Reflections on an Era return to index
In 1974, a full two decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision started the fight over Southern school desegregation, a Federal judge ordered Boston's schools to integrate. Though Boston did not have a parallel system of segregated schools, as had been the case in the south, the racially separated layout of the city's neighborhoods guaranteed that the races didn't mix. The controversial Federal plan called for busing black students out of their neighborhoods and into white neighborhoods, where the schools were better supplied, staffed, and maintained.
One of nearly five dozen African American students bused into South Boston, Phyllis Ellison graduated from South Boston High School in 1977. Here she recalls some of her experiences as a young girl and a desegregation pioneer.
by Phyllis Ellison
I didn't know much about South Boston High School at the time. I didn't know 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. 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.
I remember my first day going on the bus to South Boston High School. I wasn't afraid because I felt important. I didn't know what to expect, what was waiting for me up the hill. We had police escorts. 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.
Well, when we started up the hill you could hear people saying, "Niggers, go home." There were signs, 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, monkeys. "Monkeys get out, get them out of our neighborhood. We don't want you in our schools." So 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.
When I got off the bus, first of all I felt important, because of the news media that was there. [Television reporter] Natalie Jacobson 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 no one could come into the school armed. I felt like this was a big deal to me, to attend South Boston High School.
I felt like I was making history, because 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.
On a normal day there would be anywhere between ten and fifteen fights. You could walk down the corridor and a black person would bump into a white person or vice versa. That would be one fight. And they'd try to separate us, because at that time there was so much tension in the school that one fight could just have the school dismissed for the entire day because it would just lead to another and another and another.
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. The black students sat on one side of the classes. The white students sat on the other side of the classes. The teachers didn't want to assign seating because there may be some problems in the classrooms. So the teachers basically let the students sit where they wanted to sit. 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 basketball, the whites wanted to play volleyball. So we never played together. They would play volleyball. We would play basketball.
I remember the day Michael Faith got stabbed vividly, because I was in the principal's office and all of a sudden you heard a lot of commotion and you heard kids screaming and yelling and saying, "He's dead, he's dead. That black nigger killed him. He's dead, he's dead." And then the principal running out of the office. There was a lot of commotion and screaming, yelling, hollering, "Get the niggers at Southie." I was really afraid. And the principal came back into the office and said, Call the ambulance and tell all the black students that were in the office to stay there. 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 corridor that day would be hurt. Once that happened, it probably took about fifteen, twenty minutes for the police officers to get all the white students out. The black students were locked in their rooms and all the white students were let go out of their classrooms. I remember us going into a room, and outside you just saw a crowd of people, I mean, 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. I remember the police cars coming up the street, attempting to, and people turning over the police cars, and I was just amazed that they could do something like that. 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.
I didn't go to my prom because I felt that it was an all-white prom. The black students had no input in 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 wan to attend. So we boycotted, and there wasn't one black student that attended the prom in '77.
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 at least once or twice a week. We were 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 really seriously injured. 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.
Please share your thoughts and comments about this essay or any other part of the Eyes on the Prize Web site.
From Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), pp. 600-601, 610, 612-613, 617-618.