CHICAGO, IL (August 12, 2015) — I grew up in Florissant, Missouri, a neighboring community to Ferguson, and attended schools in the Ferguson-Florissant district where I graduated from McCluer North High School in 1979. I’ve struggled to comprehend the events that have unfolded over the last year since Michael Brown’s death.
But it hasn’t been just me. So have my classmates, both black and white. Our school was one of the first in the state integrated through busing, and the experience had been overwhelmingly positive.
“It wasn’t like it is now,” Eddie Hicks, one of my black former classmates, lamented over the weekend.
I’ve spoken with pride about the successful integration that occurred when students from Kinloch High School, which was 100 percent black, were bused to my school, which was 95 percent white. I spoke with pride because so did my friends, including the students from Kinloch.
I am still proud and was going to write about that this week on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Then over the weekend, I was shocked by the intrusion of a painful reality that served as a self-indictment but also a lesson into how our realities are never as simple as we’d like them to be.
When courts ordered that the Ferguson-Florissant district annex the much poorer Berkeley and Kinloch districts, it was subsequently decided to bus the Kinloch students. At the time, McCluer North was considered one of the best high schools in the state with programs that served as models for others around the country.
There had been court battles to keep the busing from happening, and there was initial apprehension about what might transpire when the black students arrived. Busing in other parts of the country had not gone well.
“My nervousness actually was for the kids from Kinloch because for them, it was like going to a foreign country,” my friend Claire Clay, who is white, told me over the weekend.
But what happened was success. Aloysius Royal, a black student from Kinloch, was elected vice president of the National Honor Society and president of the Student Council. Royal wrote on Facebook last year that he was initially upset when he learned he would be bused but that, “Ultimately, my experience in Ferguson and Florissant was an extremely positive one that led to me doing what initially seemed impossible for a young black kid from Kinloch in a 95% white school. . . .I saw school administrators, teachers, students, pastors, and community leaders come together to forge a pathway to success in the midst of chaos.”
“The joke among whites became, ‘So when did your parents move to St. Charles County?’
The homecoming king and queen in my senior year were from Kinloch. The school continued the Kinloch tradition of holding an annual Afro Ball. Not all went smoothly, of course. When some white students were angry that black students were elected homecoming king and queen, they vowed to run a white couple to be elected the same at the Afro Ball. But it was other white students as well as administrators who said we would stand for none of that. Black and white students made many cross-racial friendships that continue.
Jerry Hogue, a black classmate from Kinloch, told me recently that he had a great experience at the school, and we recalled stories and experiences with mutual friends. Eddie talked about all the students from Kinloch who went on to have successful careers that might not have been possibilities were it not for their education at McCluer North.
Before August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was killed, I had shared the story of our great achievement as a testimony. Since that day, I’ve voiced it as a lament over a betrayed past. And I’ve put it forth as a defense. My community has been maligned across the world, and I want people to know that my town was not just what they were seeing in the news. At least it wasn’t when my friends and I went to school together.
On Saturday I was sitting in my chair struggling to type just the right nouns, verbs, and adjectives to accurately convey the racial harmony we had experienced, and then the intrusion happened. At that moment, I realized that for all the educating I’ve tried to do for others, all the pride I had expressed about the integration at my high school, I had never asked why it had even been necessary. Not once.
I knew St. Louis had a long history of racism, and even when I was a small child in the 1960s, there had been separate water fountains in some places. But I didn’t think that was my hometown situated in St. Louis County. Yes, there were some people, including my grandmother, who were overtly racist, using words like “the darkies,” or the “N-word,” but they disgusted me with that talk and it was not the way of my parents. I rarely heard my white friends utter racial epithets, and my black friends have told me they had plenty of friends who were white.
But for the most part, we didn’t know. Until this weekend I had not known how the racial and economic differences in St. Louis’s North County, where Florissant is located, had been determined through redlining and other measures implemented over generations. We didn’t realize how they might as well have been physical walls erected as barriers to quality education, good jobs, and safer neighborhoods.
Most of us didn’t comprehend the extent of racism as it played out in our daily lives.
Eddie told me over the weekend how police officers had stopped him and his black friends on multiple occasions while they were kids riding their bicycles. The police had wanted to know what they were up to and where they were going.
“We didn’t think anything of it,” Eddie said. “We just thought that was the way it was for everybody.”
Sometimes we forgot. Eddie’s family had moved into Florissant the summer between his fourth and fifth-grade years. A couple decades later, when he was talking with his family about how he didn’t remember experiencing racism, his mother reminded him that when his family moved into the community, someone threw a brick through their window and ripped up the yard by doing doughnuts on it.
I haven’t lived there since high school, but I was sure that much of the white flight that happened in the 1980s was due to the loss of jobs at several huge companies, though I knew racism had played some role.
But Claire, who once worked at a fast-food restaurant next to the Auto Zone that was destroyed in last year’s riot, told me that after we graduated, the joke among whites became, “So when did your parents move to St. Charles County?” That county is located across the Missouri River and nearly all white. She does not find it funny.
And as I realized that I had not asked what had made the busing necessary, I also had not truly wanted to know why so much had devolved in the years since. I had hoped Claire would contradict all I had read in news reports and studies. I had kept looking for proof that my hunches about what caused the worsening segregation were right, and the research and news reports had been wrong.
Most of us didn’t comprehend the extent of racism as it played out in our daily lives.
And then there are the classmates I thought I knew who have disappointed me as I read their comments and dialogue on Facebook in discussions about the community following that tragic August day. Last December, when roughly 300 students from McCluer North and McCluer high schools walked out of class and staged mostly peaceful demonstrations, some of my Facebook acquaintances were livid at such insolence and what they viewed as an overblown incident that minorities were exploiting.
I was proud of the students because they refused to be complacent and upset over my classmates’ anger. Yet, I also understand their anger wasn’t just about that particular event but was rooted in changes over the years. Those classmates, most of who still live in the area, have seen crime increase and property values drop dramatically. Our school now performs below state levels.
Like me, they are angry at the one-sided portrayal of our hometown. The truth also is that much of Florissant is made up of nice neighborhoods and some that had declined are being revived. Many black residents such as Eddie’s parents live in middle-class subdivisions. A lot of the people who live there, both black and white, say they get along well but that the conflict is primarily between black residents and an unjust system that includes the police.
But regardless of a person’s side or legitimacy of complaint, anger doesn’t hear nuance. The tendency is to seek only affirmation that will fortify our position. Rational thought and the pursuit of understanding become casualties. And then so do people.