U.S. school desegregation, bullying, unrest, and violence, in the 1970s

I was in the second grade in 1974 when my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, chose to desegregate its schools. Not that South Bend was deliberately sending black students to black-only schools and white students to white-only schools. Rather, decades of redlining and economic inequity created black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, and kids went to school in their neighborhoods. Same effect, obviously.

South Bend chose to desegregate its schools to avoid a judge ordering it, as was happening in larger cities. That let South Bend figure out its own desegregation plan. But like every other city that desegregated, South Bend bused black children to white schools.

James Monroe School
My elementary school. Argus A-Four, Kodak Plus-X, 1984.

I watched the first bus pull up in front of my elementary school — until that day, everybody walked to my school. Several black children walked off and into the building. Two of them came to my classroom, Eunice and Dawn Denise.

Sending two black children into a classroom with 20 white children is hardly racial integration. It made Eunice and Dawn Denise a spectacle. They were quiet and gentle, but they were mercilessly teased and put down all year. I have clear memories of feeling uncomfortable with the treatment they received, but I don’t remember whether I participated. I hope I didn’t, but I probably did. I especially hope they didn’t receive worse treatment when I wasn’t around to see.

Parents were edgy the first weeks of school that year. I didn’t know why, exactly. I learned decades later that as other school systems desegregated across the nation, it sometimes came with violence.

In Louisville, armed guards escorted children on school buses. Some parents organized a school boycott. Rumors of school violence flew furiously, some of them untrue. Here’s a complete television newscast from Louisville’s WHAS-TV from September 10, 1975, that tells the story. The station devoted most of the newscast to this story.

You might think that tensions were high in Louisville because Kentucky had been a slave state before the Civil War, and because the Ohio River is where the Midwest becomes the South. But our nation’s racism knows no geographic bounds. In Ohio, a Midwestern non-slave state, the man overseeing Dayton’s school desegregation was murdered in his office. This complete newscast from WLWD (now WDTN) on September 19, 1975, tells the story.

I was just eight when all this happened. I didn’t watch the news. All I knew was that two reserved black girls joined my class and were left to fend for themselves. It’s hard enough to be different in any way in public school. In 1975, in South Bend, in my all-white neighborhood and all-white school the racial divide made Eunice and Dawn Denise seem extra different.

Eunice came to our 25th high-school reunion. We caught up briefly, exchanging the details of our lives. When I asked her if she’d kept in touch with Dawn Denise, she brightened and said they’d been best friends all their lives. When I said that I remembered the rough treatment the two of them had received, and how badly I felt about it, she thanked me politely and said she’d rather not revisit those memories. I can’t say I blame her.

I’d also like to call your attention to the quality of news-gathering and -reporting that happened in those two 1975 newscasts. If you watch them through, you will be well informed on those critical events. This was typical of local TV news then. TV news is such crap now.


27 responses to “U.S. school desegregation, bullying, unrest, and violence, in the 1970s”

  1. J P Avatar

    Fort Wayne’s public schools began that process in the fall of 1972, the year I began the 7th grade and the first year I was in the junior high building, which was for grades 7-9.

    It was a difficult time for all of us, one that certainly could have gone better but could also have gone worse. I carry many of the same regrets that you do, though the kids bussed in came in greater numbers than what you saw.so they at least had a larger group.

    I have wondered if removing the kids from their neighborhoods helped or hurt those neighborhoods and those kids. I don’t have an answer.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I didn’t have an opinion on any of that at the time but now hindsight tells me it didn’t work. I don’t know what the real answer is.

  2. Mike Connealy Avatar

    I can’t disagree with your last sentence, but there are bright spots to be found if people will make the effort to look for them. Last night’s PBS interview of a vet with PTSD was really outstanding.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Tis true, there are gems among the dreck. They’re just hard to find given the overwhelming volume of dreck.

      I get most of my news from the NPR and Reuters apps now. They are as close to straight reporting as I’ve found.

  3. Marc Beebe Avatar

    They should have called the experiment “How to traumatize children in the name of social reform” because that’s about all it did. Really can not force such changes; it only makes people more resistant to them. I remember a bus load of black kids visiting us in the 4th grade one day (1960s), and it was more like a field day for them – and us. I’m not sure that it accomplished much either, but we were technically integrated anyway – just not many black families in the area. I never thought about racism being a problem until I grew up and saw where people made it a problem because they wanted it to be one. To this day I see people clinging to such idiocy out of fear. In fact it appears to be one of the driving forces behind a couple of royals deciding to make the move to Canada. The only thing that counters stupidity is education, and much of the world seems to have reversed itself on that these days.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was a real conundrum, trying to provide equality of opportunity to all children. Schools in poorer (i.e., black) neighborhoods really didn’t have the advantages of schools in wealthier (i.e., white) neighborhoods. This was an attempt to rebalance that. I think it was seen as an intractable problem to integrate the cities themselves. What’re ya gonna do, force people to move to neighborhoods they couldn’t afford?

      1. Marc Beebe Avatar

        And because they wanted an “instant solution” to a problem that developed over centuries they never thought about equalizing the funding between schools so that every child could get the same level of education – and thus the potential for a higher paying job. A slow process that would eventually lead almost all out of poverty. But that would take generations to accomplish.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          That would have given all children more equitable access to education, but it doesn’t overcome class limitations. In my middle-class neighborhood, education was seen as the way up. In lower-class neighborhoods that is a rarer perspective. In upper-class neighborhoods, school was all about getting into the college that gave you the best contacts. No amount of school funding could overcome class attitiudes.

          1. Marc Beebe Avatar

            This is true, but if you can alleviate some of the problem it’s better than doing nothing – or doing something that does nothing.

  4. -N- Avatar

    I remember thinking I was the wrong color when I was very little and living on the south side of Chicago. I also remember hearing many languages growing up. I remember being told family “secrets” that I should not repeat or nobody would like me. I remember all the admonitions about not asking questions about either side of my parent’s families because of it being none of my business. All this, as I grew older, I learned was because of race and religion and the destruction it had on my parents as well as their families. Hatred because of these differences is incomprehensible and loathsome to me,.

    Most interesting to me is the fact that no one addresses the impact it had on children brought into schools to desegregate them. White children are not being mentioned as being bused to inner-city schools. What is that about? NPR reported years ago that once desegregation began, the black communities often lost quality education because of dedicated teachers and intimate neighborhoods despite being in big cities. Like the news, education is now all about rights, not about teaching; it is all about teaching to the test and not engendering thinking strategically or creatively. Teachers are supposed to be helping young ones learn, but now it’s bowing to parental demands, no matter how stupid, and being required to parent without the authority of a parent.

    I could continue, but I won’t. Good article, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I know nothing of your ethnicity but it sounds like whatever it is, it didn’t fit neatly into the world you grew up in. That’s always hard. I’m sure it shaped you in concrete ways.

      I haven’t mentioned religion here but I do remember on Rabbit Hill, which is what we all called the neighborhood I lived in until I was 9, there was a strict divide along Catholic and Protestant lines. In that lily white blue-collar neighborhood, where we all looked the same, there were noxious factions over this.

      Forced-busing desegregation was a top-down approach that in retrospect was doomed to fail from the start. I’m not surprised at all to hear that it had some harmful effects on those subject to it because of the loss of tight community schools. I never lost mine, growing up within walking distance of both my elementary and high schools — my Kindergarten, third-grade, and fourth-grade teachers all lived in my neighborhood (the one we moved to after Rabbit Hill). I used to deliver their newspapers!

      Here’s my screed against schools driven by standardized testing. https://blog.jimgrey.net/2013/07/05/schools-driven-by-standardized-tests-take-all-joy-out-of-learning/

      1. -N- Avatar

        Thanks, Jim. I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I need to weigh in on your closing statement…Oh, how I miss good, solid, informative news reporting without the sensationalism and political bias.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I just can’t watch local news anymore. It’s so awful. I almost never watch the network nightly news either — it’s not quite as bad, but it’s still pretty bad.

  6. analogphotobug Avatar

    My experience was watching all of this on TV. I was able to test into the public college prep high school for the 7th-12th grades, which had been “integrated” (i.e. allowed some Black Students) since the 1890’s. My Aunt went there in the 1940’s. My oldest brother in the 1960’s. So we had a long history with Walnut Hills HS in Cincinnati. The school in my district was the worst in the City. My mom had a plan to send me Catholic School if I hadn’t passed the entrance exam. We still weren’t treated well at WHHS unless you were from an upscale family.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What an interesting and unusual experience you had. Incredible that your school was integrated since the 1890s. Unfortunate that you got lesser treatment anyway.

  7. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    The 70s is still very recent. Going to school in New Zealand in the 60s the vast majority of us went to state schools, and I think the education was reasonably consistent nationwide. Having said that, the town I grew up in was quite prosperous and middle class, although as kids we had no idea at the time. Now I think there are much bigger differences, as the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies from the 1980s has created a much bigger economic divide. In Australia, where I lived for thirty years, there is now a huge private school industry that is having a similar effect. I don’t know what the answer is, we all want the best for our kids, but participating in a system that perpetuates a divided and unequal society can’t be good for anyone…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Fascinating. I have had no previous insight into the education system in your part of the world.

      Here in Indianapolis we have many school systems, including one in what is now the inner city. When they desegregated here, the judge had to order busing from the inner-city system to the suburban systems to force integration.

      When the school systems were founded, the inner city system was the best of them. White flight to the suburbs changed that. In this way, the school systems *found* themselves perpetuating a divided and unequal society. But they didn’t start that way.

  8. DougD Avatar

    Interesting, we’re the same age and I would have thought that desegregation would have been done before we were school age.

    We still have some actual news on the CBC – government agencies FTW!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In many ways, to understand the United States is to understand the white/black divide and how it has affected all of our lives. It’s shameful that it has taken us this long to get this far.

  9. Karen Bryan Avatar
    Karen Bryan

    I’m obviously a good twenty years older than you are, Jim. I vividly remember a photo in Life magazine (see, right there I’m dated), depicting an angry crowd of white protesters and a small group of black high-school kids making their way toward their new school. I think this was Arkansas, but heaven knows it could have been many other places. One white protester had a sign: “Chicken whites go to school with jigs”. I grew up near LA, in an area where segregation was more or less enforced by real estate developers, who operated with what were called (euphemistically) “restrictive covenants”. They wouldn’t sell to black families, and this was the early Fifties, when houses were springing up in former orange groves by the thousands. I understand the area is mostly Hispanic now.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, the south was a hot mess in the 50s and 60s as desegregation came to those states. I’m surprised to hear that redlining happened even in LA. I would have assumed less prejudice there. I guess I’m not sure why.

  10. Read.Count.Craft Avatar

    So Thought Provoking. I grew up in Fresno CA in a racist family. Never thought about when we desegregated but darned if my small country elementary-8th didn’t have 1 black girl in the whole school and my family complaining about busing in later years, I don’t know when. After my parents divorced , we moved to inner city Fresno and yeah you guessed it, there were about 10 white kids in that Jr High. I am glad for this experience because I had a taste of what those with the unpopular skin color experience every day, year after year. It’s overt. The government should have not repeated its historical lesson they did with the Native Americans by trying to assimilate them- including sending them off to Catholic schools away from their families. Oregon, ironically, has always had pro slavery sympathies even though we weren’t a state at the time of the Civil War. The african americans that worked as ship-workers for WWII, stipulation was to return home after the war. In my small rural town I was told “blacks didn’t come here until the 90’s” …And regardless of Portlandia tv show, Portland is known to be racist and has the smallest minority population for a City. I was fascinated to read your personal account. I never agreed with my family re racism, I still don’t know why I just knew when they expressed slurs and so forth I always knew it was wrong. I experienced reverse racism again when I moved to an ex rez town 40 min away from here, but only from older native americans and I never got my back up because 1. I researched the tribal/settler history and 2. I only had to deal with this reality on a limited basis, many have and will be oppressed. 3. they have Generational Pain.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have never lived in a place where whites were not the majority. I can only imagine how being one of the few white girls in school was an eye-opening experience for you.

      I also have little contact with American Indians, despite my (alleged) Potawatomi and Cherokee ancestry. Indiana was the kind of place the government forced American Indians to leave.

      Truly, the only discrimination I’ve ever faced, and it’s exceedingly minor, is age-based. Now that I’m over 50 it’s a little harder for me to find work in my industry. That’s it.

      1. Read.Count.Craft Avatar

        Thankfully in this small town we have more folks my age then not. But I keep forgetting others see me as old haha

  11. sbhopper8 Avatar

    Good memory and good post. I was in grade school in the 70s but can’t remember much of it. I very incorrectly believed then that we were blissfully low on the racism chart. Pretty easy for a white kid to see things that way. I’m 1/2 way through MLK’s “Why We Can’t Wait” – it’s an incredible book about a period in the Civil Rights movement.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I didn’t think of myself as racist back then but I think of some of the attitudes I’ve shed and words I’ve stopped using and I now wonder how racist I still am.

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