Thus began our conversation about MLK and integration. We talked about my experience in 2nd grade. She said, “I know exactly how you felt entering that predominantly white school.” I thought within, “No, you don’t. How can you? Your skin is white. There is no way you could know how I felt.” She instantly interrupted my thoughts by saying, “My family moved to the Delta during integration. I was one of five whites who entered the halls of a predominantly black school in the 10th grade. I was scared to death. I asked my mother if she was sure this was the school I was supposed to attend.” She related her experience as initially frightening. She said, “After three weeks of school, I was one of the gang. Everyone bent over backwards to be nice to us. The teachers and students accepted us. I had a great experience…”
I later attended an event at St. Paul United Methodist Fellowship Hall that showcased a film about the history of blacks in Tupelo. One of the segments showed former students of Carver High School talking about their experience during integration. One student said, “I lost my identity. In the black schools we had our own clubs, bands, etc. We were a part of a family. When we changed schools, many of us were not selected nor invited to participate in some of their clubs.”
I begin to recapture and think about my own experiences in high school. They were totally different from when I first entered as a second grader. Because of my mother’s teachings, I became friends with most of the student body, teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers, and administrators. I was usually the only black person in most of the clubs – Beta, FBLA, etc. From the 9th thru the 12th grade, I worked in the school office and made the majority of the school announcements in the mornings. In 12th grade, the student body selected me as “Most Likely to Succeed.” I was one of two blacks who graduated in a class of 52 seniors. Wilma Rudolph, Olympic track star said, “The doctor told me I would never walk, but my mother told me I could – so I believed my mother.” Yes, I had problems, but like Ms. Rudolph – I believed my mother. When I would say to her, “Momma, do you think I could be a part of a club like the other students? Do you think I could work in the school office? Do you think…?” She would immediately say, “Of course, you can.”
All of us have stories that have shaped our lives – some good and some not so pleasant. I know we can’t forget the past; however, I do feel we can use those experiences to help bring about a change in the way we treat each other as human beings. I am so grateful to have met Mrs. Teresa Brown; her daughter, Tonya; and another associate, Adrianne, at the florist shop. My life certainly was enriched by a happenstance conversation with them.
If we communicate with each other – will it help us to understand that we are more alike than different? You be the judge.
Juanita Gambrell Floyd is vice president for Finance and Administration at CREATE Foundation. Contect her at firstname.lastname@example.org.