“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers in order to recount it.” — Gabriel García Márquez
I was born at the end of the great depression during Jim Crow and came of age in Baltimore during the Civil Rights Movement.
Throughout my childhood, everything was segregated, but as a little girl I didn’t realize there was anything inherently wrong with this system.
After all, my education in an all-black school meant I learned about my culture.
We studied black scholars, poets, inventors and scientists as if every day was Black History Month.
But by the 1950s, as I entered high school, things started to change. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional and the Brown v. Board of Education decision lit a fire in Baltimore.
I still remember watching the news that evening. While plenty of white people screamed about the decision, I most vividly recall the reaction of Mrs. Mildred Coughlin, the principal of Western High School. She was gracious and calm with beautifully styled white hair and dressed in a soft pink suit. “I will never see a colored girl graduate from my school,” she firmly stated.
Her school, Western High School, was one of the best in Baltimore.
But things started to happen quickly then — at least for me.
Baltimore became one of the first cities in the United States to integrate public schools thanks in large part to Walter Sondheim, Jr. who became president of the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City immediately after the Brown vs. Board decision.
The NAACP, along with CORE, The Urban League, other civil rights organizations had actively pushed to make Maryland — the gateway to the south — the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to accept the Brown decision. If Maryland could implement civil rights objectives, the thinking went, maybe the South could too.
By June 1954, Dr. John H. Fisher, the superintendent of schools for Baltimore, detailed a four-point program of integration for all public schools and the Board of Education approved it unanimously.
By August, I was told that four other black girls and I would be attending Western High School – Mrs. Mildred Coughlin’s school — for our junior year.
While things did not go so smoothly on the other side of town — there were protests and boycotts at Southern High – my experience was remarkably smooth.
At Western High School, the students and teachers were perfectly nice, including Mrs. Coughlin who was always courteous.
Although no one spoke to me, no one was overtly racist, as if they had all been taught that if you cannot say something nice, do not say anything at all.
Due to curriculum choices, the five of us were in different classes so I was alone a lot.
Without anyone to share notes with or engage with on a daily basis, my high school experience was a remarkably quiet one, totally free of social interactions or events.
I knew better than to complain to my mother, whose first comment would have been, “You’re not supposed to be talking in school anyways; you’re supposed to be learning.” So I guess I learned a lot since I didn’t have anything else to do.
Regardless, in the end, all five of us got through.
But in May of 1956, just one month before graduation, Mrs. Coughlin did a funny thing. While we were all ready to graduate, having done everything we were supposed to do, she simply turned her face to the wall and died.
Mrs. Coughlin kept her promise. She never did see a colored girl graduate from her school — a feat so petty, I’m still not sure I’m at terms with it, 58 years later.