I was among the first students to integrate schools in Batesville, Mississippi in 1964.
I should be angry at white people — but I'm not. I grew up in a small town in north Mississippi called Batesville. My parents owned a farm where we grew just about everything that you could grow in Mississippi. But cotton was king back then. It was also rare that black people were land owners. But we were and my parents had 8 children to help farm those crops. Most of our neighbors were white. Many of our black neighbors lived on white peoples' farms as sharecroppers or tenant farmers, where they worked the land but their wages were next to nothing because most of what they earned went to pay for the rent to live in the housing provided by the landowner.
When I became school age, in the early 60's (we didn't have kindergarten back then), I attended segregated schools because that's all we had, even though Brown v Board of Education was the law. I remember very little about the all black schools I attended for my first three years of school but I do remember having lots of friends, fried bologna sandwiches for lunch, Mayday celebrations, recess that seemed to last forever when it was warm outside and old, torn-up books that had been passed on to us from the white schools. The textbooks would have the names of white children written in them from the years before. I didn't think anything about the old books back then because I was too young to understand where they came from.
Looking back on my time in my segregated school through the lens as a forty-year career educator, there was no rhyme or reason to how teachers taught us. We learned to write our names, add and subtract, but a lot of time was spent playing or brushing the teacher's hair. I don't remember being taught to read but I do remember having 'hand-me-down' Dick and Jane books. I must have been a good reader because I loved to read, though the only thing we had to read in our house back then was an old set of encyclopedias. I soon came to understand that black schools were not given the same resources as the white schools.
Mississippi was forced to begin desecrating schools in 1964. The state decided that the schools would begin the process in phases. The first year, elementary schools would desegregate and the next year jr. high, then high school. Also, the first few years would be by "choice". Black families had the choice to send their children to "white" schools or let them continue attending the all black school.
I was in 4th grade when I began attending the "white school" as we called it. There were 12 of us that integrated Batesville Elementary School that year but many more attended various elementary schools throughout Panola County. It was an extremely difficult transition for me and most of the others as well. We were ostracized, spat upon, called names by the white children and treated differently than the white students by the white teachers (black teachers didn't teach at the white schools until later). I don't remember any specific instances of mistreatment by my teacher other than being ignored and given no help.
That first year, we were all put in different classes (I guess they didn't want any of the teachers to have to deal with more than one black student at a time). But that meant we didn't see another black face until recess. We never felt a sense of belonging until we got home at the end of the day.
The bus ride for me was more horrific than being at school. My bus driver was my neighbor, a small man who was afraid of his own shadow. I was in 4th grade and very petite because both my parents were on the short side. I was about the size of an average 2nd grader. Anyway, the bus ride to school was about 10 miles each way, so I suffered 20 miles of being hit with spitballs, paper wads, pencils, or anything the kids felt like they could throw away and wouldn't miss. Of course I was called everything but a "Child of God" and treated as if I had leprosy. Maybe that's why they threw things at me and didn't hit me with their hands. Needless to say, the bus driver, our neighbor did not try to help me or defend me from the constant harassment. Students from all grade levels on the bus, so there were 1st graders as well as 12th graders on the round trip.
By the time the bus got near to town, two other black children, brothers Vernon and Kevin Miles who were in 1st and 2nd grade, boarded the bus. They were tortured the same as I was, just for a shorter period of time. We were completely helpless, yet we went to school everyday. I didn't talk a lot about what happened at school and on the bus everyday but I would cry many days when I got home. I would try to never let them see me cry for some reason.
I endured horrible things that first year of integration but justice came in an unexpected form the second year. That was the year that black students in grades 5-8 could choose to attend white schools in Mississippi. My sister Dorothy was three years older than me and being the big sister, picked on me from birth. She taunted me for being small, being a "fraidy" cat, and for being a tattletale. A tomboy at heart, she was just as strong as any of my brothers.
Apparently Dorothy's taunting of me prepared her to be the super hero we needed on the bus. She was 8th grade her first year going to the white school and she was absolutely FEARLESS. The white students probably thought they had a new black student to terrorize but from the very first and everytime someone threw something, hit us with any object, or called us names, she would beat the "snot" out of them. In the beginning, she was fighting everyday and she seldom lost. She would not hesitate to punch or slap a kid, be they boy or girl. After a little while, students stopped the harassment and kind of left us alone. But when a new student would start riding the bus (maybe didn't get the memo that she was not to be bothered) Dorothy would have to show them who was boss of the bus. The other wonderful thing that happened as a result of my sister becoming my super hero, she also stopped harassing up on me.
The third and final year of "choice" integration, my older brother Allen, who we called by his middle name Marshall, was in 11th grade, began riding the bus. By then, everyone understood that Dorothy was "bus boss" and therefore, Allen, never had to fight. He actually sat on the seat with some of the white guys and talked with them until they exited the bus. Full integration was in place the next year (1967-68) and several more black students started riding our bus. By that time though, the way had been paved for them to ride the bus in peace.
My experience with integration shaped the kind of educator I became. For some reason, I never took the acts of those white children personally. Or maybe — I felt like we received justice because of our superhero. Whatever the reason, I am thankful for the peace that I have in spite of what could have been.
Copyright © Alice Tucker Pretlow. 2021
Evasion of School Integration ("Freedom of Choice") for background & more
See also School Desegregation for web links.
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