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Remembering Segregation, Appreciating Differences

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I'm an integration baby.

kids in classroom

Kimberly Seals Allers: I was bussed from my nice middle class black neighborhood to a nice middle class Jewish neighborhood, where they had better schools. In first grade, I was selected for the school's gifted program, and remained in that program until it ended at high school. Along the way, being the only or one of two or three black children in the predominantly white class, I became best friends with people I probably would have never met before.

I've sat shivah, I know how to respect meat and dairy plates, and I've been to more bar and bat mitzvahs than any other sister out there. Oh, and I dance a mean "Hava Nagila." Not your typical black girl upbringing. But I am still very close and extremely fond of my friends to this day.

My father had a radically different school experience. He attended a one-room schoolhouse in the segregated South, where there was no heat, no indoor plumbing, no bathrooms, and makeshift benches made of long wooden boards held up on two ends by chairs. The boys took turns bringing in wood for the one stove, and they also had to mop the floor with leftover motor oil they got from the local mechanic to keep the dust down. In fact, the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which officially ended segregated schools in the South, began as a lawsuit by a county preacher in my dad's hometown in Clarendon County, South Carolina. My great-grandfather, the Rev. Washington Seals, another leading preacher in that county, and my great-grandmother, Rebecca Seals (who both raised my father), were among the original signers of the petition.

My dad always told me about this experience. But last week, it was made painfully clear to me. A new traveling exhibit based on the early days of Brown vs. Board of Education in the heart of Clarendon County opened at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.

Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, the Guts to Fight for It was organized in 2004 by the Levine Museum of the New South in honor of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. It tells the story of the people of Clarendon County, "people outside the traditional power structure, without wealth and often with little classroom education," and how together they were able to bring an end to legal segregation of the races. My father was part of that community. All of the descendants of the original petitioners were invited to a private pre-opening reception, and my parents drove to New York from South Carolina to attend with my brother and I. What an empowering night!

In a time when most people take integrated schools for granted, that is not allowed in our family. When my great-grandfather, whom we called Big Daddy, and my great-grandmother, whom we called Big Mama, signed that original petition, their lives were changed forever. Death threats ensued for all three reverends (including my Big Daddy) leading the initiative. Many men and women lost their jobs for their involvement. My dad remembers the Ku Klux Klan circling the house shooting off guns in an attempt to scare Big Daddy. To protect the women and find income, many of the women, including my grandmother, were sent north to work. They would send money back to support the men and children. As a result, the segregation movement broke up my dad's family, and he speaks very emotionally about being left by his mother at age 13.

I took great pride in seeing pictures of my great-grandfather in the museum. And I was even more proud to see my dad's quotes and comments included in the exhibit. More importantly, I wanted my children to see their roots. To see how their own ancestors have contributed to the freedoms they have today. I wanted them to know that their freedoms only came because of sacrifice, loss, upset, and even death.

And that when they look around at a sea of diverse faces in their own classrooms, they remember Big Daddy.

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2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Cheryl October 16, 2009, 6:15 AM

My schooling very closely resembled yours, except I lived in a Jewish community in Queens. God bless Big Daddy and your family for what you have contributed to this country. You should be proud.

helloh January 20, 2011, 8:34 AM

Another majuscule illustration of creation, I am happy to happen it. There are so umteen developers working on this segment but this is one of the soul innovative aim ever. Thanks for intercourse it here.
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