LESLIE CRISS: Adult actions, not court ruling, change course of education

“In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Supreme Court, May 17, 1954

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LESLIE CRISS

LESLIE CRISS

The day is a lost memory, but for one moment in time. My sister and I had come home from school. Our mother closed the door behind us and said, “I’ve got something to tell you.”

A new pet? A death in the family?

Nothing that good or that bad.

“You’re going to the private school next year.”

It was as simple and as complex as that. No discussion. The decision had been made.

I was 12; my sister 8. It was 1969.

Calm before the storm

My first six years of public education were successfully secured at Lizzie Horn Elementary School. Good teachers. Good grades. No problems.

All seemed right with my small world.

Some of my friends had left Lizzie Horn a few years earlier, in 1966, when a private school was established in Grenada. I was way too young to know or understand any need for private education.

I can speak only of what I heard all those years ago. My earliest perceptions of the private school, as it was then, came from a late-night kitchen conversation I overheard between a friend’s parents.

My friend’s father was one of the handful of founding fathers of the school and he made no bones about it – as far as he was concerned, the school’s purpose was to give white kids a place to “get away from” the black people. Only he never said black people.

Still, to me it made no sense.

When I was in the fifth or sixth grade a new student broadened my world a bit.

Doris Pittman was my first black classmate. She was the smartest kid in my class. And she was my friend.

She was one of only a small number of African-American students attending Lizzie Horn.

Inside the school, peace reigned.

Outside, pickups circled the block around the school. Inside them, some of my friends’ fathers, clutching chains, pipes, baseball bats and angrily shouting racial epithets.

The storm

In 1969 came the order that would eventually have white kids being bused to “black schools,” and black kids being bused to “white schools.”

More trucks began to circle. More angry men.

White men and black men at violent odds over their children’s education.

Truth is, if the adults had kept out of it, the students would have made it work.

But the adults wouldn’t go home and let it be.

And so one sunny afternoon, my sister and I were told we were private-school bound.

It was a decision made by our parents and their reasons made perfect sense.

“We were afraid for your lives, your safety,” my mother said.

Dad, back then a longtime city council member, shared his thoughts.

“We wanted you to have the opportunity to get an education,” he said. “I had several teachers tell me that with all the chaos outside, the best they could do inside was keep order. And it was only going to get worse.”

Our parents did what they thought would be best for their children.

My sister and I both graduated from Kirk Academy, where we had some excellent teachers and made some good friends.

Would we have been better off staying put in public school?

It’s a question that will forever be unanswered.

leslie.criss@journalinc.com

  • charlie

    The repubs want to send their kids to private schools now, only they want public money to pay for it.

  • Jon

    No. Hatred of mingling with blacks changed the course of education in the south.