Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Annie Lennox sang, “Hold your head up, keep your head up” about dreams. I wonder about the dreams of Black schoolchildren in St. Helena Parish School District in Louisiana whose schools were officially integrated on this day – January 8 – in 1989.
It was the oldest integration lawsuit in the United States, filed in 1952 by the NAACP and John Hall, a Black construction worker and father of 14. When Black parents embarked on this legal pursuit, the most popular TV show was “I Love Lucy”, a new car cost $1,700 and Dwight Eisenhower had just won a landslide election to become the 34th U.S. President.
As decades passed, and the original plaintiff’s children and grandchildren passed through the school system, you have to wonder if even they could have foreseen the lengths to which white parents and rabid racists opposed to integration were willing to go to maintain their racial hierarchy.
In 1952, he asked the board for a new black school. Officials told him there wasn't enough money, but they offered a deal: Build the school yourself and the parish will furnish it. The black community pitched in their meager assets and their elbow grease to build a new school, but then Hall was told there was no money for furnishings.
"I told him right then 'I'm going to take my children up there to go to school with the white folks,' " he said. "He took him a good laugh. He and his crew had a big fun-making deal about it, I understand."
Hall didn't laugh. He, his father, and two other blacks who still want to remain anonymous turned to A. P. Tureaud, an attorney for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"They said 'you're going to have some mad white folks here,' " Hall said. "I said I was already mad." After all, he said, the black residents faced "nothing more than talk. All kinds of threats and talk."
Although the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in 1954, Hall's suit and scores of other desegregation cases floated in the courts for years.
The racial animosity – dare I say hatred? – from whites regarding the integration lawsuit still lingered enough 40 years later to make some Blacks want to remain anonymous. And note that Black parents built their own school and only after the school district reneged on its promise did they pursue integration. For this Black community, Black and white children under the same roof was not the goal – it was a means to an end. “I wanted my children to get an education…,” said Hall.
Yes, well, as I was saying.
Over the course of almost four decades – as their Black neighbors morphed from Negroes to Blacks to African Americans – these upstanding white citizens in St. Helena never wavered. Even as their school district struggled to maintain segregated schooling. So what brought an end to this absurdity? Not a racial epiphany, but an economic reality.
“Segregation ended because the district - one of Louisiana's poorest - couldn't afford to keep it.”