Mom had a dream, too: her kids would walk to the local school

We were a family of seven wrapped in 704 square feet of tin, but Mom wasn't going to let "them" pressure her with overpriced, required school supplies. Her kids would go to the local school, not be forced across town the way "they" were pushing the Negroes around.

A local African-American politician – the kind of long-tenured official who was sitting on the reviewing stand when Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech – put me on the spot one day. He knew about my politics. What about the rest of my family?

He’s old enough that he laughed when I said that my mother is glad my father has become too deaf to hear the nice things she says about President Obama. Then I told him this story about my mother, and he said it needed to be shared. So I’m sharing it.

I speak of myself as new to the South, which of course I really am. Until I married a North Carolina man, I lived almost all of my life north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The exception was the four years when my father, a Navy enlisted man, was stationed at the Pentagon. For those years, we lived in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I started attending public elementary school in 1963.

Brown vs. the Board of Education had been decided nine years earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court, but at Westmore Elementary School, just 20 miles from Our Nation’s Capitol, segregation was still a very real fact of education.

Backwoods paths, back door entry

Westmore was a new school, one of those brick public buildings that sprouted gracelessly at the edge of new subdivisions all over the country. The front door of the school faced the split-level homes and sidewalks. But to get to Westmore from the trailer park where we lived, you trekked along a quarter-mile or so of worn footpaths in woods that had not yet been touched by the 20th century, under a great tulip poplar whose orange and green petals I’d gather each spring, past a couple of unpainted, ramshackle homes where it seemed like someone was always sitting on the porch, spitting tobacco or drinking an unidentified beverage from a dirty-looking bottle, shabby dogs lying at his extended feet.

The woods parted at the far corner of the softball field. You crossed the field and playground and could go straight into the school’s back door or – if you were in an expansion grade – directly into your trailer classroom. I don’t believe I entered the front door more than once during my two years at the school.

Buy at the ‘school store’ or attend elsewhere

Westmore had a policy that year about school supplies. There were certain supplies that every beginning student had to buy – fat pencils, black marble composition books, a box of eight crayons – and they had to be purchased at the school store. Not at the discount store on the highway, where prices were good. At the school store, where prices were high.

My mother felt I was old enough to understand that the reason we had to buy my supplies at the school store was because “they” were trying to keep the Negroes out of Westmore. And what “they” were doing was making it hard for us to afford to go there, too. But, said my mother – who never swore – she “would be damned!” if her children were going to be bused across town when there was a perfectly good school within walking distance of our single-wide.

Not surprisingly, she also told me why the Negroes lived in little shanties along the edge of the trailer park. Because they weren’t allowed to rent lots in the park – or, for that matter, to get loans to buy mobile homes.

In retrospect, it seems more than a little remarkable that it was impossible for our Negro neighbors to be allowed to cram a family of seven into 704 square feet wrapped in tin, as we did. But that was how it was in 1963, 21 miles from the great marble building where the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court took their deliberations.

Mom’s revenge

Mom took her small Northern revenge by allowing my brother to bring playmates home from his preschool, Project Headstart, an anti-poverty program where he may have been the only white child. She stood tall as the neighbors stared when he and his tiny brown friends tumbled down the school bus steps into our little yard.

Today, Westmore Elementary School has been converted to school system administrative offices. The trailer park admits African-Americans, but the lots have been reconfigured so each has just enough space for a trailer and a driveway: no more.

An unexpected twist

In the year since the politician and I first talked, the tale has taken an unusual twist. My husband and I having reached the age where genealogy becomes a fascination, we’ve discovered I’m not actually a new Southerner. My father has Southern roots that extend beyond the founding of the nation. Some of his people are buried in Wake County, where I now live. And one family “home place” is a South Carolina state museum – the tavern and plantation owned by a particularly well-to-do (and notorious!) part-Cherokee relative, who kept 99 slaves and, by one account, as many as nine wives.

So my Northern indignation about “the peculiar institution” and how it has shaped the centuries since must be tempered by the knowledge that in nearly 400 years on this continent, a great deal may have occurred in my own family. And it reminds me that as part of the Body of Christ, I was never truly free of the injuries done to other parts of this same Body.

That’s the story you asked for, friend. And God bless you for all you’ve done to fight injustice in your many years of public service.

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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