African-American history has played an integral role in the shaping of politics, economics, and culture in the United States. Growing up, how did you learn about the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans? Were you in a classroom? Reading a book? Talking with relatives or friends? How has your understanding or knowledge of African-American history changed and/or developed over time? What do you think is the most effective way to pass along this rich and growing history to future generations?

Bernistine Williams

I learned about African American History by living in the time of integration. As children, we started out in an all black school and in the 4th grade, we integrated to the white school in the same town. At that time, as a 4th grader, I did not know so many white children even existed because where I lived the children were predominantly black and other white immigrants. We did not know as children about discrimination, racism, slavery, but we were aware of the Civil Right Movement from television and radio. Again, as children, we thought this was somewhere else millions of miles away because where we were, we treated each other with respect. Remember – we were all immigrants in a sense, mostly Czechoslovakians, blacks and Russians. Of course, there were white Americans, but race was never an issue. The African American experience was evident, though, after integration, with segregated classes where there were token blacks placed in all white classes and the blacks were put in a room together with no books and paper and they were allowed to play, wrestle, jump on the desk and just be noisy. They obviously did not want to teach. I was a token black due to the fact my grandmother worked for the superintendent of the school district and my mother was one of the few in the area with a degree – obviously from a HBCU – and this tokenism continued until I graduated. At the time, though, I was unaware I was a token black, but as I look back over the years, I know see many nuances of the African American experience.