Brown vs. the Board of Education meant to a
small-town North Carolina school 37 years ago.
States Supreme Court decision in Oliver L. Brown et.
al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) et.
al. had no meaning to me until 13 years later.
I did not attend school with an African-
child until 1967, when I began the seventh grade at Mt.
looked like a thousand other WPA-built projects
scattered all over the country. It was a big, red brick structure with two
front entrances and a half-circle driveway. There was no air conditioning.
In the wintertime, a big chimney belched coal
smoke. It had
been a high school once. My father had attended there.
facility was marginal, the curriculum was basic, the
discipline was strict, and the teachers were
of them — M. E. Wyndham and Bess Clay — went
They were magnificent.
Wyndham taught me enough math in the seventh and
eight grades to get through an MBA program at Duke
years later, and Bess Clay drilled into me an
understanding that I wouldn’t trade now for a gold
brick: the basic construct, and elements, of a
proper English sentence.
speaking, there was little class distinction at Mt.
Nobody in the school — some 200 of us —
had a father who wore a necktie to work. Our folks worked with their hands and their
thought the same, behaved the same, and looked the
same — until Aaron showed up on the first day of
luck would have it, his last name was "Daye",
pronounced the same as mine, but spelled with an
was smart — bookish even — handsome, friendly,
courteous, mannered and affable. He was prone to go along to get along.
But in the universe of
a hardscrabble rabble of mean, rough-neck kids, most
of whom learned at home to say “niggah” before
they could walk, he had one other attribute that
served him particularly well.
was big, and he had a lion’s heart.
course, we all knew where the test would come from: the Oakley cousins, Bobby and
of them had much in the way of brains but physically
they seemed men among boys. Age-wise, too. They both had driver’s licenses in the
seventh grade — if that tells you anything. Preston
even drove his mama’s car to school the first few
days that year.
wouldn’t let him park on school property — he
had to park it at the edge of a corn field across
the road — but still, that was a wondrous thing to
were scared to death of them. If M. E. Wyndham and Bess Clay ruled the
indoor roost at Mt.Tirzah
— and they did — Bobby and
ruled the playground. Out-of-doors their word was law.
They decided what games we would play, if we
played at all, picked the teams, and made the rules
up as they went. They
tortured and bullied the smallest kids and exacted
tribute in lunch money shake-downs from the rest of
us. We all
knew it was just a matter of time.
came on the ball field — on that rocky, grassless,
red clay hardpan that went for a ball field — that
first week of school.
It was just a fist fight — no guns or
knives or anything of that sort then.
started it and
joined in. Two hundred kids
rushed breathlessly. The
teachers were screaming.
M.E. Wyndham came in a fast hitch.
By the time he got there, it was over. Bobby had quit and
badly wanted to. Aaron
had whipped the snot out of both of them.
thought no more about Brown vs. the Board of
Education after that. Bobby and
quit school that week and we were liberated — not
just Aaron— but all of us.
May 24, 2004