Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with Phyllis Ellison

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Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: March 21, 1989

Camera Rolls: 4109-4110
Sound Rolls: 447

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 21, 1989, for . 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


JACKIE SHEARER: What was your reaction and your mother's when you first learned that you were assigned to Southie?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: When I first learned that I was assigned to South Boston High, I didn't know anything about South Boston High School. I didn't know what I was actually going into. My mother's reaction was she didn't want me to attend South Boston High School and she preferred that I go to a Catholic school. But I, I told her at that time that my, all my friends were assigned to South Boston High School, of the area in which I lived and that I wanted to go through school with my friends and so she told me that if, ah, I didn't go to South Boston High School, I could go to South Boston High School, ah, or the Catholic school, so she just let, I would quit, oh golly.


JACKIE SHEARER: So, when you first learned that you were assigned to South Boston High School what was your reaction and what was your mother's?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: I didn't know much about South Boston High School at the time. I didn't know, ah, what I was getting myself into that South Boston High School was part of busing or desegregation, I just knew that I was going to attend South Boston High School. My mother's reaction was, I was not going to attend South Boston High School that I would go to a Catholic school. And I let her know that my friends were going to South Boston High and I wanted to attend there. And she, you know, wanted me to go to Catholic school. So I said I would quit school if I had to go to a Catholic school because I wanted to be with my friends and none of my friends could go to Catholic school because of affordability. And I wanted to be with my friends.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now did you have any feelings about the fact that you were assigned there, that you were in a sense made to go there?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: I didn't know what desegregation was all about. I didn't know that about busing or being forced to bus to South Boston High School. I just know, knew that that was my assignment, South Boston High was my assignment and that was my friends' assignment and I wanted to be with my friends.


JACKIE SHEARER: And what about the fact that some of the people in South Boston didn't want you to go to South Boston High, how did that make you feel?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: OK, that was the reason why, once I got to school, I wanted to continue to go to South Boston High School because I felt that it was my civil rights duty to attend there and that it wasn't the fact that I was being forced to bus by Judge Garrity, it was the fact that the White people at South Boston, in South Boston were saying to me that, you can't attend this school because you're Black. I thought that was wrong.


JACKIE SHEARER: Tell me, describe for me what the bus ride from Bayside Mall up the hill was like. Were you scared?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: I remember my first day going on the bus, ah, to South Boston High School. I wasn't afraid because I felt important. I didn't know what to expect, ah, what was waiting for me up the hill. We had police escorts, ah, I think there was three motorcycle cops and then two police cruisers in front of the bus and so I felt really important at that time, not knowing what was on the other side of the hill.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, tell me what you heard and what you saw out the bus window.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: Well when we started up the hill you could hear people saying, "Niggers go home." There were signs, ah, they had made a sign saying, "Black people stay out. We don't want any niggers in our school." And there were people on the corners holding bananas like we were apes[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-18, monkeys, monkeys get out, get them out of our neighborhood. We don't want you in our schools. So, you know at that time it did frighten me somewhat but I was more determined then to get inside South Boston High School because of the people that were outside.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now inside the bus, tell me what you and the other students were doing and tell me how you reacted when you saw and heard what you did.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: Initially, when we first, when we were on the bus initially, we reacted, we used to sing as we were going, ah, to South Boston High School, we would sing "We Shall Overcome" and then duck so that the glass from someone throwing a rock wouldn't shatter into our eyes. We would sing and then duck down, "We Shall Overcome". And the police a lot of the times had the crowd maintained and they would catch the person that threw the rock or at least attempt to.


JACKIE SHEARER: What about when people would yell things at you or throw an egg or something that you knew wasn't going to break the window?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: Well, we, sometimes, ah, the students would stick their finger up at them or lick their tongue at them or, you know, say something back to them. And a lot of times the aids that were on the bus tried to control but when there's 40 students on the bus and there's only one aid, there's not a lot that the person can do. If someone is the back of the bus or the front of the bus.


JACKIE SHEARER: OK, now I want you to tell me how you felt, what it was like when you got off the bus and had to go into the school.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: Ah, it was, first I, first of all I felt important when I got off the bus because of the news media that was there. So I, you know, Natalie Jacobson, and, out in front of your school getting the story on your school. So I felt really important going through the metal detectors and making sure that, you know, no one could come into the school armed. I felt important. I felt like this was a big deal to me, to attend in South Boston High School.


JACKIE SHEARER: So, think back, you told me how important you felt. In what way did you feel important?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: I felt like I was making history. Because of, that was the first year of desegregation and all the controversies and conflicts at that time. I felt that the Black students there were making history.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now also, you told me that your mother didn't want you to go to Southie, that she was afraid. What was she afraid of?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: She, my mother was afraid for my safety. She, you know, would see South Boston High School being publicized on the evening news every night, every morning, in the, ah, paper and she did not want me to attend because she was afraid for my safety. But I thought that it was my civil rights and that my civil rights were being violated. Not so much by Judge Garrity but by the people at South Boston High in South Boston.


JACKIE SHEARER: So I want you to tell me again about this basketball-volleyball business in gym, and, and talk about the tension, the racial tension--
PHYLLIS ELLISON: If we wanted to play basketball, if the Black students wanted to play basketball, the White students wanted to play volleyball. So the Black students played basketball and the White students would play volleyball. The tension, you can't imagine the tension that were, was in the classroom. And the teachers were afraid that if they said one thing it would lead to another and it may incite a riot. So a lot--The teachers allowed the students to sit basically where they wanted to sit so there wouldn't be any um, racial tensions. So Black students sat on one side and White students sat on the other.


JACKIE SHEARER: I want you to tell us about the day that Michael Faith was stabbed. How did you first learn that anything had happened? Describe what you saw and what you heard. Were you frightened? How did you leave school that day?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: I remember the day Michael Faith got stabbed, ah, vividly because, ah, I was in the principal's office and all of a sudden you heard a loud commotion and you heard kids screaming and yelling and saying, "He's dead, he's dead. That Black nigger killed him and he's dead, he's dead."[2] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-28 And then the principal running out of the office. And there, there was a lot of commotion and screaming, yelling, hollering, "Get the niggers at Southie." It was a riot, I mean, I was really afraid. And the principal, ah, came back into the office and said, "Call the ambulance and send all the Black students that were in the office to stay there." And a police officer was in there and they were trying to get the White students out of the building because they had just gone on a rampage and they were just going to hurt the first Black student that they saw. Anyone that was caught in the cor- corridor that day would be hurt. Once that happened, it probably took about 15, 20 minutes for the, the police officers to get all the White students out. And the Black students were locked in their rooms and no Whites, all the White students were let go out of their classrooms. And the Black students were locked inside the classroom. I remember us going into, ah, a room and outside, you just saw a mass of, a crowd of people, I mean you just, so many people, I can't even count. They just looked like little bumblebees or something, there was that many. And that Louise Day Hicks was on top of the stairs saying, "Let the niggers go back to Roxbury. Send them back to Roxbury." And the crowd booing her and Hicks is saying, "No, no, no. We want to get them, we won't let them go." I remember the police cars coming up the street, attempting to and turning over the police cars and I was just amazed that, that they could do something like that and, they, so they tried, the police tried to get horses up. They wouldn't let the horses get up. They stoned the horses. They stoned the cars. And I thought that day that we would never get out of South Boston High School.[3] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-30 We had lunch and I remember they would not tell the students what was happening at any time, how they were going to get us out of the schools. I think the officials were really afraid too, because they did not know, after the police car was turned over, Louise Day Hicks couldn't control the crowd. And, so they didn't really know how they were going to get us out of the school. And I think it was big mystery to them. Finally, it must have been 2:30 or 3:00 that afternoon, all of a sudden, all you heard was, ah, you're going out the back door. You're going out the back door. At that moment we had to run to the buses[4] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-32 in the back door. They had used the buses as a decoy and they told us to get down and stay down. When we got on the bus I remember the glass being shattered all over the floor and they told us to stay down. Because if one White person had saw us running through the back door, there would have been a mess. You know there may have been some people even killed that day because they would have had to protect the students. I remember after we all went down Bayside Mall and all our mothers was waiting for us and saying that, "You know, they would never let us go back to school again." And at that point in time I was really afraid. I didn't know what I was going to do. After that, I think the next couple of days of school was closed, to get some law and order back. And there had to be, ah, something done about what had happened. And the school officials had to figure out a way in which the Black students were going to be safe at South Boston High School because they knew that the White students wanted retaliation for Michael Faith's stabbing.
JACKIE SHEARER: Great. Cut. Fabulous.


JACKIE SHEARER: So I'd like you to give us a sense of what it was like day to day in terms of the violence in the hallways at Southie, and if you can specifically tell us about the time that you got jumped.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: OK. I remember coming out of my typing class, room 218. It was on the second floor. Opening the door, going towards the locker and then the next I knew all I could hear was my, all I could feel was my hair being pulled, being pulled down to the ground and three girls trying to get on top of me to fight. Calling me a nigger and I just wouldn't tolerate being called a nigger. The next thing I knew the police were, was, um, separating us from each other and one of the girls didn't have on a bra when she got up, one of the White girls and there were, there was three. There were two others. And we were taken to the holding room. And at that time there was a holding rooms for Blacks and holding rooms for Whites.


JACKIE SHEARER: So was your attitude a nonviolent one at that time?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: My attitude was nonviolent but if, um, my rights were being that violated, I wasn't going to be, take being called a nigger laying down, or being smacked in the face and, and turn the other cheek. No, I, I wouldn't do that. When someone called me a nigger I'd say White boy or White girl or whitie. I wouldn't turn the other cheek.


JACKIE SHEARER: And what was it like in terms of, I mean, give a sense of what the violence was. How many fights a day would there be on a normal day?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: On a normal day? Anywhere between ten and fifteen.
JACKIE SHEARER: Could you give me that again in a full sentence?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: OK. On a normal day there would be anywhere between ten and fifteen fights per day.[5] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-21 You could walk down the corridor and some- a Black person would bump into a White person or vice versa. That would be one fight. And they'd try to separate it because at that time it was so, there was so much tension in the school[6] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-23 that one fight could just have the school dismissed for the entire day because it would just lead to another and another and another. And so they didn't want it to be a riot so the school could be dismissed you know, after one or two fights for the day.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, you told me that you thought that the media played an important part in the way that things happened.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: The students at that time, and myself included, knew that if we wanted to get out of school, if we wanted to feel important, that we'd start a fight and during a major, like thir- after third period in the bathroom. And so the students would be released for the day. We know we would go home or we'd go over to UMass and we'd see it on, we'd watch it on the six o'clock news. I think if the media hadn't played that role or you know, every day South Boston High School's on the six o'clock news and the next morning it's the front page, hit the front page, that the students may not have fought so much or they, there wouldn't have been so much violence.


JACKIE SHEARER: In the midst of all this, did it ever happen that White kids and Black kids got along?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: Not from '74 to '77. The White kids were afraid of, ah, being friends with the Black, um, students because they would be ostracized. They would be casted out. They weren't allowed to have Black friends or they would be beat up.


JACKIE SHEARER: If you had it to do over again, would you?
JACKIE SHEARER: So give me the good and the bad or if you had it to do over again, would you?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: If I had to do it all over again, because of my civil rights, um, I thought that they were being violated because a White person was not going to tell me that I couldn't go to a White school, that I couldn't attend South Boston High School. But as far as the education, I think we've spent a lot more time out of school in the holding rooms, fighting, and a lot could have been--I could've gotten a better education because I wouldn't have spent so much time with the you know, court systems and the Judge Garrity and the school being closed, and a lot of the days were just half of the days, especially initially. And in '74 I don't think there was too many weeks in the beginning where we went to school every single day, that the school wasn't released early, at least one or two times that week.


JACKIE SHEARER: Again, giving me the good and the bad side of it, if you had it to do over again, would you?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: If I had it to do all over again for the civil rights part of it, I would do it over because I felt like my rights were being violated by the White people of South Boston telling me that I could not go to South Boston High School. As far as my education, I think I could have gotten a better education if I didn't spend so much time out of school with the fighting and the violence and being dismissed from school all- at least once or twice a week. We were al- allowed to go home early because there was just so much tension inside of the school that if we didn't someone may be killed or, or really seriously injured. And I think that I could have gotten a better education if I'd spent more time in school than out of school at that time.


JACKIE SHEARER: So you were telling us about the atmosphere inside the school and inside the classrooms at that time.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: OK. The atmosphere inside the classroom was tense. You can't imagine how tense it was inside the classroom. A teacher was almost afraid to say the wrong thing because they knew that that would excite the whole class, a disturbance in the classroom. And the teachers didn't want that in their classrooms. And I can't, ah, blame them at that time because one word would lead to another and that could be a fight, and the, you know, the whole school could be dismissed for the day for that.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now, can you tell me the story about why you didn't get to go to the prom?
PHYLLIS ELLISON: I didn't go to my prom because I felt that it was a all-White prom. The Black students had no input in the prom, the planning of the prom whatsoever. So it was as if we didn't exist. And there wasn't enough Black students to vote against the White students because there was more White students attending than Black. So we had no voice. We had no say-so. And we didn't want to attend. So we boycotted and there wasn't one Black student that attended the prom in '77.


JACKIE SHEARER: So tell us about the separation of the races in the classes and in the bathrooms.
PHYLLIS ELLISON: The classes were separated. The Black students sat on one side of the classes. The White students sat on the other side of the classes. The teacher didn't want to, to assign seating because there may be, um, some problems in the classrooms. So the teachers basically let the students sit where they wanted to sit. When in the lunchrooms, the Black students sat on one side. The White students sat on the other side. And the ladies room. It was the same thing. The Black students went to the right of the ladies room; the White students went to the left of the ladies room. So really, it was separate. I mean, we attended the same school, but we really never did anything together. Gym classes. If the Blacks wanted to play, um, basketball, the Whites wanted to play volleyball. So we never played together. They would play volleyball. We would play basketball. So it was separate