History, Vintage Television

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.

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Essay

Safety and diversity

When I lived in Indianapolis I felt safe. I lived in a part of town that had little or no crime. I was never the victim of a crime and I was never under threat. Indianapolis has bad neighborhoods; the church I attend is in one of them. I just stayed out of there at night and all was well.

I moved to Zionsville, an Indianapolis suburb, a couple years ago. I feel ultra safe here.

Around Zionsville

I think now that I merely didn’t feel unsafe when I lived in Indianapolis. I recently started working in Downtown Indianapolis, a place I used to visit frequently when I lived in the city. As I walk those streets now I realize I’m always lightly vigilant, always generally aware of my surroundings.

Because my guard is completely down in Zionsville, I can see now that I was always this watchful when I lived in Indianapolis.

Parked by the blue door

I think I feel safe enough to be this relaxed and trusting because in Zionsville, everyone looks and behaves like me, or like someone obviously in a higher station in life than me. In Indianapolis, I encountered people of many backgrounds, people who didn’t look like me.

I don’t like to think of myself as prejudiced, but perhaps I am in this way. If nothing else, living in Zionsville has certainly taught me that it’s easy to feel safe in a homogeneous community.

Down a Zionsville sidewalk

Yet I miss the diversity of Indianapolis. When I moved there in 1994, my first wife and I chose a home in an area of mixed race so we and our children would have friends of many colors and backgrounds. It worked!

Yet when we went out on the town — infrequently, as our children kept us busy — we never felt a part of a community. We were just two people out among strangers. I used to think that was largely on me, as I’m a keep-to-myself introvert. But now I’m not so sure.

Around Zionsville

When my current wife and I go out in Zionsville, there’s a feeling that we’re among our people. We have random conversations with strangers. My wife always starts them (see above, re: keep-to-myself introvert), but I always participate in them. Heartily.

In Zionsville when I see someone who is not white or is not wearing clothes that suggest at least an upper-middle-class background, I immediately assume they’re not from here. And then I’m startled by my own prejudice.

This is just an experience report. I can’t draw any hard conclusions. But I wonder: does choosing diversity lead to a reduced feeling of safety, and does choosing homogeneity lead to an increased feeling of safety? Am I objectively safer in Zionsville than in even my nearly-no-crime neighborhood in Indianapolis? I’m not sure.

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