In 2000, Humanities Texas (then the Texas Council for the Humanities) introduced Parallel and Crossover Lives: Texas Before and After Desegregation, an initiative developed in partnership with the Texas Association of Developing Colleges (Dallas) and the Texas African American Heritage Association (Austin). This pilot oral history project, conducted at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins and Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, was created to document personal experiences with school desegregation in Texas communities.
With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Extending the Reach initiative, the two private, historically black colleges hosted public screenings of Ricardo Ainslie's grant-funded documentary Crossover: A Story of Desegregation and held oral history workshops before launching projects to record oral histories from members of the community. Each project site produced a video from the interviews they recorded, which can be viewed in the column to the right.
This month, as part of our ongoing e-newsletter oral history feature, we are highlighting excerpts from two of the thirty interviews conducted for Parallel and Crossover Lives. In the first interview, the Honorable Wilhelmina Delco discusses the desegregation of Austin Independent School District during her time serving on the Austin school board. In the second interview, the Reverend Dr. S. L. Curry reflects on his experience as one of the first African American students to attend the newly integrated Big Sandy High School in Big Sandy, Texas.
The Parallel and Crossover Lives section of our website includes transcripts of all thirty oral histories gathered by Jarvis Christian College and Huston-Tillotson University along with biographies of the participants and an introductory essay by Dr. Glenn Linden, associate professor of history in Dedman College at Southern Methodist University.
A resident of Austin, Texas, the Honorable Wilhelmina Delco has held public office in three different levels of government—school board, community college, and state legislature. She was the first African American elected to the Austin school board, on which she served from 1968 to 1974. Her platform was broader education, communication, and community service. She has also served as vice chair of the Board of Trustees of Huston-Tillotson University.
Wilhelmina Delco: My name is Wilhelmina Delco, and I'm a resident of Austin, Texas. I've lived here since my husband came to do graduate work in the early sixties. I have held public office in three different levels of government: school board, community college, and the state legislature, for a total of twenty-six years.
Rosalee Martin: Thank you so much. The reason why we asked you to come and share with us as we look at the crossover—desegregation to integration—is because we recognize that you did serve in public office. I want us to look and specifically focus on the time that you spent on the school board.
Delco: My mother always felt that education was very important. Even as a single parent, all five of us got college degrees from inner-city Chicago, so that we all have a very high premium in terms of getting an education. All of us worked our way through school or earned scholarships to go to school. So it was important. When I married and decided to become involved [in the community], education and activities centered around my children were my priorities, and that's how I got to be a member of the school board. I'd actually been a Girl Scout leader, and every time we wanted to do anything for the kids, the school board said we couldn't do it. So I decided that's where I needed to be, and that was my motivation for running for the school board as a PTA president.
. . .
I was on the school board in Austin from 1968 until 1974, and I was the first African American elected to the school board. I will always believe that I was elected . . . because the election took place two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King [Jr.]. I'll always believe that the strong emotional pull of that convinced people that it was time to have someone on the school board who represented that heretofore unrepresented community, in light of the assassination and the perception that Austin was the kind of community that nurtured that kind of diversity, at least on that level.
Martin: When you became a member of the school board, were Austin schools integrated?
Delco: Not really. I think that what Austin had at that time was a pattern of voluntary integration that said that if you chose to go to a school, you could go, and it was at your own expense, but the school district did not promote the desegregation. As a result, for all intents and purposes, it was mostly the more ambitious, aggressive, highly motivated parents that took their children to other schools. St. Stephen's [Episcopal School], as a private school, was doing the same thing. So they were offering scholarships to African American students in an effort to integrate St. Stephen's. But basically, most students, in the name of desegregation, simply started going to the schools that were closer to them. The Austin school district had made a commitment to do it one grade at a time, and my memory says it hadn't progressed very far.
Martin: During the years that you were on the school board, could you just talk about the attempts to actually integrate the schools.
Delco: I was elected to the school board in 1968, in May. The first team from the federal government, which was the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [HEW], came to Austin that August saying that Austin was in noncompliance with the desegregation laws—that their efforts to do this on a voluntary step-by-step basis was too little, too slowly done. So they asked Austin to submit a plan. We were in and out of courts from talking to the members of Congress, and we did go to Washington and talk to the two senators, who at that time were—to show you how long ago it was—it was Senator [John G.] Tower and Senator [Ralph W.] Yarborough. We went to talk to them about what posture we were in and we ended up going to the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans.
. . .
The courts ruled ultimately, after we went to Fifth Circuit, that we were in noncompliance, and as a result of that noncompliance, they ordered the closing of [L. C.] Anderson High School and St. John's Elementary School and that those students would be dispersed to the other high schools on an arbitrary geographical boundary-line basis.
Martin: And what year was this?
Delco: I think it was probably about 1971 or '72.
Martin: I've had the opportunity of interviewing other persons, and some of them were really upset because Anderson High was the school that was closed.
Martin: And many of them thought, why didn't you close other schools and make some of the white students come to Anderson High. Were there any discussions during that time about that?
Delco: Yes. As a matter of fact, the initial order of the court was to have the students who lived in what should have been the geographical boundaries of Anderson attend Anderson. Basically, that is what we would now characterize as the Maplewood area. That area was solidly white, and those students were permitted to go primarily to Austin High [School]. Well, the court ruled on a Friday that those students now were in the Anderson district and would have to go to Anderson High School.
It was very interesting, because over that weekend the students in the Anderson community and AISD [Austin Independent School District], for that matter, practically remade Anderson High School. They were in there with tons of paint, putting in equipment, making it acceptable and attractive to these non-African American students. The Anderson students revised their offices so that they made all of these non-African American students coming in eligible for all of the offices, for participation in all of the school organizations. In other words, if they had been cheerleaders at their sending institution, they would become cheerleaders. If they had been band members or choir members or whatever, they were very welcoming. They bent over backwards accommodating those students. They even named buddies for the incoming students. Obviously, some of the students chose to move out or to pretend like they moved out and give different addresses. Some of them just flat refused to go. But there was a significant number of the students who chose to come to Anderson.
Well, Judge [Jack] Roberts, who was a presiding district judge here in Austin, called the board back into session that Thursday and simply announced that desegregation wasn't working in Austin. Now, that was less than a week's time for that to be in effect. He simply announced that it wasn't working in Austin and ordered that Anderson be closed. It was devastating to the community, to the people who felt like that should have been given more time, with even people in the other communities that felt like it was worthy as an effort and as a process.
My own personal feeling as a member of the board, I thought that it was horrible to do that, because to me it implied that the judiciary system had already made up its mind and they went through the motions of giving this a trial, but had no intention to give it the length of time that I think it should have warranted. There was absolutely no justifiable reason, in my mind, to arbitrarily, in less than a week, say it wasn't working.
Martin: And we now know that there is an Anderson High. When did this new Anderson High open, and why was it decided to give it this name without its mascot and all those other things?
Delco: When we on the board had to vote to close Anderson, the commitment that the board made to those parents was that the very next high school built in Austin would be named L. C. Anderson High School, because it was a legitimate name. Those people had class rings and yearbooks. There was no reason why their identity to a high school in Austin should not be continued. William Charles Akins was named the first principal of that high school, and we felt like that was an indication that the system was going to act in good faith. It was very difficult to get the name changed. It came down to making a motion at the board and forcing the board to publicly vote on it. Pleasantly enough, when we forced the board to publicly vote on it, they did vote to retain the name, but they argued that it should be left up to students and the community to determine the colors and the mascot. Well, since Austin hadn't named a new school or opened a new school in a long time, we had no basis to argue or refute that. But we named the school. That was the responsibility of the board. But it was left to that school community to determine its school colors and its mascot. Well, in changing the colors from black and gold to blue and gold, and the mascot from the yellow jacket to the [Trojans], for all intents and purposes, the trophies at Anderson had been abandoned, so much so that people had simply walked across the street to the school or in the community and just picked up what they wanted.
There was a concerted effort made by people in the community with Mr. [H. L.] Gaines, who was the acting principal at the time that it closed, to just go literally from door to door and ask people to return them. We were able to get the Parks and Recreation Department in Austin to dedicate a newly added wing to the Doris Miller Auditorium as an Anderson wing. I think it is still there. We were able to get the trophies and get them in there, and we had a dedication. We should have insisted that there be set aside money for maintenance, because I don't think that the Parks and Recreation Department has ever considered that [Anderson wing] a real part of the Doris Miller Auditorium or the Rosewood Park system. . . . So I would imagine that there are people now, even from that era, that might not know that that facility is there, and I don't know in what shape it's in. But the intent was to preserve what had been a very honored tradition of that school.
I am not an Austinite, so I did not go to Anderson, but my understanding is that it excelled in so many of the activities that are identified with high schools, not just academically, but socially and athletically and in terms of community organizations and community services. It had a very strong PTA and a very strong, involved community, and those things were kind of lost in the desegregation effort, because people were not only uncomfortable going into the communities where their children were now students, but I honestly don't believe they were very well received in those communities. So they were not just uncomfortable in terms of finding their way there, they were very uncomfortable with the reception they received once they got there.
Martin: Let's talk about that reception. While you were on the school board, did violence occur?
Delco: Yes. We had at least one major incident of violence at Reagan High School. I was on the school board, and I remember it very well because I was at home, and I'm not a person that listens to the radio all day long. So it was not quite noon, and my telephone just started ringing, and they were parents calling me. They had heard on the news that there was trouble at Reagan High School that was characterized as a riot, and they asked me to please go over and check and see what was going on.
I went over, and, indeed, there was a lot of trouble, but by the time I got there, it had calmed down some. The police had even been called, and they had taken the African American students to jail. Now, the reason that happened was because when the principal knew that it was a problem that was beyond the scope of the school, what he did was call the police. Most of the non-African American students lived within walking distance or had access to transportation. The African American kids had all come on the buses. He had not called the buses. So that when the police got there, literally the only students that were there were the African American students. So they were all hauled off to jail.
Ultimately, of course, the charges were dropped, but the whole experience was traumatic. It created an awful sense of bitterness that they had been picked on, that they had been unjustly accused, and I don't disagree with that.
There was another incident when the kids first went to McCallum [High School]. Remember I said that when they first decided to keep Anderson open and the students who lived in that community and attended that school got wind of the fact that they were going to have new students coming to their school, they bent over backwards to welcome them. It was exactly the opposite. When those students went, particularly the first wave, to McCallum, when they got there, there were all the racial slurs and epithets on the sidewalk and on the walls. There was no welcoming. It was jeering and booing and all sorts of things, and the whole sense that these were aliens from outer space invading our turf, that this was something that we have to endure until the courts come to their senses and reverse this. That basically was the whole perception.
We on the board level passed a ruling, a policy, that if those students had been cheerleaders—the same essential thing that had been done at the old Anderson voluntarily we now imposed as policy by the school board. [McCallum] had to expand their cheerleading teams, they had to expand their bands. [African American students] became co-officers [at McCallum] if they'd been officers on the Student Council or other student organizations [at Anderson]. But it was a tenuous situation because there was no real sense of invitation or welcome. It was imposed externally, and each and every semester until finally [the board] felt like it was no longer required, it was painful for those kids to participate.
The expenses were extraordinary. For example, one of the students who was to be a cheerleader found that everybody brought ponytail wigs, because everybody, no matter how long or short their hair was all wore the same hairstyle. They all bought two or three outfits because there was one for school pep rallies, there was another one for home games in the fall, there was another one for when it got colder. Of course, this was an extraordinary, unexpected expense for these students. Thanks to the community, a lot of people came forward and just volunteered so the girls would be able to participate. Same thing with the majorettes, I think. They had to buy certain boot colors and all sorts of things that these kids were not accustomed to doing, and certainly they were not anticipated expenses. So it was extraordinarily expensive for them to participate.
Martin: Let's talk about the parents and the community during this time. How did they assist with this crossover? What did they say to you?
Delco: For my part, I think they just said, "Do what you can." There was a small cadre of very involved, very concerned parents who came to every school board meeting, who raised issues all the time, and who literally stayed on top of the situation. But I think, for the most part, parents just gave up. You have to realize, this is a strong community of working parents who not only work a full eight-hour day, but a lot of them, single and both parents, work two and three jobs. So the time to just sit around and go to meetings and make telephone calls literally wasn't available. That didn't mean they weren't interested in their kids. It just meant they had to delegate that interest to someone else.
It became very difficult because it fell into a pattern of the parents putting the kids on the bus and hoping for the best. Kids, being kids, learned quickly how to exploit the situation. If they didn't go class or they didn't get good grades, it was all racism. It was, "We're at that white school. They don't like us. We don't like them. When can I come home? They're not treating us right." Parents accepted that. So that the strong bond that had existed at the old Anderson [High School] between parents and students and community, the whole concept that we used to refer to as in loco parentis—which meant that if I couldn't come as a parent, somebody from the church went or a neighbor or friend, somebody always was there to see about kids—that was completely lost because it was no longer a cohesive sense of community, not just because the kids were getting on the bus, but they were getting on different buses.
Somebody on this side of the street could be going to McCallum. On the other side of the street, they could have been going to Lanier [High School]. The younger kids were going to arbitrarily-drawn junior high districts that were drawn more on what percentage they wanted of African American students rather than whether or not this was a natural feed-in community. That evolved later on. But at that point it was more willy-nilly, helter-skelter. So there wasn't any sense of continuity. There was not any sense of community. There was not any sense of involvement or even communication.
Parents who did try to go [to school meetings] had to find their own transportation. In Austin, we've never had a good transportation system, which meant that if you didn't have a car, you had to find a ride with somebody who did. And here you are wandering around a hostile community at night looking for the school. It just wasn't a very welcoming situation, and I suspect that was a great deal of the reason a lot of parents really did not [participate] as they had when it was a community school.
Martin: You mentioned involvement of the churches. Were there ministers who were active in [desegregation]?
Delco: Not many. As a matter of fact, that was one of my real criticisms. I alluded earlier to the fact that when the principal at [Reagan High School] called the police, to me it was an indictment of our religious community, that within walking distance of every single high school in Austin, including Reagan High School, there are churches of every denomination, and not one of those African American children felt comfortable walking into a church. They were just stuck at the school. . . . These [African American] kids were literally stranded there, and there was no welcoming hand . . . [no] minister got in his car or walked down the street and said, "Come with me and stay at my church." That was one of my big indictments. I even went to the Council of Churches and told them that I thought it was disgraceful.
Martin: As you're looking back at that experience right now, are there any things that the school board could have done differently to make that transition smoother?
Delco: I think [there's] nothing better than twenty-twenty hindsight.
Delco: [If] I had it to do over again as a school board member and as [a member of] that community, [I would have] insisted that they give that initial effort a longer trial period. When the order was made to integrate Anderson High School, I just felt like [it would have been better] if they had said, "We'll do this at least a semester and see how it works out," carefully monitored it, followed through on these people who said they'd move out of the neighborhood. Some of those people are still in those neighborhoods, so obviously they did not move out.
It was very discouraging that the opportunity to sustain an African American school where it was, as it was, with all of the obvious needed improvements—for example, the labs were disgraceful. That was one of the first things they tried to enhance when they thought that there were going to be non-African American students there. To me, if they had followed through and visited with parents and encouraged them, I think there would have been enough receiving parents in the non-African American community to sustain the old Anderson as a high school with much needed improvement and support services.
[Also,] since we had a strong tradition in our community of parental involvement, then it should have been mandated that the PTA meetings would be one month at that [white] community and one month in our community. We had churches where they could have met, and it would have fostered some sense of connection. There was not any of that.
So looking back on that, I also think that we literally put our kids out there and left them, and there should have been more attempts [to help them]. There was a small group of people who tried to follow the kids, who tried to stay involved, but they were almost characterized as agitators and people who were troublemakers. I never characterized them as troublemakers. I felt that they were concerned parents. Every single one of them had kids in those schools that they were concerned about. If we had done, as a board and as a community, the follow-through on both ends, the situation might have been different.
Martin: You said that you were the first African American elected to the board. At that time do you think the board really had the black community and Anderson High at its best interest? Were they concerned?
Delco: No. As a matter of fact, I used to say that for the board to cross I-35, which was the dividing line between East and West Austin, it was like Moses crossing the Red Sea. It took an act of God and took an act of the courts. When we went over to Anderson and Kealing [Junior High School] as a board to look at the facilities, I would venture that's the first time the majority of the board had ever crossed I-35. So they didn't know what was going on over there.
It was worse than that. Of the seven members of the board, I think at least five of them lived within five blocks of each other. So they could have met accidentally at the 7-11 and had a quorum for a board meeting. Matter of fact, that was the platform on which I ran: broader education, broader communication, and broader community service. Because we just felt that it was like a clique. And I don't think it was intentional. I think it was just the mentality of people who ran for the board. They were more or less upper-middle-class professional people who felt like this was something their children were in or had been in, and it was a way for them to give back to the community. They were very, very aware of what was going on.
Austin High School and Casis Elementary School could compare favorably with schools anywhere in this state because they were encouraged to involve parents. It was a university community. Parents would leave and [donate] their encyclopedias, so that Casis probably had one of the biggest and best libraries.
Even more than that, when faculty members would come to the university, their spouses, a lot of whom were professional people, would go volunteer at the school. So they would teach languages, they would teach music, they would volunteer in the library, they would volunteer to take the kids on field trips. The people in public office, the governor, would go and visit the classes. The quality of extra-school activity was absolutely superior.
None of that translated over when our kids were in those schools. Instead of the whole school being called to the assembly, the class where the person's child was had the assembly. I think that was something that the school board was responsible for.
One instance. We had an effort when I was on the board to create a Casis Foundation. It was to say that now that the school board had all of these expenses, that it could no longer do the kinds of things that the parents in that community wanted for their kids. So they had gotten somebody to volunteer to set up a [501c3] tax-exempt nonprofit foundation so that they could contribute money, get tax credit for it, that would go strictly to their kids. We killed that on the school board, but I suspect that as I look at Austin now, there are probably a lot of those little closet organizations going on. It's an attempt to have a private school within a public school setting.
Martin: Do you think integration helped our kids?
Delco: In some senses it did. There was no question that our kids were more and more narrowly confined to less and less. There was a great deal of enthusiasm, and to give teachers and parents in the community their credit, they were the most creative people on the planet. . . . The sense of community and the sense of "We're all in this together" was important. It was also important that the children of the professional middle-class parents were right in there with some of the poorest school children, which [meant] that these students got a chance to see those role models. They got a chance to interact, and you can see that as pervasive in the community now. All the people that went to the old Anderson together, that was lost.
. . .
If I had to do it over again, I would clearly have more thought given to what we can do to provide, as those Anderson students tried to provide, a welcoming atmosphere, but make it work both ways. There's no such thing as equity when the bus ride is a one-way bus ride. There's no such thing as equity when we are sending our best teachers and we're receiving the newest, untried teachers. Not to say they're not good teachers. I'm not saying that.
But clearly, if you look at high school, where you have three algebra classes, and two of the teachers have taught algebra forever, they catch up on all the literature, they go to all the workshops, this is their whole life, and then you have somebody who came in with a minor in math and a major in English, and they needed another algebra teacher and they said to you, "We need for you to teach two sections of algebra and you've got the hours to do it." Okay, you're one step ahead of the kids in the textbook. There's no way that those kids are getting equal treatment in terms of their exposure to that subject matter as the kids right next door.
And that's what I compare what our kids are getting in East Austin schools with what kids are getting in other schools. They're getting what is on paper described as the same curriculum, but when you look at the depth and the breadth and the commitment of the people who are teaching, then it's not very often they are.
One terrible example was when non-African American teachers were first forced to come into African American schools, we had an administrator who would tell them, "Well, you have to go over there this year, but if you'll stick it out this year, we'll get you to a better school next year."
. . .
Martin: How have things changed over the years? We're now in the year 2001. I want you to just think about education now and how has it changed.
Delco: Well, in some cases dramatically, and in some cases very little. Dramatically, when you look at our kids' test scores and you look at the sense of hopelessness and helplessness that so many of our young people feel, we had education as a top priority because we felt we could point to the actual results, the fruits if you will, of a good education. Kids don't sense that now. They don't see where going to school for sixteen years is going to result in this wonderful quality of life. So there's not the value attached.
We have younger parents who work harder, or not at all, but their commitment to their children might be there and might not, but their commitment to the institutions is not there. I think that makes a tremendous difference in the response of the system to those concerns, because they respond if the room is full of screaming parents. They don't respond if the parents don't come. They assume the parents aren't interested. I don't make the assumption that parents aren't interested.
Born in Gladewater, Texas, the Reverend Dr. S. L. Curry grew up in Elam Springs. He attended Excelsior Elementary School in Big Sandy and Fouke-Hawkins High School. Following desegregation, he graduated from Big Sandy High School. In 1971, he graduated from Jarvis Christian College and then worked for the federal government for more than twelve years. Since 1982, he has served as pastor of the New Zion Baptist Church, which was founded in 1870.
S. L. Curry: My name is Sylvester Lawrence Curry Jr. Most people only know me by S. L., but I am the son of the late Sylvester Curry Sr. and of Dorothy Mae Hill Curry of Big Sandy, Texas. I was born in Gladewater, Texas, grew up in Big Sandy, Texas. In fact, we grew up about seven miles north of Big Sandy in a community called Elam Springs. . . . I started the first grade at Excelsior Elementary School in Big Sandy, Texas. I completed the eighth grade at Excelsior and then I was bused to Fouke-Hawkins High School, in Hawkins, Texas, because there was no high school for blacks in Big Sandy. I attended Fouke-Hawkins High School two years, and then came integration. I returned to Big Sandy where I attended Big Sandy High School. I graduated from Big Sandy High and enrolled in Jarvis Christian College in September 1967. I graduated from Jarvis Christian College in July of 1971. After college, I worked for the federal government for twelve and a half years. . . . God called me to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in October 1981. I accepted my calling, and nine months later in July 1982, I accepted the pastorage of the New Zion Baptist Church, Winona, Texas. This coming July, I will have been pastor of the New Zion Baptist Church for nineteen years.
I [am] married to the former Mary Ann Price, and we have three children: Debbie, Channing and Rodney. Both Debbie and Rodney graduated from Jarvis Christian College, as well as my wife. Our son Channing attended East Texas State [University] in Commerce.
This church has grown tremendously since we've been here. When I came here, we had about seventy-five active members. We had about 150 or 175 on the membership roll. Presently, there are over five hundred members, and we have built two facilities. We built one in 1985 and paid for it. We built the present facility that we're worshiping in now in 1999. The church has numerous ministries, and the Lord is truly blessing us here. This church is rich in history. The New Zion Baptist Church was founded in 1870, and started under a brush arbor about a quarter of a mile north of where the church is, at the Kay Cemetery. The founding members erected a brush arbor, and there they had their first service in June 1870. There were four families that started this church: the Arps family, the Jones family, the Moore family, and the Miller family. This church started, as I said, under a brush arbor, and then it finally was able to erect a building, I believe, in 1880, 1885, somewhere in there. They bought this property where we are today. In fact, the first school for blacks in Winona was held at the New Zion Baptist Church. This church has a lot of colorful history, and I am just thankful to be the pastor.
Florine White: Now, about the topic under discussion, integration, desegregation. I want you to look back to the pre-integration period from 1955 until 1965 and speak to us from your perspective as a young student during that period.
Curry: From 1955 to 1965, during my early school years, I can remember attending an all-black school, Excelsior Elementary School in Big Sandy. One of the things that we realized is that there was a difference in the schools, the white school versus the black school.
We were cognizant of the fact that there was a difference in facilities—the facilities that we went to and the facilities that the whites went to were different. One noticeable specific area was the playground equipment. At the white school, there were swings and slides, those type of things, and we didn't have any playground equipment at all, until the PTA [Parent Teacher Association] finally raised enough money to get us a merry-go-round, and that is all we had to play on. The merry-go-round went around and around and around. We would get on it and we would get sick to our stomach just riding, but that is all we had to play on.
Eventually we got a basketball goal set up on a dirt court, and then finally it was paved with asphalt. Now, you can imagine playing basketball on an asphalt court. But bouncing the ball on asphalt was better than bouncing the ball in the dirt and the grass. Although it was pretty dangerous playing on asphalt, that was all we had. So yes, there were some differences that we could notice. Before I left Excelsior, we finally got swings and a slide.
White: As a child, what did you think accounted for these differences? Why were things different?
Curry: I think hearing our parents talk about how there was a difference in color. People of color were not treated as well. I heard stories about how blacks had been treated and mistreated, how they had been lynched and a lot of other things, beaten and just really treated in an inhumane way.
Also we hear reports on [the] radio and television. Because we were just getting television in at that time 1955, '56, we soon saw some of the struggles that were going on in other parts of the country. We were not experiencing what they were experiencing then in terms of the marches and all this. We were, however, very conscious of the problems that blacks encountered.
White: How did the students get to the Excelsior School?
Curry: We got to school on a bus. We had to get up pretty early because we had to come all the way out of Elam Springs community on the bus, and then the bus driver also had to go and pick up students at the county line, which is the county line between Upshur County and Wood County. He would pick up those students, then he would have to go down and pick up students in the Red Rock area, which is west of Gladewater. So it was a pretty long trip, therefore, we had to leave home pretty early in the morning.
One of the things that I remember vividly is the fact that we had probably the worst buses that you could have. We didn't have a new bus. In fact, we were once told that it was impossible to heat a school bus. Our buses never had heat on them; they were always cold. The bus that we rode would often break down on the road, and sometimes we would have to push the bus off to get it started. So that was a big difference. But that is how we got to school. We were bused on buses that were very old.
White: What, if any, was your contact with white students of the same age group? Did you have any contact with white students of your age?
Curry: The only white students that I had contact with before integration were a couple of white children that came out to our church when we had a nineteenth of June picnic. They loved the barbecue. And their family would come out, and they would sit at the picnic with us all day. They had a little boy and little girl, and we played together. There was another young man whose mother did sewing. Sometimes we would go to that house with my mother and we would come in contact with him, but normally, we didn't come in contact with white children.
White: During what period of time did you begin to hear the word "integration," and what did you think it meant?
Curry: Well, I guess I started being conscious of that word probably in the late fifties to the early sixties. It was just probably talk at that time. We really didn't visualize exactly how it would be, because when we actually integrated we were shocked. In fact, we didn't really like it because . . . we went out of our comfort zone. We wanted to stay at the black school, but they told us that we had to start going to the white school . . .
White: Why did they tell you that you had to go?
Curry: Because of integration. They said integration has come into this area now and the federal government has mandated that whites and blacks had to go to school together. We didn't want to at that time. This was 1965. But we had to.
In fact, I can remember vividly at Fouke-Hawkins High—that is where we went to high school before integration—when the principal Mr. T. H. Burton called the students from Big Sandy to the office and gave us the news. We couldn't imagine why he wanted us all in the office. This was around the end of the school year, around April or the first of May. We went into his office, and I never will forget the look on his face and the look on our faces when he said, "Well, I have some news that I've got to share with you all. I hate to lose you all, but in the fall, you all have to go back to Big Sandy." I mean, we were just speechless. We asked, "Why?" And that is when he explained integration and the federal mandate that we integrate. Big Sandy was one of the first areas that they were going to be integrating in the East Texas area.
Those other areas around would not integrate all at the same time, but Big Sandy started, and since that is where we were from, we had to go back. But we were crushed, and we cried. We had to deal with the thought of integration all summer, wondering, "What is it going to be like being at this white school?"
White: What was your greatest fear? Personally, what did you fear most?
Curry: Probably just the unknown. I didn't know how it was going to be. We were not afraid to be with the white people. We were not afraid that they were going to do anything to us physically, that kind of thing, even though some of our parents were afraid of that. Our parents worried that they might try to take advantage of us because there were just a few of us, and there was a great number of them. But we were not really afraid of that. We just hated to leave our friends that we had been going to high school with for the past two years at Fouke-Hawkins.
White: What was your thought of making the best of the situation? What was your greatest hope?
Curry: We knew that we could do well wherever we were. I guess our greatest hopes were that we would have a smooth transition into this and that we would be able to get along and that we would be able to continue learning. In my mind, I was not saying, "Oh, now I'll have a great opportunity to really fulfill my dreams." I really never thought about it that way.
White: What was your idea of the white students and the intelligence aspect as opposed to black students? Had you been led to believe that white students were more intelligent than black students?
Curry: I don't think I had been led to believe that, but let me give you a scenario: Whenever the students would start acting up, and the teachers [at Fouke-Hawkins] would get on to us, I remember the teachers telling us, "That is why white people don't want to be around y'all. You don't know how to act." [Laughter] They didn't really believe that. They used that to get us back in line. So we internalized that and said to ourselves, "Well, if we want to be with white people one day, we're going to have to learn how to act." [Laughter]
I will never forget my first day at Big Sandy High. At lunchtime we were all in study hall. We were always taught that when the bell rings for lunch to put our books up neatly under our desk, march out, and walk to the lunchroom. We wanted to make sure we did everything just right because now we're with white people, and we know they [know] how to act. To our surprise, when the bell rang, you never heard such commotion and noise, books falling, desks being knocked over. There were white students literally . . . sliding down the stair banister all the way to lunch, just like, "Vroom!" The only people left in the library were three black students and the librarian. The librarian looked so embarrassed while putting my books away. I sat there, and I thought to myself, "We don't know how to act." [Laughter] It was clear; we are no different. Children will be children.
White: Now tell me about the black teachers. From your perspective, what kind of arrangements were made to ensure that the black teachers were also part of this integration movement?
Curry: I think in a lot of areas the black teachers really got the shovel and the stick. A lot of them lost their jobs, specifically here in Winona. . . . Some teachers had to fight for their positions and went all the way to Washington and got reinstated, but a lot of them lost their positions. Big Sandy was not quite as bad because integration took place slowly, starting with the high school first. There were problems in other areas. For example [black] principals . . . lost their principalships in basically all of the schools. And some of the teachers were displaced, especially some of the older ones who had been there for some time. Overall, many of the black teachers got a bad deal in integration, in my opinion.
White: Was there any kind of an apology or rationale involved in displacing these professionals, to your knowledge?
Curry: Not to my knowledge. I think that once it was called to their attention by someone filing a grievance, they became conscious of the disparate treatment. I think they were always conscious of it, but at least they started trying to do something about it by not displacing all the black teachers. We had a lot of great black teachers.
And I am thankful to God that I had many years with black teachers. The black high school teachers made an indelible impact on my life. In Big Sandy High School, we didn't have any black teachers; all of our teachers were white. So integration ended our contact with black teachers.
White: Let's talk about Big Sandy High. Were the black students and the white students, to your knowledge, given any guidelines concerning the social parameters involved in this integration effort? Did blacks and whites socialize? Did they date, or anything like that?
Curry: Well, I don't know whether or not the white students were given any information, but we were certainly not given any information from the school regarding what we could do, or could not do. For example, no one said, you know, "You can't talk to white girls," or "You can't do this or that."
Now one of the things they did, prior to integration, was they had stopped having proms. I think they may have known this was coming. So there were no proms, no dances, or anything like that. We had a few functions where we got together, but it was nothing like a dance or socials like they have now in school. That sort of knocked out the possibility of a black and a white going to the prom together like they do now. But we were not sat down and told, "You can't do this and you can't do that."
It is ironic how . . . we socialized well together. We mixed well together in the classroom and in other settings, but it was amazing how at lunchtime, we all seemed to segregate. The blacks would be in one area and the whites in another area. Nobody told us to do that, but that is just the way it was.
We participated in sports together. In football, we were totally integrated in the locker rooms and the showers.
One incident sticks out in my mind, and I will never forget it. Even though the schools were integrated, integration was not everywhere. The restaurants and cafes were still segregated. I never will forget one evening after football practice, Coach Brand was taking several boys home that lived close to the area where we lived. It was me, my cousin, and a couple of white boys. We were all hot, thirsty, and hungry, so the coach decided to go to Bennett's Cafe, right there in Big Sandy. Coach said, "Let's go in and get some hamburgers and something to drink. I'll pay for it." We said, "Okay."
Now, we knew we had never gone in the front entrance of Bennett's Cafe before, but this was "integration," maybe the rules had changed. So, we went in and sat down. The owner came over, took our orders, and went in the back to turn in the orders. While sitting there, I was saying to myself, "This integration is all right." Then we heard somebody say, "There is a place in the back for you boys." Now, there were about four or five boys sitting there, but there were only two black boys. We immediately knew he was talking about us.
We turned around and we looked, and we walked back to where he was pointing, which was the kitchen area, where blacks had always been served. I never will forget what we said: "No, thank you." We walked out, cancelled our orders, and sat outside.
Now, the only thing that bothered me about the whole incident, to this day, is the fact that the coach, who carried us in there, stayed and ate even after he found out that we were not all able to eat together. They ate their hamburgers, and then they came out. We waited outside.
When we got into the car, he apologized to us and said, "Well, I'm sorry, I didn't know it was like this. We won't ever come here again." And he didn't ever carry us there again.
But this is the main point. At the end of the football season in November—the proprietor [of that restaurant] gave a banquet for all the football boys because we had won five games. The year before that, they hadn't won any, maybe one. He wanted to show his appreciation to the team because they had won five games out of ten.
I never will forget he came to the school and said, "We are going to have a banquet for you football boys." He made a point to tell us, "And we are all going to eat together." And that ended segregation in his cafe.
White: What a wonderful story. Now, speaking of sports, one of the complaints I've heard over the years has to do with the related activity, and I have heard that young black girls have a hard time getting to be cheerleaders, even today, because of whatever the requirements are. Can you address black cheerleaders?
Curry: Right. There has always been a problem with that, and we didn't address that when we integrated because none of the black girls tried out for the cheerleading team or the drum major when we first went to Big Sandy. Later on, some did try out, and some did make it. During the first years of integration, we had blacks on the football team, basketball team, and some ran track, but none of the cheerleaders were black.
But even now that is a problem. We had a problem like that here in Winona. In fact, we had to call TEA [Texas Education Agency] to investigate the situation, where they were trying to get rid of two black girls who were on the cheerleading team here in Winona.
White: Still going on?
Curry: Oh, yes. This was back in the eighties, and we had to get together as a community to get behind that. Even now they still have a problem because, I think, this year at Winona, they maybe had one black cheerleader. In junior high they didn't have any, so that is still a problem. I think that is an area where there is still some segregation.
White: Personal question, if you don't mind. During your high school years, did you form any friendships across racial lines? Can you remember any great friends?
Curry: Yes, and it was amazing how we did that. To this day, I have some very good friends that [I] met while going to Big Sandy High.
One of the persons who stands out in my mind is Patsy Magaughey. Her last name was Smiley when we went to school. She was very active here in this area in leading the concerned citizens. When I moved here, I joined right in with her because we were friends from high school. I think about the Mooneys, Kathy and David Mooney, and Penny Honeycutt, and Elmore Parson. In fact, I performed their marriage about a year or so ago.
We had a good relationship with all of the people in our class. We never had any problems to the point where we didn't like them or they didn't like us. We had very good relationships. And like I said, I can call several of them my friends even today.
White: That is wonderful. Looking back now, did integration help or hinder you as a student?
Curry: I think there were positives and negatives.
White: Share some of them?
Curry: I think that it helped us in one regard because we probably got exposed to more things in terms of availability of things. For example, at the high school we were able to take bookkeeping, shorthand, and typing. . . .
I think we lost something in terms of some of the values we had as people of color. I think there were certain kinds of dignity that we had, especially at various ceremonies, like graduations. Graduation was an occasion where you were really on your best behavior. Well, we kind of lost some of that when we went to the white school. I think we gained some things and we lost some in integration.
White: Maybe this is redundant, but I will ask it anyway. Was integration a good idea?
Curry: Maybe it was good if that was the only way we were going to acquire equality in terms of having better facilities. The schools were separate, but not equal, because we didn't have the equipment; we didn't have the books. At the beginning of school, we received books that were torn up, with missing pages. Sometimes backs of the book were gone. We didn't have the facilities. So I think from that standpoint integration was probably good.
But I think if we had been given the resources that white schools and students had been given, and our teachers would have had those resources to work with, I don't think it would have been a bad thing not to have integration. I am not against integration, because I think that it is hard to be separate and equal because of the disparity in the resources.
. . .
White: Do you think that schools will be segregated again in your lifetime?
Curry: I don't think so.
White: Pre-segregation, were there any organized meetings that you were aware of where people were attempting to prepare both communities for this movement?
Curry: I don't know of any. I know that there were some demonstrations, that I was aware of, where they had sit-ins.
White: In this area?
Curry: . . . As far as coming together in community meetings, trying to prepare people for this, we didn't do it. In Big Sandy, when we integrated, you didn't have anybody come together. Maybe in Big Sandy it didn't need to happen because, like I said, things went probably as smooth or smoother than a lot of places.
White: Presently, from your perspective, do the races appear to be getting along today in the schools?
Curry: I don't know, because I believe some of the children in school are having more problems now than perhaps we had. And maybe it is because you are seeing more of the interracial dating and courtship and that kind of thing, and even marriage and all this.
When I was in school, [the two years I was at Big Sandy High School] I did not see blacks and whites going together. In fact, we talked and all that, but shortly after that, about the next year or so and during my younger brother's time, some black boys did date white girls, as it is today. . . .
White: Okay, one last question. At the risk of sounding redundant: who gained more from integration, blacks or whites as a group?
Curry: That is a very good question. Who gained the most? I really don't know. I think we both gained something, but they may have gained a little more than we did. Because, like I say, we lost a lot of things. . . . Even during integration, even though we were integrated, there was still segregation, well—racism—as there is today. We have been integrated for years, but there is still racism.
White: Is this notion of community schools really a guise to resegregate schools?
. . .
Curry: Yes, I think so, and I think that is why a lot of people fought busing. We've always been bused. I used to get into some heated debates in the office where I worked when different people were talking about [how] they didn't believe in busing—"Why should my child have to get up at this time of the morning and go there when there is a school right here?" I said, "Well, I don't have any problem with that, because I had to get up at 5:30 or 6:00 to be ready to catch the bus for an hour or so drive."
When we were being bused, busing was all right. So why [is] it so bad now? If we hadn't been bused, we wouldn't have been able to go any higher than eighth grade. So I don't have a problem with busing.
Most people have a problem with things that affect them. As long as it is not affecting them, they don't have a problem with it. But once it starts affecting them, then they have a problem.
. . .
White: Were the black students recognized for high academic achievement after integration in the school?
Curry: The only things that we had when we were there were the "A" and "B" honor rolls, and we were able to make the "A" honor roll [and the] "B" honor roll. Of course, in our class, the white students were the valedictorians and salutatorians. Nevertheless, of course, one of the things we had in our favor was that we had far more high school credits than they had. They only had to have eighteen credits at Big Sandy, but in Hawkins we had to have twenty-one. So we had more credits than they had when we started at Big Sandy, so we didn't have to take as many classes. Yes, we were recognized when we did what we were supposed to do. It was later on before we started seeing black valedictorians and the salutatorians. As I said, discrimination was very, very subtle, if they did do it. It was not open, it was not blatant, and I think that is why things went as smoothly as they did. It looked like the people tried to or seemed to have been fair with us.
White: But there weren't as many scholarships and things of that nature available to compete for then, were there?
Curry: No, no. Our high school [class] graduated with only thirty-five [students], with only three blacks. In fact, the first class that graduated under integration had two black students: Billy Johnson and Gloria Boyd. We were the second class with black graduates.
I will never forget after the graduation ceremony, we lined up on the outside of the auditorium down the walkway. Then the people would come by and shake our hands. I never will forget an old man, probably in his eighties, came down through the line. . . . He passed several graduates then he got to us. He said, "Here are these old colored boys!" [Laughter] He said, "Colored boys, how are you all doing? Congratulations!"
White: Did anyone suggest or was there any indication that there was a view that the white teachers were better qualified than the black teachers?
Curry: No, I couldn't pick that up. We could not make the comparison because all of the teachers were white. There were some subjects that I just wasn't that good in whether I was at a white school or a black school, and there were some subjects that I was good in, like bookkeeping and subjects like that. So we had a pretty good foundation. Ms. Gladys Mabrey. Did you know her? She was my high school English teacher. She really had prepared us. She was real good. A lot of the other teachers were as well. They would tell us a lot of things, like how to dress, and how to respect ourselves. We always had our shoes shined and our jeans ironed and creased. This is what we had been taught, but today we have lost a lot of that. I think that is why you see dress codes today. But before integration we were taught how to dress. Professor Anderson taught us, "Son, shine your shoes." Like today, you can see my shoes are shined. Some may not think that much of it, but these were things that would go with you through your life.
But I'll tell you one thing, and I failed to put this in earlier. I think that the one thing that prepared us for integration was our home backgrounds. All of us came out of two-parent homes, a mother and a daddy, a grandpa, and grandma. They had instilled in us some principles, and we knew that they were going to support us. I knew my daddy was going to support [us].
I worked on one of the school programs a few hours after or between classes . . . and I made a little extra money. I remember I was working, and I had to get some rags out of the janitor's closet so I could go and dust the blackboard and wash the blackboard.
Well, it was between classes. I didn't have time to wash the rags before my next class, so I just put them in the closet and I said, to one of the janitors, "I'll be back soon as my class is out, and I'll wash the rags and hang them up to dry." There was this white janitor there who said to me, "No, you just come in here and mess up and don't ever clean up anything. You try to be smart!" I said, "No, I told you I have class. I have to go to class. I'll be back!" So he went on and on.
Well, somebody told my dad because I didn't tell him. My daddy would drop us off up at the high school, and he would go back down to the elementary school. He parked the bus that day, got off, and he went in there to this little man. I felt sorry for the little man because my daddy was 235 pounds and about 5'11." He went in there, and he said, "Now, I hear that you told my son to get out of the janitor's room," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and all that. He says, "Now I want you to know that if you ever have any problem with my boy, you deal with me 'cause we are adults. And I don't like it, and I don't want you to do that anymore."
[The janitor] said, "Well, you mad."
[My dad] said, "Yeah, I'm mad. I don't want that to ever happen again."
That janitor was so nice to me after that. We never had any more problems. But like I said, [my father] would stand up for us if he knew we were right. We knew we had that parental support. They were going to teach us to do the right thing. If we were out of line, no they would not support us. But if we were doing right, my dad would be with me one hundred percent. My dad was like that. He loved us.
So I think that helped us through integration. We knew that we had to go out there and do the right thing. We weren't going to go down there and get out of line or talk back to the teachers. We had been taught not to do that. We respected all. But whenever we were not treated right, then we would certainly let our parents know about it, and they would take care of it. We came from that strong rural background and that helped us through this. We knew who we were. We were proud of who we were. We were not ashamed of who we were. We felt that we were as good as anybody else, that is what we had been taught. So we had that type of attitude. And like I said, it worked out, it worked out.
White: Dr. Curry, is there anything you want to add to our discussion at this juncture?
Curry: I would like to say that I think this is a good project, and I am glad that we are getting a cross-section of interviews. . . . I think forums like this, documentaries like this, are helpful, because it helps us to see some things. A lot of people still don't see a lot of things or know a lot things that happened, and some people may think it was worse than it actually was or it was much better than it was. So I think this is a very helpful documentary, and I am just glad to have been a part of it.
Watch Parallel and Crossover Lives: Recollections of Austin, Texas.
Watch Parallel and Crossover Lives: Recollections of Fouke, Hawkins, and Big Sandy, Texas.