No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Barnie Day




We Were Liberated


What Brown vs. the Board of Education meant to a small-town North Carolina school 37 years ago.

The 1954 United 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-

American child until 1967, when I began the seventh grade at Mt. Tirzah School, in Person County, N.C.


Mt. Tirzah School 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.


The facility was marginal, the curriculum was basic, the discipline was strict, and the teachers were dedicated. Two of them — M. E. Wyndham and Bess Clay — went beyond "dedicated." They were magnificent. 


M.E. 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.


Economically speaking, there was little class distinction at Mt. Tirzah. 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 backs. We thought the same, behaved the same, and looked the same — until Aaron showed up on the first day of school, 1967.


As luck would have it, his last name was "Daye", pronounced the same as mine, but spelled with an "e."


Aaron was smart — bookish even — handsome, friendly, courteous, mannered and affable. He was prone to go along to get along. But in the universe of Mt. Tirzah School, 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. 


Aaron was big, and he had a lion’s heart.


Of course, we all knew where the test would come from: the Oakley cousins, Bobby and Preston


Neither 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. 


(They 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 us.)


We were scared to death of them. If M. E. Wyndham and Bess Clay ruled the indoor roost at Mt.Tirzah School — and they did — Bobby and Preston 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.


It 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. 


Bobby started it and Preston 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 Preston badly wanted to. Aaron had whipped the snot out of both of them.


We thought no more about Brown vs. the Board of Education after that. Bobby and Preston quit school that week and we were liberated — not just Aaron— but all of us.


-- May 24, 2004


























Contact Information


Barnie Day

604 Braswell Drive
Meadows of Dan, VA