrating some of the soldiers. I had eight black soldiers in basic training with me. After basic training, they posted orders where we were to go. The Korean War had just started. They posted names of which soldiers would go to San Francisco to depart to the Far East for combat. There were eight names on the list. Guess what? All eight names listed were the black soldiers. This was the U.S. government.
“Out of more than 200 at the basic training in Arkansas, the first ones picked to combat were all black.”
“That wasn’t a coincidence,” Mrs. Carson added. “They didn’t draw names like I did.”
“I can’t hold grudges for what happened to me and my mother and father,” Williams said. “Because times have changed now. It was worth whatever I had to go through in my life. When I look at my daughter and granddaughter, I know she doesn’t have to go through this.
“When I was young, I couldn’t imagine black and white people could get along so well together. Boy, we’ve come a long way when you look at it. To look back and think about how far we’ve come – it’s just a blessing. That’s the way it should have been in the first place.”
“Each one of us has a different road to come down, but we all go down one,” Bell said. “I believe we all came from one, and we’re all going back to one. Eventually we won’t see color anymore. No one will be able to blame anyone else for any problems.”
Bell, Williams and others who graduated from East Side school refuse to let the memories of the past be forgotten. Every two years they hold an alumni reunion. They just held one last month.
“It’s our fellowship,” Bell said. “It’s our roots. It’s our legacy. We have former students that have become teachers and doctors and lawyers and ministers. As the years go on, we’re losing a lot of them.”
“The reason we have the alumni is so our children know their history here. A lot of the young people here are not aware of their roots. They all think Decatur High School was the only school here. They need to know something about the history here. We didn’t always go to Decatur High School. We didn’t go here. We were transported by bus to Denton.”
The East Side Alumni started giving out scholarships this year.
“We want to let kids know we are here to help them and help them further their education,” Bell said.
And although he cherishes the memories of East Side, he’s grateful change finally came.
“I think it was time for it,” Bell said. “It was neglected too much for too long. We shouldn’t have had to wait that long. The world was changing. It’s still changing.”
2015 will be the next East Side Alumni Reunion – exactly 50 years after the school closed, 52 years after King’s most famous speech.