Interview with Ruth Batson

OK, Mrs. Batson, I want you to talk to us about what your work was as chair of that education committee. What you did and talk about going before the school committee.


When I first became chairperson of the NAACP public school committee I gathered a group of people around me and we sat down and decided how we would start. And one of the things that we thought we would do, we would go around and look at some of the ah, predominately Black schools in Roxbury. And we did what we called a survey. Of course we didn't even know that we were doing a survey. We just thought we'd go around and ask these principals these questions about education of Black students. And of course in those days we were called Negroes. And so, we went to one school and we found the principals, just, oh, they were very free in telling us what they thought. They didn't, they didn't think it was anything to, they would say anything they felt like saying. And in one school one um principal said, well, the question we would ask, "Well, do you think that Negro students learn in the same way that bla--that White students learn?" "Oh no, oh no," she said, "they don't learn as well at all," she said. And then in addition she says, "You know, they all have different names, they come in a family, and in one family you can find three different names," she says, "it's immoral, immoral." So of course we left that school knowing what was happening to Black students there. And we went to another school where there was a male principal and it was an all boys school. And one of the things he did was lean back and say, "Look at, look at all our trophies our boys win," you know, "they're wonderful athletes. They run and they do this--" And every time we tried to pinpoint him to talk about what was happening with academic studies we couldn't get any answers. And this was repeated in different schools. And as our fame grew we found that parents would start calling us up and the biggest complaint from parents was that when their students left the public schools in question as honor roll students and went to other schools, to high schools they would get these terrible marks. And when the parents would go up and talk to the ah, the high school student principals about it they would say to them, well, they're not prepared. They haven't had this, they haven't had that. So we started getting those kinds of complaints, and we started writing them down. Today you would call it "documenting it". And then, um, a teacher one time wrote us about, and sent us a Kruger Beer bill--billing pad paper, and she said, "This is the kind of paper that I've been forced to use. A friend gave them to, gave it to me, because I can't get enough money to buy paper." And then the things started to mount. Well, in those days if you wanted to transfer your student from one of these schools you would merely have to go up to the new school and say, "I want my child to move here." Then you'd go back to your old school and you'd get the report card and all of the records you needed and take your child. And suddenly this stopped. When, um, the School Committee issued a statement that in order to transfer a child from its neighborhood school the principal of the neighborhood school would have to call the other school to see if there was room. So, um, most parents would go up to the principal. He would call the principal in the receiving school and more than likely they would be told that there was no room. Now if it was a savvy parent, somebody who knew their way around, they would then go to a politician and suddenly the child could be moved. So all of this evidence was mounting and mounting, and every time we'd go up to the school department and record some of our concerns, "No, this was not true. No, no, we're not doing that. No, it's not like that. It's really--" So as things went on we decided that where there were a majority of Black students there was a neglect of the education of these students. And so, um, with, with, we formed a negotiating team. I was chair of the team. Paul Parks and Mel King, both men who had been deeply involved in the education, public school educational--education concerns, ah, joined me, and we sat down and we decided that we would bring these complaints to the Boston School Committee. By this time, this was, um, in 1963. My children were out of school at that time, but we decided that we'd go on. And we made a nice statement out, and we listed 14 points. It's important to remember that only one of those 14 points dealt with segregation. Um, and the, the statement that we made to the School Committee said that, um, we found, as I said before, where there were a majority of Black students there was not concern for how these kids learned. That there were crowded classrooms, temporary teachers, not enough books. And supplies were low and all of that kind of thing. Even physical conditions were poor. We went into school systems in the basements where we would find toilet tissue chained to the outside of the toilets. And I often wondered what happened to a kid who got in and didn't take tissue. These kinds of basic things were missing. So um, we went before the School Committee and we said to them that this condition that we were talking about was called de facto segregation, and that by that we didn't mean at all that anybody on the School Committee or any official was deliberately segregating students, but this was caused by residential settings and so forth, but that we felt that this had to be acknowledged and that something had to be done to alleviate the situation. All the other points dealt with educational issues such as, um, intercultural education. We talked about the lack of a Black principal. At that time there wasn't a major American city that did not have a Black principal within its public school system. We talked about class size. We talked about guidance courses. All of these things we talked about. So we go prepared to the school system and we were really innocent. We were naive. I think that even Paul and Mel would acknowledge that. We walked in thinking that we weren't saying anything so special. And when we got to the School Committee room I was surprised to see all of the, um, the press around. We thought this is just an ordinary School Committee meeting, and we made our presentation and everything broke loose. We were insulted. We were told our, our kids were stupid and this was why they didn't learn. We were completely rejected that night. We were there until all hours of the evening. And we left battle scarred, because what we found out that we, we had brought to them a wonderful political issue, and that this was an issue that was going to give them, um, length and breadth and stability, give their political careers stability for a long time to come.