Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
Again, the “arrows” of bigotry were starting to point my way. My first five years of schooling was such a thrill. It excites me when I return to my hometown of Oxnard, California and converse with people who have been my friends since kindergarten and first grade – happy days indeed. It was my fifth grade when the evil activity was directed to me. My teacher would snap at me in a minute. The principal, Mr. Betts, decided to eject me from Drifill Elementary School. Our new home was right on the borderline between Drifill and McKenna elementary schools. He cited that I was having emotional problems and would be better served at McKenna. So at the bewilderment of my parents and friends I was off to McKenna. Guest who the new teacher was? It was Mrs. Betts – the wife of the principal who thought I was crazy.
I was the only Black in my class. Mrs. Betts would look at me with a scowl. She seemed to enjoy reading the Mark Twain adventure “Huckleberry Finn.” One of the main characters was “Nigger Jim.” As she read, every time the character Nigger Jim would come up she would raise her voice and look at me. It was like Mississippi and it was the worst days of my life. I would average the grade of “A” on math tests and anything else that was objective. However my report cards would say B or C. I started keeping my tests and homework and then show the difference to my parents. They became enraged and my mother challenged the Principal to no avail.
“Your son is crazy,” said Principal Ingersoll. They brought in a psychiatrist to evaluate me. I took all of these strange tests not understanding what was going on. Eventually, the Psychiatrist met with my mother. He said, “Mrs. Alford there is absolutely nothing wrong with your son. In fact, he has a higher I.Q. than any of the teachers and administrators in this school.” My mother was shocked. He concluded by saying: “You and your husband must protect him. For some reason they are trying to break him.” When dad came home and learned the news all Hell broke out. Like James Brown would say “Papa Don’t Take no Mess.”
The wicked scheme against this Black boy backfired on them. Dad went and presented my case to the entire School Board. In essence, he said that something was going to have to change or else every Black in this town will be demonstrating like they do down South. I was moved to Mr. Webber’s class. It really wasn’t much better. But the big deal was that they transferred Principal Ingersoll to Ramona Elementary. We all laughed! The bigoted principal was now overseeing Black and Hispanic students. The next school year he left town. Good riddance! Mr. Betts who actually lived down the street from us ran for the school board. He was trounced and they soon left town.
I was a lucky one. Vaughn Gaston was playing by the rules when they approached his parents and convinced them to hold him back a year. Here is one of my partners who passed but yet they held him back. Their intent was to break him and that they did. From there on, Vaughn was never the same happy guy.
Going back to McKenna Elementary, a new form of targeting Black kids was started. My brother and two of my first cousins came out of kindergarten and were assigned to “Junior First.” I asked my mother what is Junior First? It seemed that the kindergarten “teacher” and the principal started this concept for kids who just weren’t ready in their eyes to start first grade. Can you believe it? Flunking kids coming out of kindergarten. Who went to Junior First? Nothing but Blacks and Hispanics. This was simple bigotry. Messing with helpless children’s minds just because of their color. It was racism by any other name.
Parents of Black children must be vigilant. This stuff is still going on. A friend of ours had to step in and deal with a teacher messing with her grandson. In the end, it worked out because of her involvement. Her grandson is doing wonderful at DePaul University in Chicago now. The point I am making is that when your children go to school do not assume good behavior and sincere intentions from the faculty and administration. Stay tuned and talk to other parents to detect any negative trends. Your children depend on your attention and protection.
It was from my experience that I resolved to never assume that things at elementary schools will be positive for our children. Watch every step, your most valuable possession is on the “line.”
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org