One Historian's Journey Comes Full Circle in Her HometownRoundup
tags: African American history, desegregation, Texas history
Ms. Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University. She is the author of On Juneteenth and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History.
After a period of firm resistance, I gave in last year and allowed my hometown school district to name a new elementary school after me. As a first-grader in 1964, I was the first Black child to enroll in a white school in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston. I had held out about accepting the honor because I always believed it was a bad idea to name things after people who are still alive, tying an institution and its fortunes to the name and reputation of a specific individual.
I had developed this belief long before the current battles over buildings named for controversial figures and monuments to such people. As those situations make clear, death—even long ago—provides no real protection for individuals once thought to have been worthy of public honors.
George Washington, “the indispensable man” who played such a critical role in the formation of the United States, was also George Washington the enslaver, who sold people to near certain death in Caribbean plantations and who replaced some of his lost teeth with those of enslaved people. He did free the individuals over whom he had legal control, but only after he was dead and gone and needed them no more. It is safe to say that for most of American history, the former view of Washington was deemed vastly more important than the latter, which was commonly treated as an afterthought, when it was mentioned at all.
Had my parents been alive, I would not have had a moment’s hesitation about allowing a school to be named for me. Their pride alone would have obliterated any doubt. If it weren’t for a decision they made when I was six years old, there likely would never have been the occasion for a Gordon-Reed Elementary School.
When I was headed to first grade, the Conroe Independent School District was still resisting Brown v. Board of Education, a decade after the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. The method they employed was a so-called “freedom of choice” plan. The expectation was that parents of both races would continue to do what they had done for decades: White parents would choose traditionally white schools for their kids, and Black parents would choose the Black school in the town, of which there was only one: Booker T. Washington.
In this way segregation would continue. But the often brutal racial history of the town—there had been lynchings of Black people over the years, and a Black man had been burned at the stake on the courthouse square in the 1920s—cast doubt on the idea that the decision, particularly for Black people, would be wholly voluntary.
My parents, Alfred and Bettye Jean Gordon, no doubt influenced by the heady days of the Civil Rights Movement, decided to make a different choice, though my mother taught English at Booker T, as it was known, and my two older brothers went there. Indeed, it was where I had gone to kindergarten. They picked a white school, Hulon N. Anderson Elementary, for me.
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