As A White Student in a Mostly Black School After Brown, I Learned Not to Fear HistoryRoundup
tags: Southern history, Virginia, desegregation, school integration
Woody Holton, the McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution.
Early in 1971, my sixth-grade class at Mosby Middle School in Richmond performed a play based on a 1951 science fiction story by Ray Bradbury. “The Other Foot” depicts future African Americans, despairing of ever being treated equally on Earth, establishing their own colony on Mars. Years later, wars make Earth uninhabitable, so the surviving Whites also rocket to Mars. I played the White refugees’ spokesman. If the earlier colonists would take us in, I offered, we Whites would do the dirty, low-paying jobs and suffer all the indignities of second-class citizenship, just as Blacks had on Earth. In keeping with post-World War II racial optimism, a sweet old Black man steps forward and tells us Whites: You can stay, and we are not going to treat you the way you treated us but the way you should have treated us.
The reason I booked that role was that my sister Anne and I were among only a handful of White kids at Mosby, which had been nearly all Black until a federal judge desegregated it the previous year.
“The Other Foot” has been on my mind ever since the death on Oct. 28 of my father, Linwood Holton, the former Virginia governor who was best known for complying with the desegregation order — and even more so after Glenn Youngkin was elected governor on Nov. 2 promising to protect schoolchildren from uncomfortable conversations about race.
My Black teacher’s decision to have me play the White man in “The Other Foot” would appear to be just the sort of diversity, equity and inclusion exercise that candidate Youngkin vowed to protect White children from. Yet far from making me uncomfortable, the story’s message that people who had suffered so much could still somehow forgive left an indelible positive impression on me. And numerous other incidents during my three and a half years as a racial minority likewise convinced me that one of the biggest beneficiaries of school desegregation was me.
I wonder what Youngkin and the supersensitive White parents who helped elect him would have thought of the White Mosby teacher who directed another play I was in. The people who scream at school boards frequently brandish the famous “color of our skin” line from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to demand that teachers pretend such differences do not exist. But my drama teacher needed to group his predominantly Black cast by hue so everyone would get the appropriate makeup. He did it in such a beautiful and affirming way, taking his categories from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem Sweeties”:
Walnut or cocoa,
Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar,
A chocolate treat.
Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove, cinnamon
To a honey-brown dream.
Many of my Mosby friends were poor. The voters had temporarily placed my family in one of the finest mansions in Virginia. Visiting each other’s homes was akin to Bradbury’s characters’ trip to Mars — the first time, that is. After that, we were just kids horsing around. Once, while I threw water balloons with Black friends in front of their home, a busload of White kids drove by, and several yelled at me, “White cracker!” Assuming they meant I had cracked the color line, I took it as a compliment.