Interview with Ellen Jackson


One of my concerns as a parent early on was that I felt I was a great parent. I thought my husband was a good father and a good support, ah, person, partner in terms of where we thought our children should be and how we would like to assist our children through, ah, their early days, ah, in education and in culture. And because I had five children and three of them happened to be just a year apart, I was able, I was home quite a lot and I was able to spend a lot of time with them, ah, hopefully helping them with their home lessons, exposing them again to some cultural events that were taking place at that time. Elma Lewis was very active. Even my boys took lessons from Elma. But I had one son, ah, Daryl, who, ah, had, I don't want to use his name. OK, I had forgotten. I had one son, I have two boys and three girls. I had one son who was, ah, having a difficult time in school. But the issue which was, which was shocking for me was how I found out about it. Ah, I would go to the Parent-Teachers Association meetings. We were living, ah, in the same community. The meetings were normally in the middle of the day, 2 o'clock in the day, ah, there weren't many Black parents who were able to go to those meetings. Nothing much happened at those meetings because people were, not elected so to speak, but they were selected either by, ah, several teachers and/or by the principal of a particular school. And they more or less had the control of the meeting and the discussion and what was going to come up like a book fair. I attended those meetings. I would attend meetings in terms of finding out how well my child was doing. Each time I would go to school, I was told how wonderful he was, what a nice young man, quiet, ah, honest, ah, ah, and, and, ah, obedient. I mean that was a big, big word in those days. And I would thank the teacher. But each time I would go there was a different teacher. And the teachers seemed to be getting younger. It had lots to tell me about my child. I mean we'd stand in a line, actually stand in a line and wait and if you were lucky you may get five minutes. If you got five minutes that meant there wasn't too much to tell you except that he was a good kid. Ah, he minds his business and he's obedient. Then came the report card and I was, ah, I remember report cards used to come out right after Thanksgiving. And we remember it, as the child himself used to be nervous getting through Thanksgiving but worried about what would happen at Christmas time, when that report card would be coming out. That day son brought his report card home and almost in every subject he was failing. In conduct and attitude was A but everything else was D, C minus and I think he even had an E. I was devastated. Of course he was devastated. And we, we went up to school the very next day and we confronted his teacher. And she kind of looked at me in a, you know, a very, very sad way and said to me, this very young teacher, I think she was a student teacher, and she said, "Mrs. Jackson, I don't know what to tell you." She said, "I have a class of 55 kids." She said, "I cannot spend time with one individual, even groups of individuals. We have little time to spend with children who need extra help. And we certainly don't have time to spend with even those who may be gifted children. I can only suggest that you," she said, "that you take the child out of here if you can afford it and put him in a private school." I said, "Why am I just finding this out? I have helped him with school work. I have, we bought encyclopedias, we had a appropriate magazines lying around the house. We would read to him. We would talk with him." And she just held her hands up in frustration. She said, "It's over-crowded". And she said again, "We don't have time to spend with the individual children." Well that incensed me. And, ah, from there I happen to be with other parents who were going the same thing. And when we would go through the classrooms and we did in school we find that kids were staying in, ah, auditoriums which were divided by curtains. They were sitting in basements. They were sitting in nurses quarters, in the hallways, ah, and it was very difficult for any child, ah, whether you were gifted or, you know, average to really grasp any kind of intellectual, educational, ah, opportunity that was, ah, being imported on them. So we decided that we would take our case to the School Committee and we did. We petitioned because we thought maybe if they understood, where we thought they were addressing this wrong about children in part, that they, education at this point. Leave the rest to us. By no means, we weren't asking them to do all those other things, the cultural things. We were going to take care of those. But we wanted them to be educated. So we petitioned, a group of parents petitioned the Boston School Committee to ask them to begin to look at other alternatives to at least decrease the number of children that were in classrooms. And, ah, there were portable classrooms in other districts. But it wasn't for the fact of, ah, ah, decreasing the numbers because those classrooms only had 14, 15, to 21 children in them. It was to make sure that they did not have to leave their community, ah, and, ah, venture into a minority community, so to speak. They refused to put portable classrooms up. They said it was too expensive. Then we went back and petitioned. There were several, ah, ah, schools, they were owned by the Jewish community, the synagogues that were owned by the Jewish community, still in this area, that had been vacated and abandoned. We thought that maybe they would, ah, rehabilitate those for us and that they could buy them at a nominal fee. They refused to do that. We were left no choice because we had no voice within, at that time we had no voice and representative within the Boston, on the Boston School Committee. We had no voice at City Hall. So we decided to take it somewhere where we felt that we did have a voice and had an impact on their representatives, so we went to various communities within the Boston, ah, school system, like even parts of lower Dorchester, ah, Matapan believe it or not, Roslindale, Hyde Park, West Roxbury, Charlestown, first, and then, ah, we did try East Boston but getting through the tunnel was just too much. Back Bay and we thought where people, ah, had their children in school and they had space. They had rows and rows of vacant seats. They had classrooms that were unused. They had, ah, facilities that were much cleaner, ah, much quieter. They had books. They had even paper. They had pencils. They had things our kids thought were alien. Ah, that maybe if we sat there we would, in a sense, draw attention, but disrupt in a non-violent way, disrupt by just having our children sit in those classrooms. Ah, but they would get back to those people who represented them at the School Committee and in City Hall. Say look, We don't want them over here. Do something about what's happening in their community. Fix the up. Do Jack. Do it. Because you won't get our vote the next time. And we knew how powerful the vote was and, you know, get them settled in. Get them out of here. Well, when Black parents accompanied their kids to school back there in 1968, '67, ah, and saw these buildings and saw the classrooms and saw the conditions. They didn't want to go back. Said, "We're not going back until we have what they have here." And, ah, that in a sense was my beginning as a parent. I have been involved quite, ah, ah, up until then, in previous years as a student and active in the NAACP and other youth groups. But as a parent in my concern, it emanated from the concern that I had about my children, what was happening to them, ah, in the '60s.