Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: March 9, 1989
Camera Rolls: 4099-4105
Sound Rolls: 442
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ellen Jackson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 9, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Of all the pressing concerns facing Blacks in Boston in the 1970s, why this focus on education?
The focus on education in the '70s really was because, ah, the fact that there had been no real effort made by the elected officials to bring, what we would be considered, equitable, equitable resources to the Black community. And I think that many tries and many, ah, strategies had been used to, ah, no avail. And finally the last recourse was to try the one entity within the United States that people always turn to and that was the court. I think that we found that it was time to bring it to the attention of the federal government, through the courts, to see if they could remedy, ah, these inequities and therefore the suit was brought and of course won by the plaintiffs, by the NAACP of Boston. It started, ah, a real revolution in education in Boston in many ways, many ways. I mean by that that there was concern within the Black community as to whether or not we would just reclaim numerical gains and that is just putting children into a school to balance a school, desegregate or if you will integrate a situation, a school. Was it going to change the quality of education? Was it going to bring more administrative, Black administrators? Because if you remember, one of the other concerns as well, was the lack of, ah, Black administrators within the structure, the Boston Public School structure, and, ah, those who were, ah, capable and qualified to be superintendents and be principals had not been promoted in years. So there was a dual concern that, ah, impacted on the quality of education for Black children. Ah, and that, that, ah, issue was trying to be addressed through, we thought best, through the courts.
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.
Over the summer of 1974, um, what was the mood in the Black community in terms of upcoming school deseg?
The mood was one of confusion, concern and fear because the elected officials in that, during that summer of 1974 after the order had been, ah, given by Judge Garrity, ah were very often making statements that this would not happen**. Ah, and statements were coming out of certain segments of Boston, specifically out of South Boston indicating that these students were not going to be welcomed into the schools. They would do anything that they had to do to keep students from entering the schools in South Boston. We attempted at Freedom House over the summer months to try to allay some of the fears that parents had. We attended most of the meetings that ah, the Mayor Kevin White, called at the Parkman House in the Carriage Room, of various, ah, people, community agencies, the justice department, the police department, the fire department, school officials, ah, and a few representatives to see how he could call us and work on, you know, disseminating the appropriate and accurate information to parents. Well, we even talked with the publishers of the major newspapers in the city and asked them if they would devote a special time and space to sharing with parents what they could expect, where they should go if they had questions. Again, it didn't happen in our community, ah, in a fashion that our parents and other concerned people could grasp. So what we started having was, n, nightly meetings with various principals. And particularly we had a meeting with the, ah, the principal of South Boston High, Mr. Reid, at that time. And asked him to come over and we would just have a kind of, of, a question and answer period of what parents could expect. And what kind of commitment he was prepared to make. And it worked out all right, the first session. Basically because there weren't many parents. It was an evening meeting and we tried to take into consideration and be sensitive to working parents. And we had it, it was also the idea if they had to go home to feed the children and do a lot of other kinds of things, they had no time to do during the day. We come from a working community. Ah, so it was an early meeting and many parents did not show, not too many parents showed. But it, it was clear that Mr. Reid was attempting in his own way to allay again the fears that parents may have whose children might end up in his particular school. We then talked to him, ah, about an idea of breaking bread together. We thought about bringing some of the parents over from South Boston who have never been to Roxbury. To Freedom House on a Sunday afternoon to have some kind of repast with us. And believe it or not, there must have been about 15 to 20 parents who showed up. And there were about 15 to 20 parents who kind of came to the forefront and began to be spokespersons for the rest of the parents. And they sat down together and they talked. And it was a great afternoon. But that was the only afternoon they had like that because he was warned by the representatives around South Boston he should not encourage this kind of dialogue and that he was not to come to Roxbury and talk about, ah, children and the educational, ah, program at South Boston High School. We were very disappointed. In fact at one point Mr. Reid just stopped accepting our calls. And we really did not hear that from him but we found out what happened to him because he was immediately, not long after, ah, we entered South Boston High, he was immediately removed from, from that school. By and large parents didn't know what geocodes were. They didn't know where these streets were that the kids were supposed to go to to catch the bus. They weren't sure how the kids were going to get to school. If it was a bus, if it was going to be a taxi. If it was going to be, ah, one of the, ah, longer, ah, station wagons. They didn't know that they, the children had, ah, handicapps. What was going to happen to those particular children, how they were going to get to school? If they were a special need student, were they to go to the same school to report to the same teacher? There was a lot of confusion. Mothers worked. What time were they going to get back into the community? Where were they supposed to go? Who was going to be there to meet them? There was a lot of concern. So we attempted to work with the school department in making sure that for each school there were pick up spots and and spots and times. And people there to, to accompany the children, to wait with the children when the busses came. And to make sure that the children were there on time. And if not to encourage the bus driver to wait just a few minutes because the kid may be a little late. We then began to set up what we called a develop, through the help the New England Telephone Company what was called the hotline. In the beginnings of the hotline at Freedom House, at the institute was to in a sense answer any of the questions that parents had. And it was staffed by people from various, believe it or not, ah, agencies, ah, various universities, various companies. We developed, my staff and I, we developed a kind of manual and we put it together for emergency numbers. We told parents about giving their children emergency numbers, pinning them on them inside their clothes or somewhere. We also made it clear that they could come and pick up this book. We tried to tell them that even the bus numbers that their children would be, ah, boarding. Ah we tried to answer and assure them that there would be plenty of people around. Many people volunteered during that time to assist, ah, parents and students during that first, ah, day of school. The first week of school that is. Ah, we kept the hotline going almost 24 hours a day. People would come in to do shifts--
So, tell us about Freedom House as the Black Pentagon and the preparations that you instituted to ensure peaceful school opening.
One of the objectives during that period over the summer was to assure that there would be a peaceful transition and that we would commit ourselves to do that**. And many organizations came through the door to Freedom House, representatives that is, to talk about how they could assist. And it was a period, while all this confusion and concern was going on, outside, there was a period of posi--a feeling of positiveness, um, in terms of the people fulfilling something and supporting something that was good, in terms of our babies, in terms of our children. They used to call, The Globe dubbed the Freedom House Institute on Schools and Education as "The Black Pentagon". All types of people were seen coming in and out of that place during that period. Parents still calling, other officials calling to, to, ah, donate their time, their staff time to help us in any way we could to make sure that that first day of school was one that Boston would not have to feel badly about in terms of violence. Um, security in that vein, the, the police department set up a whole command office in the, the building so they could be on call, or dispatch as fast as possible people needed to be at certain locations, certain schools, at certain street corners. Um, the fire department, because there were a lot of bomb scares, there were a lot of things that we had to protect. A special caution, and being very careful about. They set up a command post. The justice department had their people, their community relations people. The FBI was in and out of there. So, it was certainly, I think, earned the name of the Black Pentagon in a sense, all kinds of meetings, all types, times of night, many of us did not get home 'til early in the morning to change clothes and get back to Freedom House to be there when those buses would roll. The men in the community came together in many of the meetings, and took on the responsibility of more or less going up and down some of the streets, the major thoroughfares within the community and talking to the young men, who were, unfortunately, not working, who were more or less just hanging around, soliciting their help and their understanding of what was going to happen in September, and we said to them, or they said to them, that is, that it was very important that they help us in some ways, and one of the most important ways that they could help us was to make sure that they did not harm or harass the young White students that were going to be coming in to Roxbury, because, their brothers and sisters were possibly going to be in some very, un, inhospitable areas and some areas where there could be a problem. And in a sense, we felt that they were hostages, that they would be hostages until they came home. So while they were out of their community trying to get an education, we asked them to help them by just staying away, by just taking their little beefs, or their little extra-generous laughter, somewhere away from the school environment so that we could get these White kids out. You know, a lot of White kids did not come in to Roxbury, but I want you to know also that they did help. They helped at the end of school, they would stand in groups of four to make sure there were no problems until those buses pulled off. The mornings, there would be older men, sometimes senior citizens, men who were not working any more, who would just stand there and greet the children when they got off the buses. I remember this vividly around the Martin Luther King School and specifically around the Jeremiah E. Burke High School. But it was, I thought, again, a commitment, a community coming together for a common goal, for a common purpose, and that was, again, to protect and also give an opportunity to our kids to, for our kids to get some kind of, um, hopefully, quality education in a place that wasn't quite near home. So, in many ways, it was, it was, ah, a community pulled together. And there was difference of thoughts and opinions going on at this time. Everyone did not agree with this particular strategy. They did not agree with Judge Garrity's order. They did not agree with Freedom House's stance of support. They didn't agree with the NAACP. And they wanted to know, "Why is it our kids are always going out of the community?" And particularly the babies. "Why is it that our kids have to leave home?" We believe in education, we believe that, for Black people, that is one step on the ladder, one rung of the ladder for us to make it in the so-called world. To be able to give back and to, contribute to your community. But it's always us as the victim. And they saw their kids the victims. They saw, and they expressed this in many ways, but they said, "OK, we'll give you another chance, we've given you chances before, we're going to allow you one more time, to take our kids and put them out there. But sometimes," they said,"We'd like to see some of you parents and others, who are advocating this kind of strategy to go and feel what our kids have to, to go through, to be part of that." And we did have a chance to do that, which I will talk about later, but, the point is that, all was not, um, um, unified in our community. There was, ah, disagreement, um, there was, um, um, dis, discussion, however, with that disagreement. And I think that everyone, in a sense, however, recognized that we had to take this step, we had to take another chance to make sure, or to, ah, hopefully, to allow our children again to have a better education, certainly from what they were getting here, than what they were getting here in the community at that given time.
OK, now, can you, um, describe, where were you on the first day of school in '74, and what happened?
I have to think for a minute where I was on the first day of school. Um, I was in many places in my head, um, but I guess that morning, um, on the first day of school, we had put carphones, we took the, we incurred a lot of personal expense, um, the group of us that made up the, um, Freedom House Coalition, as, ah, the group was called, we put carphones, we put phones in our cars, and, we, um, we leased beepers, and we had all kinds of 24 hour numbers for ourselves and for other key people in the city to get to, including the mayor, including the governor, including the police commissioner, and ah, others, the superintendent of schools at that time, and all these people. And other volunteers would say, "Call me any time of night if you need me." So the first day of school, I think I was out in the streets at five o'clock in the morning. I know I was. And we were riding around, um, in the cars just spot checking to make sure that things were going OK, and there were many people out, riding around doing the same thing, but there were many, many parents standing with their children, um, waiting for the buses to come, there were representatives of the Department of Justice there, and from that, after the buses rolled, everything seemed to go off fairly well that morning, we went back to Freedom House, to man the phones. To be there, and of course there were all kinds of media there, printed and electronic and others, um, there to hear, because they knew that the first information was going to come through our hotline. We had printed up cards which we gave and we just sent out and disseminated all over the place that said, "Form of Information, is your child in school, etc., etc. Call this number, someone will be able to assist you. Or come to Freedom House." And, so we just waited and hoped that the children were going to be admitted into the schools, registered, and sit down, and open up a book and get started, get going with what this was supposed to be all about, um, education. Um, so the first morning, after riding around into west, we did not venture that morning over to South Boston. We rode around around Hyde Park, West Roxbury, we rode over to the, ah, Columbia Point Bayside Mall to watch the buses pull off. That was a kind of, um, central point for many of the students that were going into South Boston, um, to meet, to get off one bus and get on the buses that would take them into South Boston. And we met to talk about, um, the meetings that we would have at the end of the day. The idea was that people who were assisting us would come back and debrief us as to how the day went so that we could improve on the next day. And we would talk about minor incidents that would happen, we were prepared to talk about minor incidents that might have happened and how that could be alleviated, and we would make sure there was a representative, the first few weeks, the commisioners themselves were there, members from the mayors staff were there to be debriefed as to how they could beef up their end and also what kind of information we needed, um, to have so that, ah, we could assure parents or alert parents to what they may want to do differently as they sent their child off the next morning. And if there was a problem, we hoped that it would be handled in between four o'clock that afternoon when the buses would bring the kids back in to Roxbury, ah, and the next morning when the students would, um, board the buses that were ready to go back out. And we did that every day for quite a long time.
OK, but now, staying back on the first day, what happened that afternoon?
Well, it went smoothly that morning on the first day, but later in the afternoon we received a call, I don't recall exactly how I got the message, that there had been a bus coming down, of little children, of elementary school children, down the hill, out of South Boston, that had been stoned. And it was on the radio station, and people were coming in, and at first we didn't want to believe it because it just didn't seem like it would happen after the morning had gone so smoothly. Later, about a half an hour later we received the offical call from City Hall that it had happened from one of our associates. Parents started calling us, and screaming and concerned and crying--
I'm sorry, we, um, rolled out
So let's begin with your talking about parents who were calling.
Parents were calling because they'd said, calling Freedom House and asking for me because I was the director, would say, "You know we got some news that the kids are coming down and the busses are being pelted. And--and ah rocks are being thrown, rocks are being thrown at some of the younger kids. And my kid's on that bus, you know, I want to know. Do you know, have you heard anything?" And at that point I had not heard anything and I said, "No." I said, "You know, don't get alarmed, don't leave your job." Because some of these people were at work. And they said, "Well I am alarmed. I am concerned. I'm at work. You know, what are you going to do? Um, can you find out?" "I'll call you back." Well the phones, the hotlines started ringing. And a few minutes the official word came in that two of the busses coming from the elementary schools had been pelted and had been, ah, ah, stoned. And they were coming directly to Freedom House. the word was from the, ah, command post, if you will, from the police, bring those busses, do not stop at any stops. We want to see these children. Ah, there was Red Cross there, also at Freedom House. We want to make sure they're all right and we want to talk with the children. Well, just then also we turned on the radio and it was on the radio and that they were not going to drop the children off at their stops near their homes, they were taking them directly to Freedom House. Well the shock of the informal network in our community, talk about the drums beating, the word went around the community and people were incensed. They were angry. And they started coming to Freedom House and forming little groups. Walking up the pathway to Freedom House demanding to know what had happened. And the kids came, everybody just broke out in tears and started crying. The kids were crying. They had glass in their hair. They were you know, scared. And they were shivering and crying. Talking about they wanted to go home. We tried to gently, a,h usher them into the auditorium. And wipe off the little bit of bruises that they had. Small bruises and the dirt and, ah, take, pick the glass out of their hair. And then we were calling ah parents based on the numbers we had to come up to, to Freedom House. When the parents got there they were as angry with me as anyone as I would have been if it had been my own child. And it sort of took me back to the days when we had problems in, ah, the sixties, when my kids were in school. And then say, "We gave you, you know we gave you another chance. You know, what, you know you listened to the mayor and look what happened. My kid's not going back tomorrow. I'm not letting him be, or her subjected to this anymore. You know the hell with it." I mean basically parents said, "The hell with it. Not going to do this anymore. You know we, we trusted you." And that hurt because I know they did. And I knew where they were coming from. I could their pain myself. And that feeling of trust because I had trusted some other people who had promised me that this was not going to happen. So what we asked, they asked us to do, we talked with the parents, we asked them to give us another chance. To get to the officials and to talk with them and, and they say, "You can't just talk anymore. You've got to demand for us. You've got to have them demonstrate how they're going to make sure that this day never happens again." I went upstairs to Otto Snowden's office with two other people and I dialed, picked up the phone and of course, Kevin White, immediately was on the phone. And he said, "Ellen I know, I know it happened." And I said, "You have got to come out here and talk." And he said, "Well I can't come right now." I said "Well you've got to come," I said, "because we're not going to have any parents tomorrow. You know I made a promise and you made a promise. We've got to do this. We've got to have a dialogue. We've got to talk. We've got to have some assurances." And he said, "OK. I'll be out there around 6 o'clock." We hung the phone up. We sat down and decided on how we were going to hold this meeting and what we were going to ask him and what could we really gain from this session with him? Not knowing at that point that parents knew that he was going to come at that, at 6 o'clock. Well we thought it was going to be just the parents of those children who were on the busses and some community people. And some other people. But that was going to be a very small meeting and we, I don't know, naively maybe, thought we would be able to convince them through the mayor that this, and the police commission, this was not going to happen again and that they would share with them the strategies that they would use to assure them, and insure that this would not happen. Well, it didn't turn out like that. At four thirty, and that was just a short half an hour after we called him, the hall began to fill up with all types of people, from all over. Parents, agency people, students, just concerned residents. And they were in a tither. It seemed etern--eternity before the mayor came. It seemed like 6 o'clock would never come. And I remember standing in Otto's office watching him get out of the car with his jacket thrown over his shoulder. He couldn't see the parking lot and see the many cars that were there. And George Regan, his press person, special assistant, was with him. And they were just sauntering up the driveway. And I said, "Oh my lord, this man has no idea what's going to happen or what's going, this was going to turn out to be." Nor did I at that point. So he came in the door, and I said, "You know we've got an auditorium full of people. Angry parents. And I don't know what we're going to, we can't promise them anything anymore. My own credibility is on the line. I'm born and raised in this community. I'm going to be here, Kevin, when you go back to Beacon Hill. And I'm going to die here possibly. And these are my, my people. These are my neighbors. Ah, so I don't know if I can assure them. I'm going to need you to tell them something. So let's step into the lounge area and talk. And we want to talk to you only." And there were two other people besides Regan. But Regan stands out in my mind because he was going to, what we call, bogart his way into the meeting. And I said, "I'm sorry. You're press and we're not allowing any press in this meeting." "Well I have to stay with the mayor." I said, "You don't have to stay with the mayor. The mayor is perfectly safe in this room. In fact he's safer than our kids were this morning in South Boston High School." I said, "So you're going to wait out here." And he still was going to walk past me, I remember two young men sidled up to him on each side. But Kevin had the sense and the wherewithal to turn around and tell him, "Wait outside." We went in the room and I said, "You put us in a hell of a position. You know, these kids were hurt, you should have been here and seen it. But you said you couldn't make it. But you had to see with your eyes and you'll understand the anger and the frustration that the parents and we all are feeling right now. So be prepared. Don't come out with one of those pat speeches. You've got to hear these parents." Kevin and I, I think, were very close. But I don't think he really even believed me then until he stepped out of that lounge and went downstairs into that auditorium and proceeded to walk up to the front and to go up onto that stage. And before he could even speak, parents were standing up and saying, "We've been betrayed again. We've been betrayed again. We put our kids out here and we take chances with our kids. We didn't want to do it but you promised us. What are you going to do for us now, Kevin?" It was a difficult time to calm the audience down. When he heard many of the comments, and many of the accusations, and many of the allegations, and many of the, ah, much of the anger and the rage, and the frustration from the parents, they said, "We're not going." He turned around and he said, "Wait a minute. Give me," he pleaded, he pleaded and said, "Give me one more chance. Give me one, let your kids get on those busses tomorrow." He said, "I promise you this will never happen again." There was a pause in the room and you could feel the silence. People were fighting with themselves, their conscience. Whether or not they should allow their kids to go, should they take this chance, how could they be assured? Was it his words should they trust again? When that silence came, someone from the Bay State-side Columbia Point project yelled, "No we're not going to have it. We're going to have our own people there. If it's going to go, if it's going to be like this, we're going to send our own people on these busses." He frankly was lucky to get out of there with his jacket and his skin that night. I'm telling you. I, frankly, was lucky because I had to come up and try. And they said, "Ellen, shut up. We don't want to hear from you tonight. You know we really don't want, we want to hear what the man who runs the city has to say." And I can understand that. And I went upstairs and I did my own little praying. And I hoped that everything was going to be all right. We didn't know how many kids were going to turn out that next, that day, but we met all night long. And we decided then that we'd have to really form groups to go over, follow the busses over, ah, the next morning to South Boston. Ah, and we did. Over to actually the Bayside Mall. And that we possibly will have to, would have to start on a regular basis, ah, from that day on to have people in a sense just watching, ah, and monitoring what was happening as the busses, ah, went up the hill. I remember we stated that to the police commissioner and he said, "Well we don't want it, we're not going to be responsible." We said, "You haven't been responsible for us up to now so, you know, we'll take the responsibility on our own. We'll be responsible for ourselves. At the same time, we've got to be responsible for our kids. And these are all of our kids. Ah, we may not be their biological parents but they're our children. We've encouraged these people to participate in this process. And therefore we have a responsibility." And we did. And we met, ah, over at the mall and I think we beat the busses over there and we waited 'til the kids went up and got off. I don't know frankly what he said to his police forces. I don't know what kinds of meetings were held in South Boston, but there were some people like a Tracy Amalfitano who decried that action that day. Um, whose home was bur, was bombed. Whose car was bombed in South Boston. This was still, this was South Boston. There were others in that community who, ah, rallied you know with us and made it clear that this kind of violence against young people, babies, was not going to be tolerated, and was not going to be condoned. But that was a night that changed the whole idea that this was going to be an easy, easy process. It was clear it was not.
Could you tell us again about how that night changed?
That night, the first day of school, the end of the day, changed the whole atmosphere, the whole feeling about how we were going to have to pursue and progress and, and move on, ah, from that point on. What we had hoped would be a peaceful transition into desegregation, ah, of Boston Public Schools was in a sense dashed, ah, by the happenings of that afternoon and we realized then that we had our work cut out for us.
Good, OK, now let me ask you about the meeting on October 11th, ah, that Kevin White called at City Hall, that Erwin Canham moderated between five Board people and five Black people. And remember what Pixie said about the Haitian guy, and what she said to, ah, Mrs. Cass.
We received, several of us received, including Dr. Haynes, Michael Haynes, of Twelfth Baptist Church, and Mrs. Cass, Pat Jones, and myself, ah, and Sandy Young. You see these very, very mysterious calls. I couldn't imagine what was going to come, ah, out of this conversation. But I had to make sure that I was by myself when I talked to this young man. And no one else was in, within ear shot of our telephone conversation. And then he shared with me, ah, the invitation extended by the Mayor Kevin White to attend the luncheon at City Hall, where we would hopefully, ah, come together with five people from South Boston, ah, to talk about our concern and to make a joint statement around violence that, while we may differ about integration, desegregation, and even this strategy to effect that, we were all against violence. And I thought that was a lofty goal. I thought it was an important statement because I truly believed that that was important and still do. Ah, so I accepted the invitation to join with other friends ah in the Black community to attend this, this luncheon. When we got there there was a little bit of conversation going on before we sat down, before Kevin White and Erwin Canham from the Christian Science Monitor came and, and we were certainly, ah, standing with our folks so to speak. I mean no, there was no collegiality, if you will, in that room at that point. Ah, and he had his own staff, Kevin had his own staff. People were trying to make us feel comfortable. Finally we were asked to be seated in two round tables. Ah, and we did and we were, ah, integrated so to speak in terms of the seating arrangement. And Kevin again stated what the objective of the meeting was. And hopefully that we would be prepared at the end of the meeting to sign the statement which would be released to the press that we join together if in, nothing else but to ask for peace in the city and to condemn the violence. Ah, that was fine but there was some concerns. And first of all the first concern from, from most of the Black attendees was the fact that we had not had any disruption in our community. We had taken care even after the very first day of school, what happened, there was no reaction to that. There was no bother, no one bothered the youngsters when they came in the next day to Roxbury and to Dor--North Dorchester. Ah, there was no rock throwing and no bother of those students getting on or off those busses. So in a sense we had to clear the air that both communities were participating in some kind of violent act. Because we were not. And after we articulated that concern, and so in our minds, cleared the record, or got the record cleared, we then started talking about the responsibility of those people in the room. Did they best represent the feelings of the people in their communities? We felt clearly that we did. Because we had enough meetings that went on within our community and we were sent forth with a message most of the time. You know what happens to the messenger. But anyway, we were sent forth with the message. Pixie Palladino began to talk about, ah, I think maybe Dr. Haynes started talking about the, the terrible violence with the young Haitian man and how it was just unprovoked and it was unfair that we could not walk in various parts of, ah, the city without being harmed. That every day we saw bill collectors. We saw postmen, we saw all kinds of business people walk in and out of the Black community. And in most instances, ah, if there was a lot of crime, or violence, it was Black on Black. It was not that they were being attacked during this very volatile time and period of desegregation. However, this young man, certainly from another country, not knowing in a sense what was going on, what all this commotion was about, going about his work to be attacked in the vicious way that he was attacked was not in the spirit that we thought we could enter an agreement with or even to make a statement about until we had admitted, or they had admitted that they would take some control, or take some responsibility if you will, for the kinds of actions that seemingly were coming from their part of the, of the town. Well Pixie decided that since he didn't understand English and he didn't know where he was going, and he had no business over there, that he got just what he deserved. That was a little hard for a lot of us to take. It was very hard for a lot of us to take. And we sort of dialogued back and forth and disagreed about that feeling and equal access on the streets. Or access to the streets. Ah, to walk and to work and to move around freely in the city of Boston where we all pay taxes by the way. And, and we make that very clear. Ah, then she said, "Well it's like name calling. And, ah, you know, you just sometime have to understand some people are different than others. You know, Ellen, you know, ah, it's like, you know someone call you a nigger. You, you know, we've been, we've known each other, we dealt with each other in the State Department of Education. You know I don't have any problems with you but some of those niggers, you know just get on my nerves." Well Mrs. Cass then said well you know, in her very calm and soothing voice, and very, very, ah, positive way said, "You know my dear, this is a problem for us. You think that you can call, sit here and ask us to join in a statement of peace when in fact you have no respect for us and have shown by the way you talk about us, how you describe us." And she said, in a way in moving her hand, you know like, "Shut up old lady." You know she didn't use exactly that word, but, "You're out of touch. You don't know what's going. This is the new wave. You know and furthermore I'm not talking to you. Furthermore I'm not really talking to you," is what she said. "I'm talking to Ellen." And when she said that, I just, I don't know what happened. I just jumped up. I felt like my ears were going to pop. And I said, "There's no way that I can sit here." And I turned to Kevin White. And I said, "I am not going to be party to this. First of all, if this woman can not respect a senior citizen and a matriarch of our community, a leader of the Black community, not just here in Boston but nationwide. She cannot have respect for our babies and that's what we're all about. I can not, in good consciousness sit here and have her disrespect Mrs. Cass. Because when she does that she, truly, is disrespecting me. She's disrespecting other Black people and she's certainly disrespecting those children. I'm not going to be party to any, any joint venture to sign a statement." And I got up and I walked out the room. She was calling, "Oh Ellen, come back, come back." And, ah, Mike Haynes got up and Pat Jones got up. And Mrs. Cass, the lady she was, she sat for a minute. And we got up and Ira Jackson who was then on Kevin White's staff, asked us if we would step into the side room for moment because there was a lot of press outside. And I really wasn't in the mood for even talking to them. It wasn't about getting press for this, ink as you call it. It was about a feeling that this was just not going to work and we had to take a stand. And we had to demonstrate that by saying, "We're not going to have you disrespect the young children. And you're not certainly going to disrespect the seniors in our community." Ah, so no statement was forthcoming and the meeting ended abruptly. The mayor tried to, you know, get us back into the room. And I said, "No I'm not going back into that room. I will never," you know you talk about never, but that's one time I meant never sit "in the room with this woman again." I had had my previous experiences, as I said earlier with her, so this was, you know, typical of her and I just felt that she was just vicious. And the venom that came out of her and the hatred. And it was in her face. And she thought, actually you know when I think about it now, she, it was funny to her. This was not serious. It was like, you know, let me see how far I can irk them. How far can I take this because I, I know I can get away with this. It was almost like a joke to her. And that, that was very sad. And truly very frightening.
OK. Now I'd like you to flash forward to December 11th. Michael Faith, the White boy was back at Southie. Ah, a mob gathered outside. They were concerned about getting the kids out. Can you, ah, tell us about the, ah, decoy action that you used. And I also remember how impressive it was for me to hear that in the busses you could feel the crowd rocking them back and forth.
Ah we were doing a routine check. I learned a lot of the ph, the phrases, hanging out with the police during those days. We were doing a routine check of schools. But there hadn't--we were riding around with the then superintendent, the command officer for district B, ah, Leroy Chase. We were riding around with him that morning, one morning on December 11. And while we were in the car just driving around at different schools, we got a call that there had been a breakout at, ah, well we call it, the school broke. Ah, and it was at Roslindale High and we should proceed immediately up there. And we did. And just as we got there, the Lena, that was near Lena Park's area and zone. Many of the Lena Park staff under the direction of Pat Jones were there. And I remember just as we stepped out the car there was you know fighting going on and adults were being pushed. And I remember Doris Davis was just going over a fence and someone else was lying on the ground and kids were running everywhere, Black and White kids.
OK so you're at Rosie High.
We were at Roslindale High.
Could you begin again.
Certainly. We were at Roslindale High and, ah, we were just concerned about what we saw and that was total mass confusion. Kids were running, Black kids were running to try and get on the buses. And White kids were running around trying to get away from the area where the fighting was going on. Adults were trying to separate kids. And, ah, and after awhile, ah, and the tactical police force was there. And then there was some other, ah, Boston police there. And MDC police. And they were able to separate. And for some of the other activities that were happening throughout the city, that was what we would call a mild skirmish. We got back, but one interesting thing happened while we were there. As we were pulling up, ah, Cummings Highway, we had to inch, the cruiser of the command car into it because kids were running across the street. Now on the side of the Boston police car it says, in big bold blue letters, "Boston Police". I mean you know it's blue and White. And also it says "commander". And I'll never forget, it just dawned on me. There were two little White girls going across, and they were scared. I mean in their small way they were scared. So the car was moving and they just spit right on the windshield and wouldn't move. And just stood there. And there were two big Boston policemen looking at them and they never pulled them out of the way. Here is the commander and they never pulled them out. I mean so that's the kind of, of, of, ah, fervor that was being expressed. You know hatred and fear and all that all rolled up in one makes a terrible bomb in a sense. And the superintendent Chase said to us, this happens all the time. You know I'm kind of used to it. I wasn't, frankly. But you know, there's days by that I possibly would have not payed much attention. I didn't expect to see this in '74. But anyway by the time we finally moved around they, you know, moved them the children and we got out and, ah, the action took place and we got back in the car. And he was going to drop us back at Freedom House. So we turned the car around, we came back down Washington Street through Roslindale Square. And all of a sudden a code message came over. And he said something back and we didn't think much of it. And we noticed however that we weren't headed back toward Freedom House on the East side. Ah, but we were keeping straight down Washington Street toward Forest Hills. And when we got to Forest Hills in a sense, ah, two other cruisers pulled up to us and he got out of the car. He said, "I'm sorry," he said, "I can't take you back." He said "We've had a terrible, ah, incident happen at South Boston High. And we're going to have to go over that way. But I'll let you off at Bayside Mall." So we said, "OK what happened?" And he didn't say anything when we were driving along. Then, ah, the radio said that, ah, the police radio said something that the young man had been stabbed. It was confirmed he had been stabbed. I said, "Oh my God." Our first thought, for any child, but first of all thought it was one of our kids. And then we realized it wasn't one of the Black students. And we said, "Oh God, what is going to happen?" So the sirens went on and we went, and we've been through many of those kinds of rides where the wheels never hit the ground and we went off. And we got over to Bayside Mall, got out of the car. By this time a large gathering of folks had come together. Police, the tactical police squad was there. And the MDC, the state police, everyone was out there. And parents had begun to come to the mall and were asking how they were going to get the kids out of there. Why weren't the busses up at the school? And they weren't getting any answers. But in fairness at that point, it was discussion about the best way to get those kids out. Because what was happening up at the school at South Boston High, was a very, very dangerous situation.
OK so you're at Bayside Mall.
We were at Bayside Mall trying to find out from the officials there what they were going to do, how they were going to do it and that is to get the young people out of South Boston High. And basically what was happening at that point up at the high school was that the word had gotten out in that community, of the South Boston community that a young man had been stabbed by a Black, ah, youngster. And of course this was something that in any community was a tragedy. And they didn't know how badly he had been stabbed and what the condition, his condition was. Ah, and people, the word of mouth had gotten around, people were getting together. Concerned whose child it was. It wasn't mine. My neighbors, whatever. And no one was able to give out any information. Meanwhile inside the building there was chaos and havoc wreaking because the kids were fighting. Ah, and they were scared. And they didn't know if there was going to be some kind of, ah, retaliation. Ah, and so the, the first command, what we understood what it was to keep all the students in the classroom. Well the White kids started walking out. And the police let them because remember that school was under recievership. So they let them walk out. In fact I think maybe it was best that they did, in hindsight. Ah, so there were no more fighting, there was no more fighting going on within the building. Down at the mall, we're worried because we don't know why they're not moving in. We, we expected to see the motorcycles. We expected to see whatever, ah, security go up and take these kids out of the school. Well that's because we again did not know how serious the, the mob had got outside. And they were angry. And they were going to, ah, attack the school. They were going to, to try to break into the school. Meanwhile they were suggesting inside that they should put all the youngsters together in one classroom. And something terrible was happening in peop- with people at that time. And, I mean throughout this whole thing. But people really wear their ugly racist heads and, and, and, and when the teachers and the, teachers aids that would come on, who came on the bus with the students would try to go from one classroom to another as they thought the noise and people were coming closer. At least from, from their vantage point. The doors were being locked on them. They couldn't. Old Boston schools have these, ah, connecting doors like homes, you know, from one room to another. They couldn't get through. And each exit that they thought they could get out, that the doors were being locked. And allegedly the doors were being locked by the custodians. And that was a dreadful thing to hear because the teachers were panicking and they couldn't help but panic. And their panic was of course being expressed to the children. Meanwhile we're screaming. I mean we were literally screaming at the police now. We were talking to Dick Grasi[SIC]. We were talking to Micky Roache who was then the head of the tactical police force. Joe Jordan was actually head of the police, tactical police force. And, ah, we wanted to know, we demanded to know what they were going to do. And they kept going off in little huddles and they would talk. And then they would come back. And they seemed to be just too calm for us. And people were asking us, "Ellen, what's going to happen? What are we going to do?" And more people were coming. There was some militant groups that had formed during that period who, you know, expressed their concern. And they, you know, was being very vocal about how they thought it should be handled. And, ah, we didn't know what to do. We were really very frustrated and concerned about how this was going to work out. Then finally, after some dialogue which seemed like forever, a few of us were asked to come to the side, ah, of one of the busses to talk to Joe Jordan and to a few other people. And we did. And the plan was that some of us would go up on the bus, and this was going to be, there would be at least four to five busses that would be going up the hill. And three of those busses were going to be decoy busses. We were going to, we were asked to, we volunteered to go out and we weren't asked to do it but we said, "We're darn right", here was a chance to prove to the parents and demonstrate as they had said to us sometime early back, maybe it was the first day of school. "You need to be put in a position. You're sending our kids out there. You need to find out what those kids are going through." So some of us said, "Yes." And I remember because I was the only woman. At first they wouldn't let, they said I couldn't go. And I said, "You all are going, I'm, going, you know. I'm going. That's all there is to it. I don't think anybody's going to be able to stop me." So we got on the bus and we tried to joke. We were lying on the floor. Percy Wilson, who was the head of Multi-service, say, "Oh God, I thought I left these days in Mississippi. I didn't think I would be into this kind of situation again." But we were nervous. Frankly we were scared. But we went up, and when we got closer to the school, we could hear the noise. And it's a hollow feeling when you go up that hill**. Anytime there's a noise. It seems like it goes back to the water and just very echoey. And we could hear the yelling. Could hear the sirens and things. And the idea and the objective was that we weren't supposed to ah dance it up in the seats. After awhile they took the bus around, there was a circle. And the bus was going to go, then we would sit up in the seat. And for five minutes while we, it would seem as though the students were being, ah, put on the busses, they were being put on these other two busses and they were told to lie on the floor. And our bus came around the regular route and they had mapped out. All these time we thought they were being very nonchalant and uncaring about this whole situation, at the mall they were planning a strategy. A very good strategy. So that we came around the front part of the building where the people, the mob in a sense, crazy mob was and they could see us. Ah, we were crouching so we would look like students. We weren't sitting straight up. So they could see that we were, so called, adults. And while we were trying to distract them, ah, hopefully distracting them, the two busses with the students would take another route and, and get down the hill. Well we came around that corner, first of all just a few minutes before then, Louise Day Hicks had mounted the stairs of the school and she was really attempting to ask the people to be patient, to be careful and to not do anything that they would be sorry for. They weren't paying, all the years that they paid that lady some mind wouldn't move without her and, and supported and respected her, you know where I stand, ah, posture, they did not care. They were out for blood that day. They were out to kill and hurt and maim somebody. Because although there were a lot of parents who were concerned about their kids and angry, there were a lot of other types of people out there too who didn't care about Black kids, who didn't care about White kids, who didn't care about anybody, were just there to stir up trouble. And it was very clear that they were egging the mob on. I mean they were shouting and they were screaming. They were shouting at her, "Get down." I think she even got pelted with an orange or an apple or something. And finally the police told her she was not helping, that she had to get down off the, ah, stairs. But they didn't listen to her. They weren't listening to anybody. When we started down that hill, I tell you they rushed the police, past the police and started rocking that bus. Those busses, I know they rocked the one I was on. And as we were going down they started throwing everything they could get in their hands. Not rocks, they looked like boulders. Seemed like someone would have to pick, take two hands and throw these things into the, into the bus. And we finally got down the hill and when we got down the hill, it was complete silence, complete silence on the bus. And I think a lot of us just started crying. Fear and anger and hurt and it, it was a real traumatic time, when I think about it. And then we started laughing because we started picking glass out of each other. Somebody would lean down and says, "got all this glass in your hair." You know, ah, "Are you OK?" Yeah, we're OK. And people were cheering and shouting and hugging us. And you know, one of my kids was there and said, "Mommy, you shouldn't have gone up the hill, you know that was very dangerous." And somebody said, "You know you're not going to stop EJ from doing what she wants to do. And we kind of laughed and joked about it at that point. But it was, ah, it was a frightening thing. And for us, so it was, it was even more frightening when we reflected on it because we thought of what could have happened to those kids. Because here we were adults and we were scared to death. And I know those kids would have been petrified. Ah, that was another day that I'll never forget, ah, ah.
Now I want you to think and tell me why education, why is education important enough for Black kids that you went through all this?
I think throughout history it's the one, I don't want to call it "out" of poverty and ignorance, ah, but it was the one entity within this country that has always been highly touted as a way that you can be somebody. Ah, that you can contribute. That you can be recognized. And that you also can teach others and bring others along with you. Ah, it's supposed to be a way for you to join the main economic stream of the United States and of America. And it's supposed to be a way that you, as I said, give back. I think though for Black people, it's always been an acceptable, respectable way to be again somebody. It's our way, ah, and we've been told this and we believe it, ah, that if we are not to be considered second class citizens, and we're not be considered chattel or whatever, that we must gain an education in order to survive, if nothing else, but to also, will be able to make significant contributions, ah, to our country. I think also that it's a way in. It's not a way out for Black people. It's a way in to these areas. It's a way again, to come back and revitalize and to have a renaissance of sorts within our own communities and neighborhoods. To bring new vision and new hope ah to others because we're very proud of people in our community who go off and do things. We're proud as any other people are to call them our home people and to call them our, our neighbors. And to call them our own. It's very important to us. And I think that with all of that we see our selves as major contributors to the society, to the future of this world, ah, and in our way, education is the first, ah, step to do that.
OK thank you