A teaser from my just-published memoirs, Opening into Light:
As you may remember from my March blog article “Card Catalog,” in the fall of 1970 I, my sick and reclusive husband George, and our two small children were living just outside of Mansfield, Louisiana, the tiny, stagnant and thoroughly segregated focal point of DeSoto parish. As I put it in that article:
“George’s non-stop coughing had driven us east from smog-ridden California to find a place, any place at all, where the air was clean enough that George could breathe. Mansfield was the very first spot where he had some relief, and no wonder. County seat of De Soto Parish, it was a town of about 3,500 people, with two high schools (one all black, one all white) drawing students from the entire parish, two doctors, one dentist, a public library and precious little else. No industry. No smoke. No interest or investment in factories and “progress.” Most of the Caucasians (just 11 per cent of the parish’s population) lived in town; most of what we now call the African-Americans lived in the country. So did we, in a small trailer on the one bulldozed patch of our dirt-cheap fifteen-acre chunk of pine forest.
“Since I was clearly going to be the breadwinner for the foreseeable future, I got a summer job as a fill-in for the regular librarian, and then was hired on as the school librarian and only white face in evidence at De Soto Jr.-Sr. High School…"
Now here’s more--but not all!-- of the story, from my just-published memoirs, :
In Shreveport three years before, we had lived in an all-white neighborhood just off our equally vanilla campus and had interacted (to the degree we interacted at all) only with our fellow faculty members, so the issue had never come up. Now, suddenly, I found myself in a town, parish and state where in 1970 your skin color mattered above everything else. Everything else.
Yes, there were a few black people on Mansfield’s streets and in the public buildings, but when I went into stores or office buildings I discovered that all the officials and staff were Caucasian. So were the mayor, the doctor, the dentist, and the entire police force. Most of the shoppers were also white; the “colored folk” (that was the most polite of the terms used) went for their groceries and dry goods to small gas-stations-cum-general-stores at back-road intersections in the surrounding countryside. The library had one whites-only branch, in town, plus four bookmobile routes to serve the rest of the parish population. Restaurants weren’t an issue: there were none. There was a fast-food outlet or two; I don’t know about their demographics, since George and I never frequented them.
The town itself was split down the middle by the railroad tracks. West of the tracks was where the whites lived and worked; on the east side were the blacks, existing for the most part in ramshackle board-and-tarpaper shanties crammed onto impossibly tiny lots. And beyond that? The overall ratio of black to white citizens in DeSoto Parish was eight to one. Doing the math, I realized that had to mean that 100% of the parish’s 22,000 country-dwellers were black.
It now became clear why there were two high schools serving the parish. Mansfield High educated the under 1000 white students; DeSoto Junior-Senior High School baby-sat the 1,500 or so black students from around the parish who could be forced, threatened or otherwise induced into making the trek to school—probably about a quarter of their age group. The two schools, and their feeder elementary schools, had been briefly integrated: in 1967 federal officials had arrived, forcibly desegregated the schools via busing, and remained to “observe,” i.e. enforce, this detested change for 18 months. As soon as the observers had packed their bags and returned to Washington, however, the parish school board swiftly and quietly re-segregated (personally, I prefer the term “dis-integrated”) their district. No one uttered a peep to the authorities, of course. Who would have dared, given that the mayor, police chief, doctor and dentist were all openly members of the Klan, as were the president and other members of the School Board? Everyone who was anyone in Mansfield belonged to the KKK. Please note that I am not exaggerating for effect here. The bald facts are bad enough…
Hired on as the librarian and only Caucasian at DeSoto High School, I quickly discovered that the neglected school library was the least of the school’s problems…
…[T]he main problem wasn’t the library at all; it was the abysmal conditions that reigned for both students and teachers.
Students and teachers alike were the descendants of field-hand slaves, most of whom had “inherited” their small plots of land after The War ended in 1865 with their emancipation. Their great-great-grandchildren still worked those plots in bare-survival poverty. Most children and teens still went barefoot because there was no money for shoes; the South being a very kindly host to all sorts of small and not-so-small wriggling things, children grew up drained by parasites. They were also frequently bitten by tarantulas and snakes (the parish boasted both Eastern and Western diamondbacks plus all three other North American venomous snakes, and they were legion), stung by yellowjackets and wild bees, and otherwise attacked and invaded from birth.
Only one student in four at our school was living with even one biological parent; the rest were cared for by grandmothers and “aunties” who might nor might not be related to them. A fair number of them managed to stagger through six grades of so-called schooling, which left them functionally illiterate; after that, a good three-quarters never passed through the doors of a school again. Truant officers, of which there were two, did try to keep tabs on those actually enrolled in the higher grades; that did not, however, mean they could force the kids to attend. You either got on the bus or you didn’t; if you didn’t, you weren’t much worse off in terms of receiving an education.
Because all but two of their teachers had emerged from precisely the same background, with precisely the same quasi-schooling, followed by a mockery of a college education at an outdated, underfunded black teachers’ institute. They had just enough knowledge to stay a page or two ahead of their students—assuming they could be bothered to teach them at all.
This sounds harsh, I know, but it is also factual. The teachers could hardly be blamed; they had done their best to prepare themselves. They had left home, and in order to pay their tuition had worked eight hours a day at menial jobs in addition to attending classes, in an attempt to acquire knowledge and skills that were simply not on offer. They arrived back in DeSoto Parish with no slightest idea of how to coax any information into the ill-prepared brains of their charges, or maintain any kind of order in their classrooms.
As a result, almost all the faculty members had given up any pretense of teaching long ago. When I made the rounds of the classrooms to introduce new library policies (more on that later), more often than not the teacher would be snoozing with his feet on his desk while the kids wrestled, threw chairs at each other—and on one memorable occasion out the open windows—and generally ran riot. To get some rest, teachers would regularly sign a hall pass for an entire class to go hang out in the library: no assignment, just R&R for the beleaguered teacher.
In the early weeks, I would often have as many as 150 students an hour come slamming through the library doors, ignoring my shouted commands and pleas and proceeding to run riot over, under and around the tables and chairs without once picking up, much less opening, a book, shouting insults at the librarian as they passed. They stole whatever wasn’t under lock and key (except the books); after my housekeeping allowance for an entire month was lifted from my purse while I was trying to quell a riot at the other end of the room, I kept it clutched to my bosom whenever there were kids in the library.
I admit that I was beginning to understand why the School Board had been in such a hurry to banish these kids back to their all-black status quo as soon as the feds departed. However, I also knew just who had created and maintained this no-win setup in the first place, so my understanding was not leavened with any great sympathy for either the Board members or the other white parents who backed them
Given I was the only Caucasian in the entire school, I wasn’t sure how much of what was going on was directed at me personally and how much was just the way the students had always behaved. After a few weeks of trying out do-gooder sweetness and light, however, I had had enough; the iron fist came out of its very tattered velvet glove. I went to Mr. Jackson, the principal, and informed him of the new library policies: no more than four students from a given class could be sent to the library in any one class period, up to a total of six passes or twenty-four students. Students would sit quietly at the library tables with both hands on the table. They would then be allowed, two at a time, to go to the shelves and find a book to read. They would bring that book back to the table and read the book silently, not one word, no sideways glances, nothing, for the rest of the hour. When the bell rang, they would leave the library in silence, gently placing their book on the cart on their way out. If after one month we had achieved compliance with these new rules, I would begin permitting students to check out their books, if desired, at the end of the period. The other rules would remain the same.
Mr. Jackson, bless him, was one who had not given up; nor had his vice-principal, Mr. Johnson. They were simply overwhelmed by the apathy of the teachers, the indifference of both School Board and law enforcement, and the sullen resistance of the students who saw no point in being there (for which I didn’t blame them). Mr. Johnson patrolled the halls religiously and helped me whenever he could in my efforts to create some order in my precincts; Mr. Jackson fought both paperwork and the Board that created it, scrabbling for a better deal for his kids. Both those fine men cared, and I knew I could count on them backing me up within the very tight limits of their ability to do so.
Mr. Jackson asked me to visit the classrooms and explain the new library rules to both teachers and students; he or Mr. Johnson would accompany me. And this we did, to my wide-eyed astonishment at the conditions that ruled in said classrooms. Since corporal punishment was still the norm for serious infractions, the kids did eventually settle down with administrators in the room, and most of the teachers appeared to be paying attention also. Thereafter, as each new group of four-and-only-four students arrived at the library, I reminded them of the stringent new rules and prepared to do battle as necessary to enforce them.
To my utter astonishment, that necessity never showed up. The kids filed quietly in, sat down, placed both hands on the table, waited for permission to get a book, found one, and spent the hour reading, or at least their version of same. Prepared for glowering resentment, vituperation, active resistance and perhaps fisticuffs, I received instead a shy smile or two. About the third week, a hand went up.
“Miz Zaher, c’n we ask you for help findin’ a book we’d like?”
“Of course y’all may do that. Just raise a hand, one at a time, like you just did—Martha? Thank you, Martha—and I’ll be happy to take y’all, one at a time, around the shelves and help you find something you like.” (I knew far better than to direct them to the card catalog; it was, in any case, in utter disarray as I embarked on what would be a two-year project of purging and refurbishing it.)
Hands went up immediately. I had suddenly become a real librarian, actually helping people find reading material that suited them! I was thrilled. These kids just needed someone to care about them and their likes and dislikes, and give them a hand. With very few exceptions, they didn’t care what color that hand was.
I began to notice that there was some competition for the seats nearest my desk; the first students to arrive always sat closest to me, then the others filled in around them. No more stealing, no more muttered insults. Wow! At a staff meeting I suggested “we” try making library passes rewards for good in-class behavior, and by all reports that worked some similar magic in the classrooms of those who adopted it. These were knowledge-thirsty children who had never been given so much as a spoon to dip into the well.
I began a Library Assistants program for help in reshelving and sorting books, and eventually checking books out, and kept the library open for checkouts till the last school bus left. My search intensified for books and series with elementary-level vocabulary but secondary-level content. This impoverished school had a very generous book-acquisition budget; I wondered if that was the result of some federal subsidy program. I suspected—no, knew—that no one had previously taken advantage of that hefty budget. In fact, the last year the library had been updated in any way was apparently 1949.
I rushed to meet this fiscal year’s use-it-or-lose-it October 31 deadline and found three or four excellent series on black history, obviously created for latecomers to literacy. YES!! We were on our way. Then it was on to fiction: ditto. There were authors out there who cared, too. I felt part of a company of unseen bibliophiles sharing a common cause: to bring the great joys of reading to young people growing up with very little cause for joy…
There were, however, a great many kids yet for whom reading was, as it were, a closed book. Having never actually read a book, they had simply no idea what was on offer. After I had drained every last penny from the lame-duck book budget, gorging on book catalogs until I couldn’t read another plot synopsis or editor’s choice recommendation, I rested my aching eyes and thought about ways to encourage reading. Finally, I consulted my new friend Vivian West.
Vivian, an English teacher, was one of the two staff members who had not succumbed to despair. The other was her husband Alex, the band teacher. They were also in their late 20’s, hailed from South Carolina, and had received a decent education at Howard University in D.C. In Vivian or Alex’s classes you sat down, sat up and paid attention, or else. Vivian’s students were actually learning something, but were still very hampered by their sub-basement reading levels and reluctance to open books they had no hope of understanding. Who could blame them?
George and I liked Alex and Vivian very much. This was a first for us; in our entire married life we had not met another couple who made a compatible foursome with us. Alex was quite happy to spin theories and talk philosophy with George and music with me; Vivian spoke some French, wanted to start a garden, and loved books. Both played cards; so did I, and George of course learned very quickly. We laughed easily and often. It was such a relief and joy to see something—two someones, actually—bringing George out of his almost impenetrable shell for a couple of hours on a Saturday evening.
The Wests had spent a couple of evenings at our trailer and we had made one visit with the kids to their home at the very western edge of the black sector. I knew they wouldn’t be here forever—they were very clear that this was a temporary gig for them till they recovered from school debts and found better positions elsewhere—but I cherished secret hopes that this could somehow be a prelude to a long, albeit long-distance, friendship.
So, at the next opportunity I presented Vivian with what I had dubbed the 3-6-10 plan. DeSoto Parish’s school years were divided into six-week grading segments, three per semester. What if, I asked, we solicited and obtained the agreement of all the English teachers that an automatic ten percent would be added to the English grade of any student who provided proof, in the form of a brief, one-paragraph “book review,” i.e. plot or content summary, that they had read three library books in that six-week period? I myself would direct the program, including helping students select books and checking their summaries, then provide the names of qualifying students to their teachers at the end of each grading period. Did she think it would fly?
“Worth a shot,” said Vivian. “I’ll talk to Miz Maiden (the department head) and if she gives it the okay I’ll back you up at the staff meeting.”
Mrs. Maiden, I knew, did not like me particularly, but from what I’d observed in staff meetings she seemed fair and reasonable otherwise. “Let’s give it a try, then,” I said.
The program was a huge success. Kids’ grades went up, which pleased both teachers and—especially—the valiant but eternally frustrated Mr. Jackson. A few kids tried copying the book jacket plot summaries, book unread; bless their unsophisticated little souls, they were caught every time. A larger number read the book, then needed considerable coaching to get their summary down on paper. Aha! A chance to help with the other half of literacy. Needless to say, I loved it; by the end of the second grading period so did the kids. Reading comprehension scores soared. I began scooping up dozens of the much more abundant junior-high reading-level books with interesting and subtly educational content. There was now a waiting list for the library assistant positions. We were on our way!
Two or three weeks later I was called in to a meeting with the school district’s head librarian. I had met Mrs. Smith once; she seemed a calm, gentle and hands-off supervisor. She was not hands-off that day, however. Without preamble, she plunged in.
“Miz Zaher”—first names were not used among colleagues in that district—“Miz Zaher, the School Board is directing you to cease all fraternization with the nigra staff at your school at once. It is not acceptable here.”
“But—but there’s no one else!”
Her voice softened a little. “I know. But it is very, very dangerous for you to be seen speaking to those people. You and your husband need to find friends of your own kind, and you need to speak to the DeSoto staff only when you absolutely need to in the performance of your duties. Otherwise both you and all those you befriend will be fired. Do you understand?”
Full of youth and righteousness, I stood up for my principles. “That’s not right! I can’t do that!”
“Do you want to be responsible for blood being shed in this town?” asked Mrs. Smith.
“No,” I said miserably.
“You do know who runs this town, don’t you?” she said.
“If you persist in this, this town will blow sky high. Blood will be shed, and not all of it will be yours. Do you really want that to happen?”
Horrified, I succumbed. What else could I do? “Have y’all warned the Wests also?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, they’ve been told,” she replied.
I went back to school to continue my day.
When I next saw Vivian in the corridor she cast her eyes down, I turned mine away. And we never spoke to her or Alex again. Oh, Vivian, I feel such sadness and shame to this day that I didn’t at least find some clandestine way to tell you how very much our beginning friendship had meant to me, and how devastated I was by its forced ending. But I was truly afraid for all of us. This was way, way more than I could handle. And so, I let it lie. I told George, who took the news without comment but retired even further into his inner bomb-proof shelter.
By the end of that school week it became devastatingly clear that word of this ultimatum had spread throughout the staff. No one would speak to me or greet me in the halls; I was a pariah. I quietly bowed out of staff meetings; it was just too painful. Mr. Jackson, who as my boss was apparently exempt from this shun-the-librarian edict, met briefly with me on Monday mornings to update me and receive my report on the previous week’s happenings. He was lavish in his praise for my continued efforts, and that helped. A little. Mr. Johnson still nodded at me as he patrolled the halls; he was the only one who did not elaborately look away.
And so I began to experience firsthand what it meant to be on the wrong side of a color bar. It would seem that for some unknown reason the staff members, and after awhile also the kids’ parents, blamed me for this increased racial tension. The principal’s office began receiving phone calls from mothers who complained that my too-short skirts were “tempting” their sons. (My skirts were exactly the same length as those of every other female staff member.) Comments about “stirring up trouble” were passed in the halls or restroom, just loud enough for me to hear. Otherwise, grim silence reigned. One event stands out, though.
Taking a turn as a “sponsor” (a.k.a. chaperone) at the Saturday night school dances held in the east-side community center was mandatory. When my turn came up, I sat in state on the stage surveying the scene with another female teacher and two male colleagues. As was the universal custom, senior boys were strongly encouraged to ask each female teacher for a dance sometime in the course of the evening. The dances were mainly cha-cha’s and the like, requiring no physical contact whatsoever, so when I was most politely asked to dance by three of the senior boys, I had no qualms about saying I’d be delighted. I was, too; I knew and liked all three boys, it was a great break in an otherwise extremely boring evening, and those officially supervised cha-cha’s were about as indecorous as a minuet.
Monday morning the school phone rang off the hook. Mr. Johnson delivered the gist of it, behind closed library doors. Clearly furious on my and the school’s behalf, he pulled no punches. Those mamas, he said, were tearing a piece out of Mr. Jackson because their sons “had been tempted into dancing by that white slut”! I was immoral, “a temptation”—there it was again—to their boys, they were yelling (his term), and Mr. Jackson had better keep me away from them in future. Mr. Jackson himself would have come down to tell me how mad that made him and how sorry he was, said the vice principal, but he couldn’t get off the phone long enough to do so, and they both thought I ought to be warned ASAP.
“So what am I supposed to do with this?” I asked, more hurt and shocked than angry.
“Nothing,” said Mr. Johnson. “Just do what you’ve been doing, which is a fine job, and let it blow over. It will. Do nothing. Say nothing. Smile. And we’ll run interference for you however we need to.”
The majority of the kids themselves, be it said, were emphatically not on board with this hate campaign. They went on appreciating their new relationship with books; classroom behavior, I heard via the grapevine (a.k.a. Mr. Johnson), continued to improve. Such small initiatives, such big results! They went right on interacting politely and sometimes even volubly with me, as if they had no idea what their elders were feeling or doing. And perhaps they truly did not. Kids are very observant, though. I like to think that at least some of them did know, and had made a deliberate choice to continue our connection anyway…
Then George’s father died, and he headed for New York to try to claim his share of the Zaher legacy. The night after his departure, I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by several sudden loud noises. It sounded like… gunfire?? Then I heard loud, drunken voices in the road about thirty feet from our trailer.
I grabbed the kids and locked all three of us in the bathroom. Yes, those were indeed gunshots, and through the closed window I could clearly hear what those voices were yelling: “Heah’s what we do to niggah lovahs round heah! Next time it won’t be tin cans we shoot!” There were more shots, more nasty threats…
For how it all turned out, and what I learned then and later from DeSoto High, Mansfield and the Klan, well, you’ll need to read the book. Find it here…