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Black History Month and recognition of black pioneers missing from the history books

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When the separate high school in Abilene, Texas was closed in the 1960s to integrate its black students into white high schools, the response from the black community was a lawsuit.

The action was notable because it occurred during the turbulent period following the landmark 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The case ruled “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional and sparked a firestorm in districts across the country as formerly all-white schools were forced to accept black students.

Some districts have resorted to extreme measures to keep black students out. Prince Edward County in Virginia shut down its entire public school system for five years, rather than comply with the ruling. Whites in other districts threatened violence, prompting the deployment of the National Guard to keep the peace. The governor of Arkansas used the guard to stop black students from entering a white high school in Little Rock.

Abilene school officials adopted a different tact. President Harry Truman had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. Believing that it probably wouldn’t be long before schools were targeted, the school administration proposed to renovate the overcrowded black school which had 13 teachers for 440 students from 1st to 12th grade. The black community rejected the plan as inadequate, and the city agreed to build a new black high school.

Besides the stated goal of an educational facility “equal to that offered to white students in Abilene,” the board admitted that the new school “could impede future efforts by the black community to abolish segregation in schools in Abilene, or at least delay it a decade or so,” according to a 1994 study of Abilene’s desegregation process.

Carter G. Woodson Junior Senior High School opened its doors to a thrilled black community in 1953, the year before the court’s unanimous Brown decision. The school included a library, auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, construction workshop, music and music rooms, science laboratory, sports fields and tennis courts. The new high school allowed the elementary school to occupy the entire former 14-classroom complex that would become Carter G. Woodson Elementary School.

Woodson Elementary expanded to include Head Start in 1965, the year I enrolled.

The black community felt that black students should not bear the full burden of integration. They requested that white students attend their new school. The district refused, and the local NAACP filed its unsuccessful lawsuit to keep Woodson High open. Despite the black community’s contentment with his schools, Brown was a pivotal move for black families in districts across Texas and nationwide. At that time, 854 of 1,952 school districts in Texas offered no educational facilities for black students.

Woodson High closed in 1968 and elementary in 1969. I would start sixth grade at Valley View Elementary where I discovered that kids are basically the same; they just want to have fun (apologies to Cyndi Lauper). My experiences at Lincoln Junior High and Abilene High were also mostly positive. That’s not to say there weren’t problems — black and white students reportedly fought at Abilene High for several years immediately after integration and Latino students staged a nine-day strike.

Maybe the elementary level racism was in the elementary schools from Abilene to Jackson, Johnston, Lee or Reagan. These schools were named after Confederate Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee and Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan, and, not coincidentally, at the height of the efforts of desegregation between 1957 and 1962.

Attending an all-black primary during my formative years had its perks. The teachers taught as if their destiny was inextricably linked to ours. He shielded my generation from much of the racial strife of the mid-twentieth century. And it gave black children the space to discover who they were and could aspire to be before white supremacy could devalue them.

It was a lesson Carter Woodson, author and historian, sought to impart. He popularized Negro History Week in 1926 as a celebration of black culture and achievement. It was extended to one month in 1976.

The week was marked at Woodson with classes and programs on distinguished black personalities. The stories of black leaders such as WEB DuBois, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington were highlights, along with black excellence in the arts, sciences, sports and business. Carter Woodson believed that black history was essential to the “psychological health” of black people.

As we observe this Black History Month, I also want to recognize the black pioneers who are not in the history books – the parents, pastors, teachers and civic leaders who never wavered to demand better schools for black children, whether through improved facilities, more teachers and resources, or admission to white schools.

And a nod to the Abilene School Board for last year renaming Confederacy-Bound Schools after a diverse group of four former local educators that all kids can emulate.

Winston W. Wiley is a former editor of the Telegram & Gazette. His column appears in the Sunday Telegram.