Then we had a family meeting and together explored my by tJpe17BZ



                Bible Camp, Shaw University, Raleigh, NC, Summer 1961.
Left foreground: Miss Minnie C. Lyons, a missionary just back from her post “in Africa”
as assigned by the Lott Cary Foreign Mission Administration. 1

   Until I reached junior high school, all I knew about white folks up to that point was

what I had learned from listening to Mama, being dragged from one place to another for

medical examination (though rarely treatment), and from reading newspapers and

magazines like Life, Redbook, Ladies Home and Garden, and Good Housekeeping. But

because we had voted unanimously not to have a television—“the stupid box"—Ma was

my primary information source about White People.

   She instructed us in nuances and details, all delivered with remarkable detachment,

much like she taught us to cook, wash clothes by hand, clean up, sew, fix our hair,
memorize our speeches; much like she coached me in violin and my sister in piano

although the only instrument she played was the accordion. Her relationships with her

employers were contractual exchanges: She cleaned their houses to earn a living. She

spoke of them with neither anger nor bitterness. Yet, watching and listening to her, I

learned to hate them on my own.

   Many days, Ma came home exhausted—not from the physical labor, but from the

mental toil of constantly deflecting the arrogance of adults and children drenched in the

rightness, the mightiness of their relentless whiteness. The women of the house were

always “Mrs. Rembert” or “Mrs. Hice,” but she was always “Odessa,” even to the

toddlers who could barely talk.

   As far as Ma was concerned, hers were not a victim’s tales, but simply tiresome

examples of white folk who believed that looking down on us lifted them up. And as

1963 turned into 1964 and then 1965, resistance to our push for civil rights made it clear

to me that it wasn’t just those white folks Ma worked for, but it was White People

generally who were ganging up to stomp us down.

   Desperate to become a town industry loved, Charlotte could not afford the bad

publicity from high-powered water hoses and snarling dogs that attached themselves to

people a bit further South. So, a few reasonably prudent white leaders in our town struck

a deal with middle-class black leaders and thus began inching towards desegregation of

the public schools. As agreed, at first the black leaders offered up their own progeny,

thinking them the best representatives of our race: colored children with two college-

educated parents, members of Greek letter societies, owners of a mortgage and two car

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payments, regular church-going, paid up members of the NAACP. Children who came

from something and were, therefore, best qualified to go places.

        But native intelligence and academic stamina did not sufficiently track the

number of parents and household income to provide a large enough pool from which to

draw the Race Warriors. So it wasn’t long before the circle of the deserving had to be

substantially widened. The black leaders went back and dutifully broke off a larger piece

of their best, brightest and most well behaved children and offered us up, a tithe of talent

to be cast upon a sea of white mediocrity. For their part, the white leaders refrained from

unnecessary talking.

    The more widely cast net scooped me up as part of the larger group for this social

experiment, an opportunity to join the children of black homeowners as guinea pigs for

The Cause. I was excited and even flattered to be seen as worthy to join their company.

Then we had a family meeting and together explored my options as a warrior in The

Fight for Racial Justice and Equality. When Mama explained that I was part of the second

line of assault and not the first, at first I was indignant. But I was no less determined to go

strut my stuff among the White Folks and I had several choices for just how I could do


    The easiest option was to remain with my old classmates in our segregated school on

our side of town; the hardest was to become “one of those Dorothy Counts girls” and dive

headfirst into a sea of white hostility. Ours was a family of readers and talkers. We read

and talked incessantly about what happened at school, at work, and in the news. So I was

acutely aware of the treatment waiting for the sole black kid in a classroom: being

assigned to the back of the class, never called on to participate, graded unfairly, harassed

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by classmates and teachers alike, called names, shoved, spit on, threatened, or shunned. I

figured I could put up a good fight in that situation, but why should I? I had too much to


        I was a straight “A” student and I could not afford to have racist children and

teachers throw me off-track. Ma had drilled into us that the only way we could afford

college was to get scholarships. If I couldn’t count on being graded fairly, my entire

future was in jeopardy. Why should I sacrifice myself simply for the chance to sit among

a bunch of mean-assed white kids just to prove I was as smart as they were? Perhaps that

was a job best left to the Negro kids whose parents could afford to send them to college,

scholarship or not. Still, though, despite the low-down tactics of my prospective white

nemeses, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I couldn’t beat the odds no matter how high

they were stacked against me.

    Then came Ma’s final question. “What if someone hits or spits on you? What would

you do? “

    “Ball up my fist and try to knock their nose off.”

    “Well, that being the case, I think the wisest choice is for you to stay right here and

go to school with the children and teachers you know and who know you.”

    The school integration war reached our front porch anyway that summer of 1961. It

arrived as the pupil assignment notice sentencing me to seventh grade at Irwin Avenue

Junior High and smashing the future I had already planned for myself even though I had

just turned twelve. A pre-teen still new to stockings and pumps with “Princess heels,” I

had been headed for Northwest Junior High, like my sister before me, until the

devastating notice appeared. Northwest was the intermediate portal before crossing the

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ultimate threshold: West Charlotte Senior High. The thought that I might never make it to

West Charlotte, but might instead end up in some hostile high school’s race war zone was


   Then, too, no one we knew had ever heard of “Irwin Avenue Junior High School.”

That was because it was a new name slapped on an old school that had been all white

when it closed for the summer three months earlier. If the name change was supposed to

fool us into ditching the vaunted Northwest for some “white trash” leftovers in a rundown

white neighborhood, it didn’t work.

   So, when the propertied white leaders decided to send poor, working class black kids

to sit in classes beside the dirt poor white kids, the poor white folks boycotted the school.

So we did too. Consequently, of the 800 children assigned to Irwin Avenue, about 200

actually showed up, not one white face among them.2 Neither was mine.

   Outside the school, the Charlotte Observer reported, “the Negroes were picketing and

demanding desegregation.”3 The white families, who could afford to, had fled before

school opened. Ma had decided that the safest place for me was at home.

   Eventually, things calmed down and classes started. The white folks who fled and

took their children with them left us mostly poor black students and solidly middle-class

black teachers to our completely black selves.

   I already knew my teachers favored me because I was good at reading and writing.

My first real inkling had come in the fourth grade, when my California Achievement Test

scores showed reading comprehension was that of an eleventh grader in her ninth month

of school. My teachers wanted to immediately take me out of fourth grade and skip me to

the sixth, but Mama wasn’t having it. Convinced I was physically too fragile and

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emotionally too immature, she was not moved either my pouting or by others’ efforts to

persuade her. Irwin Avenue, however, introduced me to a new kind of peeling away,

showing me that I was being judged and set apart from my classmates not simply for my

ability, but also for the way I looked, dressed, talked, and behaved.

   One night after attending the first monthly parent-teachers’ meeting of the year,

Mama came home steaming. My English teacher, technically black but even whiter

looking than Mama, had beamed her approval despite unearthing my true origins.

   “We were so surprised to find out that Bernestine is a recipient.” In Mama’s telling,

her fury turned the word into “ree-SIP-yunt.”

       “Recipient?” Mama didn’t understand.

       “Yes…on welfare!” The English teacher whispered sympathetically. “Bernestine

is so well-dressed, so well-mannered. She speaks so beautifully and carries herself with

such class. We just never would’ve thought….You can imagine our surprise….” Her

voice trailed off. Mama inhaled the insult, shoved it down inside her gut, and finished

listening to the glowing reports from the English teacher and all of my other teachers.

And then she came home fit to be tied.

   “This is precisely what I’ve been trying to teach you. From here on out, people are

going to be judging you by how you speak, how you dress, how you behave. These

colored ones who think they’re better than we are because they have a piece of paper

called a college degree, think we’re poor because we’re stupid, because we don’t want to

do better. They think we don’t have any class. Look at what that woman said to my face

tonight. ‘We were so surprised!’

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   “What kind of fool do you have to be to believe that just because I’m struggling, my

children shouldn’t know how to speak properly or shouldn’t show up in school well-

rested and well-fed? You better take note because this is what you’ll be up against for the

rest of your life. People looking at you and deciding on the spot whether they’re going to

let you in or try to keep you out. That doesn’t mean you have to change who you are or

get your ass on your shoulders and be like them. What it does mean is you’d better keep

your nose clean, your head high, and your shoulder to the grindstone.”

   Within a year of Mama making our reality plain, Tina and I got summer jobs. At

thirteen, I earned the same $30 weekly salary as Mama who, at forty-three, had been in

the workforce for thirty-three years. Because she refused to let me or my sister clean

white folks houses (“I do it so you won’t have to do it”), I had found an office job doing

typing and filing.

   One night during our weekly family meeting, the three of us conducted a cost-benefit

analysis and voted unanimously to take ourselves off Welfare. We decided the $30 a

month welfare check was not enough to make up for the stigma, the invasions, the

assaults that came in tow. Plus, now that I was earning in a week what the government

was sending us once a month, it was time for them to kick me off the dole anyway. Our

pooled incomes and the taste of independence my own salary brought coincided with the

growing push for equal rights throughout Charlotte’s Negro communities. The more I

saw, the more I loathed White People and the systems they would obviously kill for to

keep themselves on top. Mama, a fervent believer with impeccable Christian credentials,

was increasingly disturbed by my apparent lack of Godly love.

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   If I had no love for White People, Ma was similarly disinclined to appreciate the civil

rights work of lawyers and political others she routinely maligned as “self-serving rabble

rousers.” No matter her lack of appreciation, a sentiment shared by many blacks at that

time, our leaders had been busy wrenching a deal from CCS. For their efforts, we got two

new schools—Druid Hills Elementary and John Taylor (J. T.) Williams Junior High—

both in Negro neighborhoods; community control over the selection of the J. T. Williams

principal; and the J. T. Williams principal got control over selection of his faculty.4

   So, after serving my one-year sentence at Irwin Avenue, I waved bye-bye to that

dreadful place and transferred to the brand new, solidly black J. T. Williams Junior High,

school in a black community surrounded by a mix of poor, working class, middle class,

and even upper middle class black neighborhoods. And there, in our gem built atop a city

dump, we Children of the Dream managed to get an excellent education as we endlessly

created, refined, dismantled, and reconstructed hierarchies of class, skin color, and hair

texture that would scar us forever after. And middle class black people began more

clearly emerging as the new face of my oppression.

   Setting the standard for excellence was our principal Alexander H. Byers, who

greeted 7th, 8th, and 9th graders with stern warnings when we arrived at a sparkling, state-

of-the-art J. T. Williams in the fall of 1962. A highly respected, impeccably trained

educator and strict disciplinarian who ruled with compassion and integrity, Byers

brooked no foolishness. Backing him up was the superb faculty he had handpicked from

the cream of the crop. Systematically shut out of jobs in CCS, many of Charlotte’s best

and brightest young black teachers had dispersed to other counties to find work, some

were even forced to commute across state lines.

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   One by one, they returned at Byers’ behest. Together, ignored by the white folks,

Byers and his staff poured themselves into us and created the crown jewel that was John

Taylor Williams Junior High School. We were in every respect the J. T. “Panthers.”

   By the time the next fall rolled around, I had hit 9th grade in full stride: I was

President of the freshman class and of the National Junior Honor Society, a reporter for

the school newspaper, a teaching assistant in the Adult Education Classes held on

campus, and a violinist —occasionally managing to unseat Gwendolyn Carraway from

first chair, though never for long—in the school orchestra.

   On November 22, 1963, an unseasonably warm, sunny day, we had just finished

inducting the eighth graders into the National Junior Honor Society. As president, I led

the procession from the cool interior into the bright sunshine where my two favorite

teachers stood just outside the doorway, waiting to congratulate us. As we drew closer,

Ilda S. Johnson, my English teacher, stared grimly above my head, her arm around

Cyphese Redfern, our typing teacher, who sobbed, “The President has been shot!”

   Sallie, Victoria, and I stumbled home from school that day, suddenly ancient at

fourteen. Silence roped us, three abreast, circled the tear damp collars of our white cotton

blouses, dropped down past our navy blue box-pleated skirts, and wrapped our hope and

innocence like shackles around our feet. We trudged the distance, bent forward like worn

out migrant workers at sundown.

   Ever since Martin Luther King, Jr. and then President Kennedy had miraculously

appeared on the scene, black folks had held our collective breath, not wanting to, but

unable to resist foretelling some horrendous tragedy we knew would befall them. We

whispered among ourselves. How long would it be before the other shoe dropped, before

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white folks swarmed in some heinous act aimed at stomping us back into place? So, when

they finally did it, when they murdered one of their own in broad daylight, with millions

watching, we were not taken by surprise. Overcoming had always been deadly. Those of

us who were Southern born, bred, and black could read those signs with our eyes shut.

   While the nation was still dumbfounded by the assassination of President John F.

Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, his wily, pragmatic successor, used the lull to push

forward the Civil Rights Act of 1964, primarily propelled by the massive civil rights

movement.5 Originally conceived as protection from job discrimination for black men,

the bill was amended at the last minute by political opponents trying to kill it. They were

certain that expanding the measure to include women would do just that. Their tactic

backfired. Not only did it pass, the Civil Rights Act transformed American society. It

outlawed discrimination in virtually every aspect of life—jobs, housing, schools, public

accommodations—and fueled the women’s movement in the last half of the 20th century.

Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964.

   The Old South, staggering and outraged, wasn’t about to give up so easy. It had

flexed the week before in Philadelphia, Mississippi when a Klan posse of nineteen,

including a sheriff’s deputy, beat and slaughtered civil rights workers James Chaney,

Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner before stuffing them in a hole prepared ahead

of time. So even though jubilant blacks rejoiced to witness the Civil Rights Act’s axe

blow to white supremacy, dread lined our jubilation, sparked by terrorism’s most

effective and fearsome questions: Who next? What next?

   By 1964, Charlotte School System (CSS) had still not seen fit to assign more than a

few dozen black students to schools with white ones even though there were more than

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20,000 black students that had to be sent somewhere.6 Even so, the revolution was

palpable. A century of laws that kept white folks in control and black folks in misery had

been split wide open. Ma had been right after all: They couldn’t keep their foot on our

throat forever, couldn’t ban us from all things white—water fountains, restrooms,

theatres, churches, hotels, front doors, even graveyards—for eternity.

    What’s more, I was part of the demolition mind-crew being trained to help finish

them off. We would out-strategize, out-maneuver, plain old outsmart them. So, saturated

with promise, I entered tenth grade at West Charlotte Senior High in the fall of 1964.

  The first International Missionary, Minnie C. Lyons, sailed to Brewerville, Liberia in Africa under the
tutelage of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Administration, and returned to New Bethel Missionary Baptist
Church, Durham, NC, in 1951. Ms. Lyons served over 30 years as a missionary, teacher, and a nurse She
died at the age of 105.
  Charlotte Observer
  Charlotte Observer
  Conversation with Ilda S. Johnson Green, 6 June 2004, Charlotte, NC, retired from teaching after 43(?)
years with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools. After my mother, Mrs. Greene has been the most
influential woman in my life.
  42 U.S.C. § 2000a et seq. (1964).
  Id. at 1362.

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