The following is a piece I wrote for last year's Pewitt High School Sociology Class. The class assignment, which I found very interesting, was to research and document the integration of the school. An enterprising young lady named Tara Hooper contacted me and asked me about helping her with the project. Tara turns out to be a niece of one of the hero's in the story, Richard Hooper.
Since integration happened "on my watch", I got to play the role of historian. It's great to be the "historian" - you get to call em like you see em. Hope you enjoy. Warning!!!! I got a little bit long winded on this one; even for me.
The History of Desegregation at Pewitt School
A White Guy’s Perspective
By Mike Roberts
Although I never thought of it this way, I suppose you could say that I actively participated in the integration of the Paul H. Pewitt Schools as I was involved in the very beginning and muddled though it with all of black and white children for the next 8 years. Honestly, I am proud to have been part of this era of Pewitt history because although there was a lot of anxiety and some problems, a lot of good things were accomplished that had been needed for a long time. I also feel that I am a better person for having been through it. Here’s my story, a view of these years from the perspective of a white guy. I hope in your efforts to document this era, I will be able to hear or read the perspective from others who went through this transformation with me.
The 1960’s were a time of unrest for all of American society. On the black and white television we watched the black and white tensions build in the form of civil rights marches, bus strikes, and sanitation worker strikes. We were witness to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. We saw reactionary groups forming like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panther Party. But to me, this seemed to be happening somewhere else in America; I didn’t understand that it had anything much to do with Morris County Texas.
In the Beginning: Freedom of Choice
The first I really heard about this integration idea was in the fourth grade. Our teachers began telling us near the end of the school year that blacks would be coming to our school. This was done through something called “Freedom of Choice”. Under the “Freedom of Choice” system, blacks could decide to attend the white school if they chose to. I guess under this program, whites could have chosen to go to the black school if they wanted but no one did. Our teachers instructed us that if any black kids were in our class next year – that we should be nice to them. We shouldn’t pick on them, call them names or anything like that. Basically, just treat them like you would anyone else. That’s about all the preparation I remember that we got for the first round of integration. I didn’t give this too much thought since I didn’t really think it would happen.
Well what do you know, it was the first day of 5th grade and when I got to class there were already two black kids sitting at their desks. This seemed strange to me, but no one said anything about it. I think it made all of the kids uncomfortable. If I remember right, the black girl was Debra Turner and the black boy was Gary Sanders. Both of them seemed nice. They were quiet and hardly said anything. I don’t know exactly how Debra and Gary felt, but I bet that they were very uncomfortable; surrounded by white kids and white teachers they had to feel alone. I never knew anyone to be mean or unkind to them, but they did seem to be ignored. I think that we did not know what to say to them and they didn’t know what to say to us, so we just went along the first year – not saying anything, just doing the school work and going home. I felt sorry for them. I doubt that they wanted to be there in the middle of all of us whities, but their parents saw the need for them to be there. And while I believe that in the long run their parents were right, it had to be hard on them being the first to pioneer this “integration thing”.
After the first year or two of “Freedom of Choice”, a few more black kids started to come to school at Pewitt not too many but more. It seemed to me that this made the environment more comfortable for everyone. Little by little we began to talk and have fun going to school and playing sports.
The Battle of the Bands
During this time frame 1966 - 1967, The Pewitt band, of which I was a member in the seventh grade had dwindled down to nothing. We had a new band instructor, named John Bird who was trying to rebuild the band after years of neglect. The band was very small, I believe that we had about 25 members, and marched four by six. We had learned the march music, fight song and a few popular songs for football season and we could perform these reasonably well.
On the other hand, Carver High had one heck of a band. I don’t know their band leader’s name but he was an innovator and the school had a lot of pride in that band. In the 1960’s a band out of Memphis, Tennessee called the Barkay’s had a number 1 hit called “Soulfinger”. This song had a driving beat and featured a fabulous horn section with trumpets, saxes, and trombones. The Carver High School band director had lovingly transcribed this song for his band and man, could they play it!
Lucky for us, we rarely played together at football games or anything like that, but we did play and march at the Naples and Omaha Christmas Parades and that was about it. Getting us ready for the Christmas Parade, Mr. Bird had come up with all new Christmas music. We had about two weeks to learn this stuff and I think the music was pretty good – if only we could have learned to play it.
For the Naples Christmas Parade both bands marched and played their way down Highway 67 accompanied by various beauty queens, cheerleaders, antique cars, and floats. At the back of the parade was Santa riding on the Naples Volunteer Fire Department and tossing candy to the crowd standing beside the road. We marched most of the way through downtown Naples, ending up in the area which is now a parking lot by the old Naples Fire Station.
As the crowd congregated both bands played. Our Pewitt band stumbled and fumbled through its new music – we stunk. As soon as we finished the Carver band fired up playing Soulfinger. I swear to this day that I cannot distinguish between the recording of that song, and the way the Carver Band sounded on that parking lot. The long and short of this encounter was the Carver Band blew the Pewitt Band right off the parking lot. It was humiliating. Race had nothing to do with it – but talent and practice sure did.
Real Integration: The End of Freedom of Choice
Real integration began with the end of “Freedom of Choice” which was somehow no longer legal. The schools were required by law to fully integrate. This happened at the start of my 9th Grade year. Pewitt would become the high school and Carver would beame the elementary school for both black and white.
This was a significant change, and we first encountered it on the football field, because football practice starts a few weeks before school classes. Coach Fielding Huddleston was the High School coach, but the freshman coach was Mr. Robinson. Suddenly half or our team was black and half of our team was black. Coach Huddleston had already built a great football team at Pewitt, but now he had twice as much, or more, to work with.
From my perspective this was a heck of a change. I went from being the fastest kid on the team, to being only the fastest white kid on the team, about fourth or fifth fastest overall. Still it made for a really great team. The integration of the football team, as far as I could tell went very well, even though in the next 3 years it probably caused me to spend quite a bit of time on the bench. As freshman, we had Ricky Richards at quarterback with Alonso Gardner and Jimmy Shirey at the running back positions. Alonso was as quick as a cat and Jimmy could throw a fine block and was also a good runner. During our freshman year our team went undefeated in district play. The same would be true of our senior year together – these new black and white Brahmas were undefeated in district play and made it all the way to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by the team from Rockwall, Texas.
During this same period of time, in the Hooks, Texas, the Hornets also had been integrated and had a running back named Billy Simms who would later go on to win the Heisman Trophy and play pro ball. In thinking about this now, I realize I’d would have never had the chance to tackle a Heisman Trophy winner had it not been for the integration of the schools. Billy would have gone to an all black school, and I’d have gone to an all white school, and I would have only read about him when he became a star at Oklahoma.
Integration in the Pewitt Classroom:
Integration in the classroom probably did not go quite as smoothly as integration in football. Everyone was concerned about how things were going to work out, and when I say everyone I mean the school administration, the teachers, the black students, the white students and of course the parents. But all in all, it probably went better than most of us would have ever expected.
Some Stupid Stuff
The first year a few stupid things happened and unfortunately I would wind up personally involved. The first stupid thing happened the second or third day of school in the freshman agriculture class. It would be the start of the Great Fan Grab War.
When I got to Ag class that day, the black guys were on one side of the room and the white guys were on the other side of the room and there was a large aisle between the classroom tables. It was late summer, and for those of you who don’t remember the good old days, the school was not completely air-conditioned. There was a single fan in the Ag class and it was blowing right down the middle of the aisle, not pointed at either group. I honestly don’t remember who did it first but either one of the black guys or one of the white guys went and moved the fan so that it was on his group. While this was probably a joke (and a kind of funny one at that), one of the guys went and got the fan and put it on the other group. I started watching this and it was entertaining, each black guy would take a turn moving the fan over to their side of the room, and then a white guy would go and get the fan and set it to blow on his side of the room.
This had happened several times when suddenly I felt that it must be my turn to go and get the fan. Unfortunately, for me, Kerry King had decided that he would not only take the fan to his side of the room, but he had also decided he was going to keep it there. I grabbed the fan and started trying to drag it over to the “white” side of the room, with Kerry hanging on to the fan. I was making some progress in sliding Kerry and the fan to the “white” side when Howard Traylor also felt the spirit to participate in fan fight. Howard shoved Kerry out of the way and about this time the fist fight began. Howard hit me a couple of times in the head and gave me a couple of black eyes. I got him a time or two in the head and gave him a bloody nose. The fight had pretty much ended when Mr. Granberry, the Ag Instructor came to the room and asked who had been fighting. It didn’t require Sherlock Holmes to notice me with a couple of shiners and Howard with blood still trickling out of his nose to figure out who had been fighting. Oh well, “win’em and wear ‘em” my Pappy always said.
Traylor and I were escorted out of the room by Mr. Granberry and Mr. Tomberlain,. Since this was the first inter-racial fist fight at the school, Mr. Brian was called in to oversee the situation. I imagine they were concerned that this sort of thing might get worse. Principal A.T. Brian showed up asked what happened and then proceeded to administer the required punishment of five licks with the paddle to my behind. Trust me, Mr. Brian could swing a pretty mean paddle and my butt stung from it. Howard refused to be paddled and so Mr. Brian sent him home. I told Mr. Brian that I thought it was unfair, not because I got paddled and Howard didn’t, but because I thought I should get to go home also. Mr. Brian let me go home.
A couple of days later Howard Traylor and I came back to school and Howard had to take his butt whoopin’ then. While this seems a little strange now, I was called in to watch Howard get his paddling – the same way he had watched me get paddled. I guess this was to be an example of equal treatment (equally bad). Well I watched, but it wasn’t that much fun – those paddles stung and I didn’t really need to be reminded of how they felt. Howard Traylor later told me that he had put on several extra pairs of underwear before coming to school that day. I’d have done the same thing if I had been him.
Later, I would realize that I had no idea what that fight was really about. I do know a couple of things it was not about. It darn sure was not over a fan that only blew hot air around in the first place. Secondly, it was not about any hard feelings I had for Howard Traylor or anybody else in the room. Whatever it was about, Kerry King, Howard Traylor, and I got through it. I’d love to get the chance to sit down with Kerry and Howard and have a laugh over it now. I moved away and haven’t seen them since High School.
The Great Orange War
When it comes to stupid stuff that happened during the first year of integration, it’s hard to top the Great Orange War. The Orange war happened in the winter months as I recall, it was cold and wet outside. My buddies and I were having lunch in the cafeteria and seated at the 50 foot long tables with metal folding chairs that we had in that era. I am sure the school has adopted a different table arrangement these days – but then they took these wooden folding tables and placed them end to end so that a section of tables had to be at least forty feet long. Chairs were on both sides of the tables and when kids put their trays on each side it left a nice little alley down the center of the table. I can’t remember what the entire menu in the cafeteria was on this day, but I do remember the desert. It was a nice round orange. I like oranges but I hate to have to peel them. The stuff gets all over your hands and the juice is sticky. I decided not to eat my orange, and since I was finished eating I took the orange and rolled it down the alley in the center of the table toward some of my buddies. Everyone thought this was funny and someone way down the way rolled the orange back to me. Well soon the orange is making the rounds back and forth and up and down the table. Very entertaining and it probably could have stayed that way if Robert Elrod had not decided to demonstrate his skill at speed orange rolling. Robert drew back and let that orange rip – it was going 90 miles an hour down the center of the table and it got by all of us. After this high velocity orange went past us, it proceeded down the table to where some black girls were sitting. The orange hit the edge of one of their trays - Flew about a foot in the air - and landed right in this black girl’s mashed potatoes. Oh that reminds me, I now remember what the vegetable of the day was, mashed potatoes. SPLUT!!!! Potatoes and gravy went all over her nice sweater and things got very quiet at our end of the table. None of us had any idea what to do about this terrible, unplanned accident. I expected another butt whoopin’ for starting the orange war.
Fortunately, I guess, one of the teachers heard the commotion and set about helping the girl clean up the mess and got her a whole new tray of food. We thought maybe the incident was over, so we finished up the meal and headed to lab class to goof around until class started. The weather was too bad to go outside. Richard Hooper (a real Native American – Cherokee, I think) and I were goofing around and some other guys were in the room as well. All of the sudden a black guy (I can’t remember the name, but he was an upper classman) comes in the room and points at one of the white guys. Outside the room is the girl whose sweater we had messed up. The girl shakes her head no. But we can’t see her. Then the black guy points at Richard – now I see her nod her head “yes” and this guy slugs Richard right in the face. Oh well, here we go again. I next found myself standing on a lab table getting ready to pounce on this black guy who had just knocked my friend to the floor, when a voice boomed at the door – “what’s going on in here?” Busted again. As I recall, Richard went home to take care of his wounds (he had a terrible looking shiner), I went down to Mr. Brian’s office and got another “butt whoopin”, and I think the black guy got expelled for a couple of days. This was the end of the Great Orange War. It didn’t last very long – all told maybe 30 minutes including the butt whoopin.
If you think about the stupid stuff that went on during the first year of integration, you can see pretty quickly that there really wasn’t that much to it. Kids will be kids no matter what color they are. Kids will roll oranges, kids will pick on one another, and again kids will be kids. The tensions that we felt at that time went past kid stuff though, there was a lot of fear and anxiety in the air. Because of this tension, ordinary stuff that kids do caused serious concern because it was between black and white kids.
Getting to Normal – Real Intergration
Once we got the rough edges behind us that first year, I think that things went very well. We had great football teams, a great band, and a lot of fun going to school together. I suspect that we learned a lot also, thanks to the excellent faculty that the school had. We also learned a lot from each other. I used the term real integration to make a point, real integration is not going to school with different people who are a different color than you because the government says you have to. Real integration is working, playing, laughing, learning and really caring about all the people around you. When you can do this as a person you are truly integrated and I believe that you will get a lot more out of life. If we could do it as a society it would be very special. We made some progress toward understanding this as my high school years passed and I would like to give you some examples.
The Student Council
A man that some of you know as Dr. James Patrick Griffin, MD is a white doctor in Naples today. But then he was just my buddy Jimmy, a good student and an average athlete. Kenneth Hannah (Kenny) was probably my best black friend. Jimmy, Kenny and I ran for student council on one ticket, and were chosen by our classmates to lead the student council our senior year (1972-1973). We had fun at this. One of the first things we did as a student council was to launch a campaign to clean up the campus. We got some 55 gallon barrels and assembled a group to paint them up nice for trash barrels. We put out a school newsletter a couple of times, which I think we sold for a dime a copy. And we put together some money for a dance at the school. Blacks and whites worked together on these projects.
I believe that during this time we elected our first black homecoming queen. As I remember This was not easy, the blacks tended to vote as a block for the black girl and the whites did the same. However, what nobody realized, was that there were several us who didn’t care too much for one of the white nominees and we switched sides and helped elect the black girl. There were just as many blacks as whites, but when a few of us jumped ship, it tipped the scale.
Getting Ready for the Next Steps
High School ends for everybody sometime (I think). And at this point you have to start thinking ahead. Are you going to college? Where can you get a job? Anybody want to join the military? For many of us our choices didn’t seem that good.
The Vietnam was was going on at this time and I had already had an older friend killed in action. Nobody really understood why we were in that war, and nobody could figure out how we could win it, or how to get out of it. It was a mess. So the military was not a very good choice then. I suspect that many of you today may have the same feelings about the Iraq war.
College, now there was an interesting idea. Unfortunately, many of us came from low-income families and the prospects didn’t look good for college. I went ahead and took the college entrance exams anyway. I knew I didn’t have the money to go, but what the heck, I was pretty good at taking tests and a lot of my friends were going. So we took the test together, I believe it was given at the Armory in Mt. Pleasant. One guy who took it with us was a black guy named Nathan Collins. Nathan was one of the best students in school and I believe that he was the valedictorian of his class. He was definitely in the top ten. So we took the test and I was never more amazed.
My first amazement was my own score, I had top scores in math and science portions of the exam. My English score brought my average down a bit, but overall my score’s were good enough to get me into almost any school in the nation, and so were my classmate’s Jimmy Griffin’s, Ross Canant’s and Chet Coker.
I was amazed at how well I and my fellow classmates had done on the exam. All that math and algebra that Mrs. Griffin and Mr. Ranes had pushed us to learn, all that science from Mr. Nance and Professor Mitchell had pushed us to learn, and all that the other Pewitt Teachers had done – had made us all very competitive academically. Most of us good go anywhere and compete academically with anyone from any big or rich school.
The lone exception amongst my friends was Nathan Collins who had scored below the national average. As you probably guessed by now or already knew, Nathan was black. I knew Nathan Collins very well, he sat next to me in Professor Mitchell’s physics class. Nathan was the top student there and in virtually every class. To sum it up he was a smart guy, and very nice guy as well. I asked Nathan how his score could be so low? Nathan said to me, “I think it is pretty simple, I must be below average”. It truly hurt me to even hear Nathan say this, and I know that score had hurt him badly. There was never anything average about Nathan; he was at the top in everything. It would be years before people began to understand that somehow racial bias had crept into those standardized tests. This story does have a happy ending though, I know that Nathan finished college and believe that he also became a medical doctor. I’ll bet if Nathan is a doctor, he a darn good one. Nathan was good at everything he did, except for that test.
One thing I have been wrong about was the future of race relations. I had thought that my generation had paid the dues and paved the road to eliminate racism. Unfortunately, I now realize that our contribution was not near enough. There is still prejudice in this country and it is just as wrong now as it ever was. It seems a shame that all of the tension and struggles that my generation and the generations before me (black and white) went through to try and make things better…..just haven’t been enough.
I’m 51 years old now Tara, and what I have learned about desegregation and integration is this. Integration is not about people of different races living together, going to school together and ignoring one another. Real integration is working, playing, laughing, learning, loving and really caring about all the people around you.
I think the best quote I could give you on this would be this one:
Let there be peace on earth; and let it begin with me.
The integration of Pewitt School while I was there helped me to learn this. I hope I have been of some help to you and your classmates. Thanks for asking me to participate, Tara.
All the Best Tara, to you and your classmates,
Pewitt High Senior Class 1973