Robert Brown recently shared memories of Oak Park High School. Robert and I graduated in 1973. Aside from the sentimental stories about high school life, Robert touched on a topic which, even to this day, has not been fully examined: the racial integration of Oak Park Schools.
A half century on, it’s time for former Oak Park students and staff — Black and white — to reflect on their experiences to try to make some sense of what those well-intentioned policies accomplished, if anything.
Did the Oak Park School Board have a team of experts to guide them through the implementation of the integration plan? Who were they and what credentials did they possess? Was the team itself integrated? What kind of training did they recommend for the teachers and administrators, and were those recommendations actually followed?
Indeed, their task was formidable. Prior to integration the Black students in Royal Oak Township and white students in Oak Park had zero interaction with each other. The white kids stayed in their neighborhoods and the Black kids stayed in their neighborhoods.
My friends and I thought nothing of it. Our minds weren’t preoccupied by past racial inequities or interventions to overcome them. Our world was pretty much consumed by sports, music and girls. It’s not that I was unaware that large and serious issues were out there — the Vietnam War was raging at the time — but between trying to learn how to throw a curveball, memorize Beatle lyrics and check out if any girls liked me, my waking hours were pretty much fully occupied.
We were too happily immersed in our safe suburban shtetl to worry about much of anything. Take me to Candy Cone or Dairy Queen and I was about as content as a 12-year-old kid could be.
But then, without any preparation, junior high school arrived and, for the first time, we experienced integration up close and personal. I remember seeing my buddy Greg Bernhardt in the cafeteria on the first day with his arm around his first Black friend, Ronny Montgomery, and yelling out to me "Look at my new friend!" They both were smiling so broadly that I couldn’t help but think that this new integrated world just might be an easy and seamless transition for everyone.
Man, was I wrong. Over the course of junior high and high school it became obvious that we — all the kids — were caught up in seismic racial changes that neither we nor the "adults" were the least bit prepared for.
There were indeed many positive and enriching interracial experiences. Genuine friendships developed; some of us went to each other’s houses and spent time with each other’s families. Some played sports and formed lasting bonds. Others interacted by indulging in drugs, particularly pot, which was widespread. It was not uncommon for some of the Black and white kids to have lots of laughs and fun together. Some of the best parties I ever attended were at "The Township."
But all those interactions hardly masked the deeper rifts right under our feet. Our worlds were different, quite different. The white students were mostly Jewish, college-bound kids from two-parent homes and middle-class backgrounds. Many (not all) of the Black kids had non-college-educated parents with less economic stability. These differences often led to misunderstanding, resentments — and fighting.
Some kids — Black and white — were just out of control. Certain white kids were quick to instigate trouble, particularly some of the "greasers" who seemed to relish a good hallway or playground brawl. Many of the white kids — especially the Hebrew Bus crowd — weren’t interested in that. But the fear of a violent "riot," as we called it, seemed to always hang in the air, ready to erupt at any moment, and keeping students, teachers and the security staff on edge.
And there were some Black kids who seemed to enjoy threatening the white kids or shaking them down for small change, as if it were some kind of sport to them. Others just made a full-time career out of being outrageous.
Oftentimes, I have to admit, I was pretty amused by some of the antics, but other times it was downright insanity. I recall an archery class on the football field. To my amazement, the gym teacher handed us bows and arrows and had us aim at the targets in the end zone. But chaos ensued when some of the Black kids thought it would be hysterical to aim for each other and actually started flinging arrows at the fleeing crowd. People frantically scattered, some laughing, some screaming, and I just stood there (a safe distance away), frozen, thinking that my high school had officially lost its mind.
The teachers, though well meaning, were little help (after all, they’re the ones who handed bows and arrows to the kids). By the end, to me at least, the overall sense was that we were on our own; it was Lord of the Flies on Oak Park Boulevard. Maybe we’d get lucky and escape unscathed, or maybe we’d get drawn into a fight or assaulted in the bathroom.
The integration of Oak Park Schools, despite noble intentions, failed. Despite the positive moments, the truth is that the vast majority of Black and white kids mostly stayed to themselves, as was evident each day in the lunchroom.
So what went wrong? Was there anything the School Board could have done differently? Or were we all just swirling around in the vortex of that turbulent time?
Professor Eddie Glaude, the Chair of African American Studies at Princeton, says that despite all the progress America has made in terms of race relations, we’re still "walking mysteries" to each other.
Perhaps, but just because the mystery persists, that doesn’t mean we can’t yet solve it. And what better place to start than going back to school?
Now is the time for those of us who lived it — Black and white, on either side of our 50th reunion — to engage in a dialogue based on our lived experiences and, to use vocabulary we didn’t have back then, implicit biases.
Let’s seek to solve the mystery of each other together. Students, teachers, parents, staff, administrators — please send your candid recollections and reactions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So what say you, Oak Park alums, now that we’re older, grayer and, perhaps, wiser?