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Venturing into Desegregation

Longtime GPPC member Margaret Sydnor (shown with husband Jim in the mid-1980s) recently shared a rich and unblinking ten-page memoir of her time teaching in the Richmond Public Schools system, beginning in the mid-1960s. She has graciously offered her work for excerpts here. Below are some of the adventures that came on the heels of her Masters Degree – Spring 1965, at age 50 – in Early Childhood Education and a good first session teaching summer school.

That fall I was sent to Webster Davis Elementary School in Fulton; this was when my REAL education began. Fulton Bottom was an isolated community down the hill east of Church Hill and Chimborazo Park. It was later completely obliterated by what is euphemistically called urban renewal.  All the faculty and students were black. My class was held in the Quonset hut that was part of the Bethlehem Center, located about two blocks away. There was no room in the school proper for our class. We had to walk back and forth to the school cafeteria for lunch regardless of the weather or the condition of the children’s clothing.

My program had originally been funded by the Ford Foundation. After its intended three years of duration, the city kept on with this particular program while the rest of the area and the country as a whole adopted the Head Start program. This gave us a certain latitude which I enjoyed. For instance we could go to Bryan Park or Maymont in the Bethlehem Center station wagons rather than have to go through all the bureaucratic red tape that Head Start necessitated.

The Bethlehem Center was a very important ingredient in the life of the community and in my life as a teacher there. Its director, his wife, and two little daughters lived in an apartment above the center. They and the storeowner down on Williamsburg Road and I were just about the only whites in the area.  The community was so separate from its white environs that one 4th grade child, on being taken to MCV, looked up the hill and said, “Is this New York???” One day after my husband had been to school to put up a punching bag, the children were gathered on the rug for our group time when we discussed the affairs of the day. One little boy said, “Teacher, did you know you was married to a white man?”

“Yes,” I said, “and I’m white too”.

“You is? “

* * * * * * * *

The principal and I took a long time getting used to each other. We were both used to running things. We both had minds of our own and didn’t hesitate to express our thoughts. Our approach to childhood education was not diametrically opposed but mighty close to it. Outwardly her approach was very formalistic and mine very informal. Underneath we were both concerned about the same things. But it did present problems. For instance, before I could start classes I felt it necessary to get rid of five tables and 30 chairs, leaving only enough for work areas.

In the cafeteria I was told by the principal to keep the children quiet. I asked her what she meant by ”quiet”. She said, “The children are not to talk”. Now this was absolutely contrary to my training in the field and contrary to my natural instincts. After I told her that I thought that conversing at the table was essential to learning, that I asked one child if I could cut his meat for him and he looked up inquiringly and pointed to his tomatoes.  Children who don’t know the names of the foods they eat need to talk about them.

“Talk, converse, yes, Mrs. Sydnor, but your children are too loud.”

“Well, Mrs. Lewis, if they could have chairs and tables that fit them and they could put their feet on the floor, they wouldn’t be swinging their feet and sometimes thereby hitting each other.”

“Where will we get the chairs and tables?” she asked.

“You remember I just had five tables and 30 chairs removed from the hut?”

“Oh yes, well we’ll see what we can do about it.”

Another time I found that I could obtain life-size baby dolls, both male and female, from France (not super-sexed Barbie dolls). I always thought it was ridiculous to have sexless dolls. At any rate I took the matter up with my principal and, to my great surprise, she told me to go ahead and order them and that if there were any repercussions she would handle them. There was none that I ever heard of.

* * * * * * * *

Let me tell you a little bit about my relationships with the people in the Fulton community. Since my pupils were due to go home at 1:30 I often had time to visit in their homes. The first year I would go to the home of one of my school children and the mother would come to the door often in her bathrobe and talk to me through the screen door. The second year as they were beginning to realize that I really cared about their children they would invite me in. The third year even new parents whose children I had not had before would say “Come on in; we know who you are”. I found that the reason many of the women were wearing nice clothes was not what I had thought but because they worked at night, cleaning downtown offices or in factories and slept while their children were in school.

One of my four-year-olds, Cynthia, had been absent for two weeks in the bitter cold. I went to her house and she came to the top of the stairs carrying her two-year-old sister. Neither of them had on shoes or socks and if there was heat in the house I couldn’t feel it. I asked her where her mother was. Cynthia said at work. It turned out that the person who was supposed to take care of the little one was sick. So the four-year-old was kept from school in order to take care of the two-year-old.  The mother, very outgoing and truly loving, was a waitress at the John Marshall hotel. She told me that she got two hours off in the morning and two hours in the afternoon but it took 45 minutes by bus each way to get home and it cost too much money. It just wasn’t worth it to go home.

There was a tremendous feeling of loyalty and caring in the Fulton community. Quite a few of the people owned their own homes and had good jobs. Even though many of the younger ones moved to the country, some would pay several hundred dollars a year to send their children back to Webster Davis School.

When we had parent-teacher meetings at night the parents and staff would see to it that I was safely in my car with the doors locked and the engine going before they would leave me. The morning after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination the principal was on the front steps waiting for me. “I knew you’d come,“ she said. ”I just want you to know that the people will be looking out for you all day so that nothing happens to you.”

I have been asked if I was ever afraid while I worked in the community. The answer is yes. The father of two of my children struck terror in my gut whenever I saw him, which was three times. After my first encounter I found out that he had been using the door of our Quonset hut for target practice with his switchblade. Later he shot to death two people and himself.

* * * * * * * *

One small wiry boy named Reggie was the only child for whom I ever instituted intake proceedings for him to be placed in a foster home. His father and mother were married but the father lived most of the time on Church Hill. Reggie’s mother and grandmother were drinking companions; the only objects in the downstairs that I could see were a dirty uncovered mattress and a small un-housebroken dog.

One day Reggie came to school and as he was hanging up his coat he mumbled something to me. I really couldn’t understand what he said so I asked him to repeat it. He said, “My daddy took an ice pick and twisted it into my belly hole.”  Another time when he came in his eyes were almost shut. He looked sort of drunk. I asked him if he felt all right. He said, “My daddy pushed me down the stairs.” Later that day when we were out on the play yard Reggie sat on the side of the sandbox, then just laid down and went to sleep. I asked my aide to look after things and I picked Reggie up and carried him over to the school nurse, Anne Fitts. She had him taken to the hospital for treatment for a concussion. It was after that that I instituted the intake proceedings but my reason for doing so was based mainly on neglect. Reggie was left at school more often than not. He was found roaming the streets at night, sometimes as late as 1 AM going through the trash cans, looking for something to eat, drinking out of discarded beer cans or whiskey bottles. He was also seen to strangle cats.

He knew that I cared about him. One day he was not taking turns as he should with the tricycle. I had to speak firmly to him and insist that he allow another child to ride it. He got off in a huff, ran to the fence at the other end of the yard and climbed over it.  It was 8 feet high. The other children started yelling, “Teacher, teacher, Reggie’s hopped the fence!”  By that time he was way across the vacant lot. Even that long ago I was no match for Reggie with that much of a head start. I told the children, “Reggie will come back.” I knew he wanted his school lunch!  In a few minutes Reggie came sauntering back across the vacant lot, very debonair.  He was holding a small paper bag and eating a cookie, which he had bought at the corner store. I went to meet him and walked between him and the other children so they wouldn’t see him eating. “Reggie,” I said, “did you have any breakfast?”

“No ma’am”

“Well you go on and eat one more cookie. Then I’ll keep the rest of them until it’s time for you to go home. It’s almost time for lunch now.”

Twice more Reggie “hopped the fence”.  Each time occurred after some reprimand from me.  In the spring, one day, Reggie was at the easel, painting a picture.  He painted a series of purple horizontal lines and then a series of green vertical lines, then some red lines and some blue ones.  When he was through he unclipped the newsprint and brought his painting to me. “Here’s your fence, Teacher,” he said.  He never hopped it again.

* * * * * * * *

And now, for one last quickie. After five years at Webster Davis I was transferred to Fairfield Court elementary school in Church Hill. I had been there several years when integration took place. One day as our class was waiting its turn in the cafeteria line one bright little black boy, Cornelius, went up and down the line playfully pulling the hair of each boy as he came to him, “One black boy,” he said, “one white boy, two white boys…”

“Which is better, Cornelius?“ I asked, “ black or white?”

“Black,” he answered, quick as a flash.

“Why?”  I asked him.

He put his head down and thought for a moment.  “No,” he said, “both is better”.

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