On a warm spring day in 1970, classes at Frost Junior High in Oak Park proceeded as they had years earlier — white students in their assigned rooms, hallways empty. But Frost wasn’t an all-white school.
Frost administrators had responded to disturbances earlier that day — resembling those a few weeks prior at Oak Park High School — by holding all of the Black students in the cafeteria and proceeding with regularly scheduled classes for the white students.
In that segregated setting, many white students expressed racist vitriol — many of the same students who had been pretending to have relationships with Black students previously and were now expressing their true feelings.
Ten years earlier, when Governor G. Mennen Williams consolidated Carver Elementary School in Royal Oak Township with the Oak Park School District, there were numerous changes occurring in the Detroit Metropolitan area even as Oak Park High School was graduating only its 4th senior class.
White flight from the City of Detroit, contrary to subsequent popular belief, was well underway in the previous decade as automotive plants closed, highways taking families to new northern suburbs were built and Northland, the first shopping mall in the United States, opened in Southfield in 1954.
Many Detroit neighborhoods maintained their Jewish identity for only one generation — unlike Jewish communities in other major cities. The movement in the 1950s and 1960s was northwest on the Lodge Freeway.
Unlike neighborhoods in other areas in Detroit, when Blacks attempted to escape the rigidly segregated neighborhoods in which they were forced to reside and move into areas with large Jewish populations, crosses were not burned on front lawns nor were the new residents physically attacked by their Jewish neighbors. In some cases, the Jewish people who moved may not have even had race as their primary motivation but rather were following the pattern of previous generations who left their old neighborhoods for newer, larger homes.
Many of the families who settled in Oak Park brought with them their religious and community institutions as well as their expectations of strong academic public schools.
In the meantime, all of the areas of what made up Royal Oak Township incorporated into separate cities — first Royal Oak in 1921, then Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge, Huntington Woods and Berkley, Clawson and Hazel Park, Oak Park in 1945 and finally Madison Heights in 1955. The only exceptions were one small area on Greenfield Road just north of 10 Mile Road (due to the landowner not wanting to pay higher city taxes) and a parcel just north of 8 Mile Road between Mendota and Mitchelldale that was overwhelmingly African-American.
It was the latter area that contained the students from Carver Elementary School who became part of the Oak Park School District; the students who lived east of Wyoming attended Ferndale Schools of which Grant Elementary School became a part.
During this time of integrating the Oak Park junior and senior high schools, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was gaining strength throughout the United States against the backlash of vicious white racism which encompassed white Detroiters and the City Police Department. While these groundbreaking events were taking place, Oak Park School Administrators did not appear to understand the dynamics of the two communities or groups of students that they were attempting to bring together, nor the impact of the events in the Detroit area and throughout the country would have on daily interaction in their school buildings.
There was really no strategic plan — in 1960 or in any period up to 1973 when I graduated Oak Park High School — for creating greater awareness, positive interaction or sensitivity between the black students and their peers, teachers or administrators. I was not aware of any formal training that was provided to white teachers and administrators with respect to promoting racial dialogue and understanding the needs of the diverse students who made up these schools.
Likewise, while there were some Black teachers in the buildings, it was not until many years later after Oak Park became a majority-minority school district that there was a strong presence of black department heads or administrators. This would have greatly benefited both black and white students at that time.
A very small percentage of the white students attending Oak Park Schools had ever been, let alone had knowledge, of the Royal Oak Township community. Likewise, the Township students as a whole were not made to feel welcome in Oak Park but rather, most got off the school bus at Clinton, Frost or the High School in the morning and got on the school bus back to Royal Oak Township in the afternoon.
However, it must be noted that in Oak Park, no busses were destroyed, as was the case in Pontiac. Black students were not attacked coming off the busses, like they were in the South and in Boston. And Oak Park parents were not demonstrating en masse in front of the schools or School Board building against integration as they did when Judge Steven Roth mandated cross-district bussing.
When I entered Frost Junior High in the fall of 1967, most students tended to stay within the circle of those with whom they grew up and attended elementary school. As they became more comfortable in their surroundings, white students tended to expand their relationships with other white students and, in some cases, black students. However, in many cases, the interaction between white and black students appeared to be one in which whites attempted to copy black expressions and physical gestures in what appeared to me to be unnatural, patronizing and forced.
This lack of genuine behavior became clear to me following the disturbances that took place at Oak Park High School in May 1970. While there had been simmering tensions for a few years, a culture of white insensitivity at best – racism at worst – caused emotions to boil over, resulting in some violence and property destruction.
Oak Park administrators were unable to provide any type of coherent response to address the legitimate issues that caused these incidents to occur. A local television program, Haney’s People, devoted several sessions to having Black and white teachers, students and parents discuss these concerns and while the dialogues were heated and various viewpoints were presented, it struck me that this was the type of dialogue that should have been convened at the schools before conditions got to that point.
After the incidents at the High School, I met with the Frost administrators and strongly suggested that they initiate organized dialogue at that location to diffuse an increasingly volatile situation, but they refused to do so. When disturbances broke out several weeks later at Frost, many white students made it painfully clear how they felt about their peers.
Finally, toward the end of the school year, groups of black and white students were brought together with the utilization of outside facilitators and the students had the opportunity to share their thoughts and emotions and to listen to the views and perceptions of their peers. These discussions continued in Oak Park and Royal Oak Township that summer among teachers, parents and students. They became heated at times, which was ultimately beneficial for all of those who participated. Unfortunately, the number of participants was relatively small and there was only incremental systemic change.
Beginning in the Fall of 1970, there was more outward calm following some smaller incidents at the beginning of the school year. I was very fortunate to be able during those years to establish and maintain many lifelong friendships with Black and white students. And I am still struck by the teachers and administrators who went out of their way to support and mentor students, irrespective of their background.
Additionally, as a result of witnessing racism, its impacts and the reactions that it elicits, I became much more sensitized and better able to confront those conditions and circumstances when they arose in subsequent years.
But in the absence of any real strategy or responsiveness by Oak Park School Boards or administrators, we were left on our own to confront issues as they arose and deal with them based on our own individual frames of reference.
In the 50 years since, racial tolerance, integration and equity have remained elusive in communities throughout the country. Whatever progress we hope to achieve will require us to acknowledge and confront the history of racism that permeates our institutions.
Robert Brown attended Pepper Elementary School, Frost Junior High and Oak Park High School ('73). At the University of Michigan ('76), he majored in history and was a student manager for the football and hockey teams. He has served as commissioner of the Detroit Caesars Men's Professional Slo-Pitch Softball; General Manager of Detroit Express Soccer; Director of Youth Development and Economic Equity for New Detroit, Inc.; Director of Facilities Maintenance for Detroit Public Schools; and Vice President and General Counsel KeySource Medical. He has lived in South Florida since 2012 and been active with Jewish Community Relations Councils (Detroit and Broward) since 1987.