Fledgling steps of integration in the 1960s weren’t easy — not for minorities, not for bigots and not for those on the fence who could never retract their do-nothing stance.
Swimming with the Tide
by BETTY L. MARTIN
“Do you have any of ’em in your classes, Becky?” Bobby Moore whispered to me as two of the first three black students to integrate Houston’s Moorley High School senior class of nineteen sixty seven passed in the hallway, closely together, heads lowered above folders held in front of them like shields.
I hoped the two girls hadn’t heard Bobby’s question, but now that they were further down the hall, I felt safe to answer.
“Yeah, I have the boy in English and the two girls in science. He sits in the back of the class and no one sits in the desks around him. In science, it’s alphabetical, so the girls are mixed in with the rest.”
“It’s weird, isn’t it? Seeing nigras in our school,” Bobby said. “I don’t cotton to mixing the races. My dad said it’s all because of that man on TV — Martin Luther King. He said it’s a sign of the end of times, like the Tower of Babel in the Bible.”
“Well, Babel was a long time ago and the world didn’t end then,” I told him. “And if the world is going to end, I wish it would do it before geometry. I hate geometry.”
“I just hate nigras,” Bobby said. “It’s not right, us having to have them in our school. Who’s going to dance with them at the prom? Can you imagine them in caps and gowns, graduating with us? That’s not a senior picture I’m gonna be buying.”
“Well, it’s a long time until prom or graduation. Besides, they don’t hang around with anybody but each other, so they probably won’t be going to the prom. And we’ll be so glad to graduate and get out of Moorley that it won’t matter if Attila the Hun walks across the stage with us.”
“Have you talked to any of them?”
“No. “Not yet.”
I thought about that conversation as I scanned the activities board later that day. The journalism club was meeting on Thursday, there was a pep rally on Friday before the big game and the booster club was meeting a half-hour before the rally. I had a hard time imagining the black students writing short stories or yelling for the team or doing anything, really.
I’d never thought much about it before, but I really didn’t know any black people. Her neighborhood, her world, and everyone I knew, was white. Sure, she occasionally saw Negro maids arriving, leaving, taking out garbage and making sure their employers’ children made it safely to and from the yellow school bus, but they did their work and went home, wherever that was.
It was the world as reflected on the black and white screen of her TV, sort of a White Land where no other people existed except on news clips where they were seen singing, praying or demonstrating for civil rights against the police hitting or spraying water on them.
I didn’t know what a civil right was, but I knew my daddy was against it.
When I four years old, my mother had tried having a maid on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but daddy soon put a stop to that. He was sore that mama cleaned the house on Mondays and Wednesdays so the maid wouldn’t find something dusty or out of place.
I did remember Bessie, the maid we’d had when I was in the third and fourth grades, a willing listener to my tales of childhood woes.
“Esther June doesn’t like me,” I told Bessie as she folded the bedsheets freshly washed and still smelling of sunshine from the backyard clothes line. “She likes Katy better than me.”
“You just leave Miss Esther June be,” Bessie said. “You got other friends that like you just fine.”
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
“No more pretty than you ought to be, and that’s prettier than some. Pretty is as pretty does.”
I had cried a few tears when I learned from my parents that Bessie wouldn’t be coming to the house anymore.
“We can’t just waste money right now having her clean a house that’s already clean,” I overheard daddy tell mama. “You clean more before the maid comes than she does when she’s here.”
“Well, I don’t want her thinking I don’t know how to clean a house,” mama said. “Besides, she’s a big help on wash days and keeping Becky occupied and out of trouble.”
“That’s another thing,” Harvey Lee argued. “I don’t know that I like my daughter bothering Bessie and keeping her from her work. Becky’s growing up to think there’s no differences in people.”
At home in her pink-and-white room, her geometry class behind her for the day, I put on the new Four Tops record and laid on my stomach between piles of stuffed bears accumulated through the years. I tried to concentrate on my homework but kept seeing the two girls walking like conjoined twins and trying not to touch anything or meet anyone’s eyes as if they were trying to be invisible.
Three weeks into my senior year in the class of ‘sixty-seven I had yet to introduce myself to the black students, much less to try and recruit them for my boosters or journalism clubs. Every once in a while, I thought about doing it — when I saw them in class or the hallway or when I went into my recruitment pitch with a new white student at school.
As president of the Journalism Club and as membership coordinator of the Moorley Mighty Rams Booster Club, it was my place to help welcome new students. Almost from the first day of school, I had promised myself that I would approach the black students and give them a big Moorley welcome. I could see it in my mind, walking up and introducing myself with a smile and pamphlets about the school’s clubs. But so far, I just hadn’t found the time or the right moment.
In my classes, they were busy with lessons. In the hallway to and from classes, they seemed to stick together, walking at a fast clip. In the cafeteria, they brought their own brown bag lunches and sat together at the end of the least populated lunch table farthest from the kitchen, an area designated by Bobby and a few other boys as the Crow Cafe. These black students didn’t seem to want to be welcomed to our school.
Just once, I had seen the girls in the hallway and rushed to catch up with them. I tried to get their attention, but got no further than “excuse…” when I felt my stomach clench, my face become heated. I walked away, feeling like a fool.
It was stupid to feel so shaken by the idea of getting near two girls my own age or actually speaking to them. That I would approach the boy in a similar fashion filled me with dread.
I would have had the same queasy feeling if I were called upon to welcome Godzilla or Mothra to my school, and I recognized the feeling. It was fear. Why fear? I didn’t know.
Pushing my school book out of the way, I laid my head on a pillow and clutched Teddy, a bear I’d had since birth, burrowing my face in his fuzzy brown fur.
And I remembered the swimming pool.
I was almost through my swimming lessons at MacGregor Swimming Pool and couldn’t wait to learn “the butterfly” stroke that sounded so Esther Williams-ish. I was the youngest — but the best swimmer — in my class of eight five- and six-year-olds.
I scooted out of the passenger side of my daddy’s truck in my polka-dotted bathing suit with a little ruffle at the bottom and retrieved my red rubber swim cap from the dashboard. I was too excited to notice that other than her father’s truck, there were hardly any vehicles in MacGregor’s usually full parking lot.
All five showers were empty, which meant I could pick my favorite, the one where the water came down the hardest, before heading for the pool.
My bare feet stopped short on the concrete as I looked out at the great expanse of greenish-blue water, a pool most always filled with children and adults swimming, bobbing, floating, splashing, diving, yelling. You almost couldn’t swim more than a few feet before bumping into someone. Today, that was no problem.
Today, I would have most all of that lovely water, and all of the shallow end, to myself. Only two little boys about my age were bobbing up and down like buoys in the middle of the pool and no one was in the deep end at all.
I giggled as I took a running jump, feet first, into the pool. The water was the perfect temperature and it was, for the most part, all mine.
“Becky, get out of there!” I heard my daddy’s voice shout. “Get out this instant.”
The two boys had stopped laughing and splashing, standing neck-deep in the pool and looking through the chain-linked fence at my daddy’s boiling red face.
I stood on the pool bottom up to my knees in water and pulled up the flaps of my swim cap. Surely I had heard wrong. Daddy couldn’t be on the other side of the fence, telling me that I had to leave this oasis of water before I’d even begun to practice my strokes.
“Do I have to?” Becky whinned. “It’s nice in here and there’s no people!”
“Get out of the pool now, Becky Lou,” Harvey Lee yelled again, rattling the fence with his fists. It wasn’t until he shouted “Now!” that I took my first hesitant step through the water toward the pool’s edge.
I climbed the cement staircase and walked to the door of the showers, looking back at the vast pool that had been mine to share only with two other children, two young black boys who now stood together as silently as water statues.
In my room, I realized that my father had been afraid, too, of those two little boys in the big swimming pool.
I recalled other past days, too — years in her former private school — when I had painfully been the one who was different, the oddity who found it hard to make friends. I remembered how mean other girls were to me then and I resolved anew my pledge to extend a welcome to the students I had so far left to fend for themselves.
In my imagination, I could see myself, plucking up the courage to walk over to the lunch table where the three black students sat alone each day except for the cluster of white teenagers at the opposite end.
I could see myself sailing the gulf between the two races that was wider than the MacGregor pool, smiling into startled, cautious faces, the same look I’d seen stamped on the faces of the two boys left behind at the pool that day.
“Hi. I’m Becky Woods and I want to welcome you to Moorely High School,” I would say. “We have a lot of clubs that fit a wide range of interests and talents. And we’re always taking applications.”
I knew it was what she could do, what I should do. I knew it the next day at school and, for a while, each week and then each month before the plan was buried in school work or plans with friends. I recognized the rightness of making the introductions, too, when the high school yearbook came out without photos of the black students who absented themselves on photo day and, later on, the prom. It came home to me again as I watched the three students walk across the stage at graduation to sparse applause and even a few boos.
I re-visited that feeling of “could of, should of” every five years when former Moorley High School students gathered at reunions to share with former classmates their family photos and stories of yesteryear’s victories.
The three African American students among Moorley High’s alumni never attended those reunions. If they got the notice from the reunion committee, it went unheeded.
As they had in high school, they kept to themselves; their memories of their high school days without commemoration.
Had they gone to Vietnam, among those from her high school who came back — or didn’t return — from that war? Had they gone on to college, preparing for a professional careers now that doors were being flung open for minorities?
Had they learned — as I had during college years, through travel and each new day — to appreciate the cultural mix that made the world more interesting?
There was no way for me to know.
I had never learned their names.
Still, I habitually scanned the ballrooms at each reunion of former Moorley High’s class of sixty-seven, hoping I would someday see them there. This time, I thought, I would make the long overdue introductions. This time I would offer the much-neglected welcome.
Each time, their absence made me acknowledge once more that an opportunity had been lost, a promise irretrievably and forever vanished.