“I grew up in Orange Grove, one of the first housing projects in the country. Teachers, nurses, lawyers, and doctors lived there. You could hear the trains running from GM&O and sounds from the steel plant at all times of the day or night.
We lived close to Davis Avenue and everything you needed was right there. I waited for a lifetime to go to Central High School and wear the maroon and white band uniform as my brothers did. But in the late ’60’s times changed quickly after passage of the Civil Rights Act. They allowed Central to have graduation in the Municipal Auditorium in 1966. That was the year my brother graduated, but someone called in a bomb threat and my mother wouldn’t let me attend.
Growing up, I loved to dance, but I had to teach myself because Blacks weren’t allowed in dance classes. I became a majorette for the Central High School band. They were called the Marching 130, but had more members than that. We were the first black band to perform at the Senior Bowl. One of the only other times that Blacks were allowed into Ladd Stadium was the Turkey Day Classic football game with Central and Mobile County Training School. That was a big game. We had a parade on the Avenue and filled Ladd Stadium. We didn’t realize those would be the last years of the band.
In 1970, we heard rumors that something was about to happen. They closed the Mobile County Training School. We didn’t think closing could happen to us, but it did. We signed petitions and had more signatures than we needed, but it didn’t help. When they closed Central High School, they didn’t give us a choice. In the 1970-71 school year, we had to go to Murphy or Davidson, the white high schools.
I was in the last sophomore class at Central. The school was the pride of our community and it represented heritage and our achievements. My three brothers and sister graduated from there before me. I had hoped my children would go one day. But Central was taken away from us and we weren’t ready for what integration was forcing us into. I cried all summer.
My mother took off work at Providence Hospital to take me to my first day of school at Murphy because I didn’t want to go. She told me to stop looking down and keep my head up. You are somebody. She said the opportunities and equipment would be better at Murphy. I was going to do my best and graduate from high school.
Deep down, we felt less than whites because that is the way we were treated. You are a second-class citizen and that is where you are going to stay.
Now we had to go to school with students who didn’t want us there. I quickly realized they were just as frightened as we were. It became a competition to show how smart and determined we could be. A lot of us succeeded because each of us is stronger than we think we are.
Some of the teachers at Murphy, such as Mrs. Delaney, were good. They didn’t care what color we were. But it was harder with the students. The fighting got so bad that you couldn’t go into the bathroom by yourself or you would be jumped on by three to four white girls, and vice versa. There was fighting every day to the point where they shortened the class day. Our senior year was worse. The National Guard was on campus to keep things under control
I was on the biracial committee to make the transition easier. I don’t know if it worked, but we talked things out a lot. I was president of the choir and the 4-H and my best friend at school was white. The Murphy band added majorettes for the first time to help us feel at home. Having black majorettes was hard for many of the white students to take, and they dropped out of the band. We had a few who wanted to learn to dance and we got along pretty well.
In a way, I am glad that I went to Murphy. I had the confirmation that white students were no better than we were and we all have our struggles. You just have to pick and choose who you wish to be with.
My mother wasn’t my birth mother, but she raised me with a strong faith in God. She stood up to aggressors and wrongdoers and she protected us from hatred. I didn’t know people didn’t like us until I heard mama and her friends talking in the kitchen about how they were mistreated by the white ladies or racist bosses they worked for. We were supposed to be playing in the yard and being children because they didn’t want to concern us with the worries and the stresses of the world.
When I was a little girl, we went shopping downtown. I asked mama to stop at the counter and eat. She didn’t tell me Blacks weren’t allowed to eat there. Instead she said, ‘We don’t eat other people’s cooking. I will cook for you when we get home.’
Mama had a charge card in Gayfer’s. She waited on a clerk to help her, but a white lady walked in and the clerk was very eager to help her. Mama told her ‘I was here first and my money is green, just like hers.’ Mama went upstairs and spoke with a manager. He didn’t allow disrespect and told the clerk, ‘Ms. Franklin is a very good customer because she pays her bill on time. When she comes here, give her the same acknowledgement that you give anyone else.” I was saying mama don’t fuss. Don’t say anything. They are going to kill you. I thought if they killed mama, what would happen to me?
I learned to stand up for myself from my mama. I also come from a family of preachers and love oratory. I was a freshman at Central when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. I walked in the big march from Davis Avenue to Municipal Auditorium in 1968, and each year after that. After his murder, people also rioted on the Avenue out of anger and frustration. They didn’t know where to channel that anger. No one was listening to them. It was just terrible.
We have come through scary times, but there is still work to be done. We are stronger than we realize. I hope I have passed ‘keep your head up’ to my children. We are somebody and that is how I live my life.”
This is from the interview with Jocelyn Banks for “The Decline and Revitalization of The Avenue” that will run in Lagniappe next week. It is the final story in the “Buried in Oaklawn” series.