Classrooms are a place of learning but it was something that took place outside the classroom and outside my junior high school building in Brooklyn, New York, that became one of the greatest life lessons I would ever learn.
It was the early 1970s and school integration was in full swing. The decision was made to bus black (that is how African-Americans were referred to at that time) students to my junior high school to provide them a better education than many would have otherwise received in lower-income neighborhood schools.
People were mad. Teachers would not teach; parents threatened to keep their children at home. Tensions filled the neighborhood as uncertainty and fear began to grip almost everyone I knew. Everyone, that is, except my mother. She became angry, but not about the schools’ integration. She was angry at the prejudice she was witnessing and that she had tried to teach me was wrong.
And then she put her words into action. She decided to cross the teachers’ picket lines when they refused to teach our more fully integrated school. She was willing to withstand the anger and retaliation she might experience from our friends and neighbors as well as the teachers and others in the school district. If you think I am imagining this or exaggerating, take a moment to remember the horrible images of water cannons, with full force, aimed directly at African-Americans who were trying to access their legal rights, but were not allowed to do so – equal access to schools, drinking fountains and the front seats on buses.
I have never felt more pride in my mother than during that time in our otherwise personally turbulent lives. The teachers finally relented and integration became the norm. Was it pretty? No. Was it worth it? Yes. Especially for one little girl who learned that might does not make right and that, in God’s eyes, we are all equal.
Recently I helped my church, Community Vineyard Church in Cuyahoga Falls, celebrate Black History Month through the presentation of a Living History Museum of seven great African-Americans of faith. It was an idea that I borrowed from Kent Roosevelt High School, where I am a substitute teacher, but its genesis began five decades ago when my mother stood strong in the face of oppression and hatred and who taught me to do the same.
Although she is now with the God she loves, I live each day to help fulfill her dreams and my own to uphold the indisputable truths as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, “ . . . that all men are created equal, (and) that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
I pray that my life will be an everlasting tribute to the woman who taught me outside of school and in the classroom of life.
Photo of me and “Jackie Robinson” (Jayvon Taylor) at the Black History Month Living History Museum. Most people may not know that Robinson was specifically recruited to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers based on his Christian faith – with a signed agreement that (for three years) he would not retaliate evil for evil. Robinson lived up to the agreement and despite great persecution and anger railed against him, he went on to become the Rookie of the Year and an All Star Baseball Player, opening the door for other African-Americans to play Major League Baseball.