Where That Bus Ride Took Me
By Kevin Merida
I returned to my high school recently, hoping to unearth memories from yearbooks I never purchased. But no yearbooks could be found. It's also too late to buy the class ring I didn't want or to attend the senior prom I skipped. And no matter how hard I massage my brain, I can't remember a single white friend at a school that was 80 percent white.
It is quite possible I had no white friends.
Twenty-five years ago, I was among the 32,823 students who were uprooted from their neighborhood schools in the name of achieving racial equality in the Prince George's County public school system. Now that mandatory busing is being phased out a federal judge approved a settlement in the desegregation case yesterday I am struggling to resolve contradictory feelings about that tumultuous period: Why was I so disconnected from Crossland High School, so bitter about being bused there at the time, and yet so fond of my experience in retrospect?
My conflicting emotions about busing, about the price of integration, were revived last fall in a crowded hallway at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. There, I ran into my former English teacher, Linda Wanner, who looked very much as she did a quarter century ago blond and cheery and eloquently commanding. Now an assistant principal, she was directing traffic for parents on back-to-school night. It was a jarring sight. I had often wondered what became of this petite, inspired woman who goaded me to write short stories and join the school newspaper staff, who pushed me to pursue a journalism career.
It would be months before our schedules allowed us to sit down and revisit the bit parts we played in Prince George's history, when the county finally complied with the Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools.
"It was just a moment that needed to be," Wanner reflected, "and it changed the direction of all of our lives. You don't know it at the time. It's only after you look back on it."
Wanner succinctly recalls the directive from Crossland principal John Hrezo to jittery faculty on the weekend before the buses rolled: "We're having busing. These will be our students. We're happy to have them. We will make this work."
And it did work for me and for buddies like Barry Fletcher, now a successful hairstylist in Prince George's, and Wilkins McNair, now a successful accountant in Baltimore. But for some of my friends and peers, busing became just another slice of chaos in their already unfocused lives. It became an obstacle in the path of education, a reason to let inertia kick ambition's haughty behind.
Over the years, when I would hear some awful news about folks I grew up with someone committing murder or suicide or losing his mind to drugs I occasionally wondered whether busing had anything to do with their fate. This was not exactly rational thinking; it was purely reflexive. In my head, I pictured these friends as they were in high school, and when I thought of high school I thought of busing. And when I thought of busing, I thought of what schools were intended to be community institutions that understood their environment.
My big complaint about busing is that it separates schools from neighborhoods and neighborhoods from schools. My kids attend Montgomery County public schools within walking distance of our home. Their upbringing, in the broadest sense, is dramatically different from mine: They have a United Nations of friends. The social functions they're invited to are integrated. School is at the center of much of their lives.
They are incredulous that I have no mementos from my high school years, only decrepit basketball stories. They don't hear me talk about classroom remembrances, school dances or lunchtime fun. So I explain to them how I saw high school as a 15-year-old in the fall of 1972.
Here I was in 10th grade, thriving as a student-athlete at Central High School, surrounded by familiar faces from my Seat Pleasant neighborhood, intoxicated by our rock-and-roll cheerleading squad, loving the vibe of a nearly all-black school (92 percent), even though Central with its constant disruptions often seemed hilariously chaotic. Some things you overlook at 15.
Then all of a sudden I'm told I have to give that up? In the middle of an academic year? Hell, in the middle of basketball season. Obliterating my comfort level was a 12½-mile bus ride to predominantly white Temple Hills and its neighborhood school, Crossland. To catch the bus, I had to rise at 6 a.m. You miss the bus and you could forget school for the day. Either stay home or find eight bucks for a cab ride. Sometimes I didn't make it home from Crossland until 6 p.m., after an "activity bus" had slowpoked its way from community to community dropping off the "extracurricular kids."
Attending Crossland was like going to work. And we were the new employees, there for evaluation, I felt all 300 of us the Seat Pleasant kids who had beefed up the school's black population from 5 percent to 19 percent.
But that's the perspective of a teenager.
A Long Time Coming
On the fourth floor of The Washington Post building are sets of rolling shelves where they keep the yellowed clippings, the accounts of what went on back when it went on. The articles on school integration in Prince George's County are crammed into skinny brown envelopes that smell like clothes stored in the attic. I hadn't remembered the 15,000 anti-busing protesters who rallied at Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill. Or the artful dodges of local politicians who were afraid to provide leadership. Or the fact that the county police department put its 650-man force on two 12-hour shifts that first day just in case.
Enforcing the Supreme Court's mandate to dismantle "separate but equal" school systems for blacks and whites has proven to be difficult over the years. Mandatory busing, in particular, has provoked some of this country's angriest debates. Not to mention some of its scariest moments.
Like other locales that went through this transition, Prince George's County was a caldron of passion. Buses carrying black students weren't pelted with rocks the way they were in Boston. But there was enough fear and ire over busing here to produce the kind of racial candor you rarely see these days among citizens of good standing. We're talking about families willing to be photographed in their living rooms and quoted by name for all the world to see.
Take Thomas Coats, a retired Air Force engineer from Suitland who had served in Vietnam. He was quoted in The Washington Post as resenting busing's intrusion. His and other white families had worked hard to afford housing in an area with good schools and convenient shopping. "You do all this and what happens; your kid still has to go to school in little Africa."
Sometimes students proved they could overcome the prejudices and stereotypes their parents bequeathed them. Steve Cossett, a white student who transferred from Surrattsville High to Central High, was quoted as saying his new school in a predominantly black neighborhood "wasn't run down like my parents said it was. My parents told us to stay with our own white clique and don't associate with them [blacks] because they are dope addicts, their mothers are on welfare. . . . But when I went home Monday after the first day, I told my parents that Central wasn't like that at all."
Perhaps the most revealing stuff in the newspaper accounts was the unvarnished honesty of kids who were just beginning to realize how racially sheltered their lives had been. Listen to Donald Costen, a black student whose neighborhood junior high in Palmer Park went from 92.5 percent African American to 70 percent white: "We've never socialized with white people before. There's a barrier between us and them. Almost all the black families out here came from D.C., and from childhood we learned to hate whitey."
Many applauded the sweeping desegregation order handed down by U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman in December 1972. Integration, they figured, was long overdue and worth the considerable upheaval.
Prince George's County's reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling had been to implement a plan of "orderly and gradual desegregation." It was like watching rain dry on porch furniture. In the first year of this policy, the 1955-56 school year, only eight of the county's 104 schools were racially integrated. Nine years later, 80 percent of Prince George's black students were still attending segregated schools. The NAACP and others complained, but the response from top school officials was that this was the way to avoid the dangerous racial confrontations that had beset other desegregation efforts.
But the pressure on the county's school system didn't let up. In 1971, the Nixon administration threatened to cut off $14 million in federal education funds. And though that threat was later dropped, the following year eight black families represented by the NAACP filed suit against the county seeking further school desegregation. It wasn't that the families were thirsting to have their kids educated with whites; they just wanted the same resources, the same quality of schooling for their children that white children enjoyed. This is an important distinction that's sometimes overlooked.
Consider what one of the plaintiffs, Margaret Wheatfall, told Post columnist Bill Raspberry on the eve of busing: "We're not looking for busing. We're not even looking for integration. Even if we got it, I know they [white people] are gonna run. All I want is for my kids, wherever they are and whoever their classmates, to have the best education Prince George's County can offer.
"To tell the truth and speaking only for myself I'd really prefer for my daughters to go to a predominantly black school. I've been to predominantly white schools myself, and I think about things like getting dates, becoming a cheerleader, participating in extracurriculars, getting scholarships, going to proms."
I heard similar reservations in my Seat Pleasant neighborhood of Peppermill Village. There was far more trepidation about busing inside black households than was commonly assumed.
Kaufman wasted no time ruling on the black families' lawsuit. In July 1972, he gave the county a month to come up with a desegregation plan. The county begged for time. Officials argued that it would simply be too disruptive an exercise to carry off for the opening of school in September. So Kaufman granted more time, but he ultimately lost patience. On Dec. 29, 1972, the judge ordered busing to commence exactly one month later. The appeals reached the Supreme Court, but they proved fruitless.
On Jan. 29, 1973, the buses rolled.
Finding Our Way
"I very vividly remember the day the buses brought the students from Central, Seat Pleasant," recalls Patti Kirk, the Crossland gym teacher who has been at the school for three decades. "I won't say fear, but there was this look: 'What's happening to us?'"
Science teacher Tom Wysocki, who has taught at Crossland since 1968, recalls that teachers and support staff had gathered in front of the school to greet the new students. One of his colleagues, he remembers, was perhaps a bit overzealous. "He's standing out on the front, yelling 'Welcome, welcome to Crossland!' He had this big booming voice. And these kids were like, 'What's going on? Where's the band?'"
"I remember when we pulled up at Crossland we saw this crowd of white folks and we didn't want to get off the bus," recalls my friend Wilkins McNair. "It appeared we were not wanted. Nobody would move."
The way Wilk remembers the scene, there were students out front as well, some positioned as though they were blocking entrance to the school. "Everybody just sat there [on the bus], and Milton Lucas finally said, '[Expletive] these white boys.' And we said, 'Okay, power to the people.'"
In truth, there were no school-door blockades and no significant disturbances that first day. But there was a heightened sense of anxiety.
"We had to stay together," says my buddy Barry Fletcher. "We had to hold hands in that joint. We saw we were severely outnumbered. It caused me to respect sisterhood and brotherhood."
Neighborhood rivalries began to break down. The half-hour bus ride became a social outing, a bonding session. "It wasn't so much us fighting each other," recalls Fletch, though in truth there was some of that. "We fought for each other."
The Post reported on some of those fights. One, on Oct. 25, 1973, involved 200 to 300 students and lasted more than an hour. It apparently started when a white student bumped into a black student in the hallway. When the two went outside to settle the issue, black and white students took sides and the incident turned into a fracas.
Crossland always seemed to be simmering, but in retrospect there was probably not as much black-white tension as we believed at the time. As kids who had never seen real racial terror, as some of our parents had, we probably attached too much significance to a small gang of self-described white separatists known as the "Grits," who patterned themselves after the 1950s ducktailed teenagers. In truth, the Grits were about 5 percent of the student population, but because they were showy and aching for confrontation they seemed to represent a greater threat.
Unlike me, Wilk remembers having white friends at Crossland. But the lines of demarcation were such lunch tables were segregated by choice, blacks and whites hung out separately in the halls that to advertise such friendships was taboo.
"It was so funny because we would be friends in the classroom, but as soon as the bell rang we'd walk down the hall and not talk to each other," he remembers. "That was the understanding." For black kids who wandered off from the Seat Pleasant clusters, the penalty could be severe. By teenage standards, anyway.
"If we had white friends, we were called Toms, punks, white boys," recalls Wilk.
While the informal patterns of socialization divided along racial lines, school officials were more determined to bring students together than I had remembered.
Wilk, a standout running back, recalls the first post-busing football practice the following summer. White players gathered on one side of the bleachers; black players on the other. Coach John Merricks, who has since died, surveyed the arrangement, Wilk recalls, and shook his head in disapproval: "Gentlemen, we're red, white and gold. We're not black or white. We're one team. If you're going to play for Crossland, let's mix it up."
"For a while, you forgot you were black or white," Wilk says. "You were a Crossland Cavalier."
In the classroom, there was anxiety among teachers about what to expect from the Seat Pleasant kids. Would they be able to cut it?
"The worst thing you can do is try to teach black kids differently," says Wysocki, recalling a pre-busing presentation from a Harvard professor to that effect. "This is something I've never forgotten. Sometimes I get annoyed when they come up with these programs 'Oh, here's a new program to teach minority kids.' Well, if it's good for minority kids, it's good for all kids."
At the time, Crossland was one of the top-rated schools in the state strong in math and science, with a specialty in vocational education.
"It made me get serious about education because it took me out of my comfort zone," recalls Fletch, "and I didn't realize I needed to be taken out of it."
For Wilk, Crossland demystified white people. "White was always considered right, the best. But when you got a chance to get close to them, all of a sudden they weren't everything you thought they were. You found out you could compete."
The experience, Wilk figures, helped him later when he was a junior accountant at a major white firm. He now has his own firm in Baltimore, with an office in Chicago, and ambitions for more expansion.
For Fletch, the experience gave him more confidence. He didn't go on to college, but he started cutting hair for neighborhood folks in his basement and caught the entrepreneurial bug. Today he owns a salon not far from where he once caught the bus to Crossland. He's in demand. Entertainers from Tina Turner to Toni Braxton to Halle Berry have used his services.
"Busing was not a mistake," says teacher Wysocki assuredly, "because there were definitely have and have-not schools. It had a purpose, which was the best way to make things equal. Now, we're at the point where we could go back to community schools."
A Kind of Liberation
The agreement approved yesterday by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte will gradually end mandatory busing for 11,400 students in the county, allowing them to attend neighborhood schools. Over the next six years, 13 new schools will be built. In 2002 the parties will return before a judge. If they all agree there have been no breaches in the settlement, the federal court will finally say goodbye to the county's school system.
I wish I could get more excited about these developments. I wish the county had ensured that my neighborhood school, Central, was a better place to learn 25 years ago, not a place where one of my 10th-grade English classmates felt comfortable firing up a joint in class and blowing the smoke out a window. I would have preferred to graduate from Central it was hipper, had more cachet though I'm glad now that I didn't.
Returning to Crossland made me think about what equality of opportunity in education means and where I would have been today without that opportunity. For the kids who are closing out this millennium, busing does not represent what it once did.
In my old Seat Pleasant neighborhood, teenagers still rise early to catch a ride to Crossland. But when they arrive they are surrounded by black faces; not even 7 percent of the student body is white. Thousands of white families deserted the school system as blacks continued their migration into the county. Prince George's schools are now 75 percent African American.
At Crossland, no black kid has to worry about the Grits; if he encounters trouble it's probably because he went afoul of the Temple Hills crew or the Marlow Heights crew or some other black crew.
And no one talks about busing for integration purposes anymore though 9,400 kids across the county voluntarily take buses out of their neighborhoods to magnet schools. They are the children of parents in search of the best schools schools where their kids can nurture specific talents and pursue special programs.
When my own kids who've always attended multicultural schools remark upon my tragic lack of a yearbook and prom pictures, it's easier for them to see what I lost that first day I went through Crossland's doors than what I gained. For a long time, it was easier for me, too.
But as I grew older and more detached from my high school years, as I traveled and broadened my circle of friends, I realized how liberating it had been to leave my neighborhood not just physically, but psychologically. Somehow, my dreams got lifted.
I know it's fashionable now to dog busing, to view integration as ruining the connectedness we used to have in black communities; I too miss that. But such retrospection is far too simplistic. Though I readily admit to conflicted feelings about my own 25-mile round trip to high school, I also think about the numerous John Lewises of the world who were beaten, jailed or killed on the road to dismantling segregation. Of how unsung attorneys labored through the night to prepare court challenges so black kids like me could have the same quality learning environment as our white peers. Of how those white peers then had the opportunity to experience the breadth of our humanity.
Should we now think those efforts were unnecessary, even harmful?
Occasionally, when I pause to assess my life and consider that my job has enabled me to survey the crumbled Berlin Wall, jog with a president and shoot jumpers with a top NBA draft choice I wonder whether busing was the linchpin to so many rich and varied adventures. My mother assures me that if I had stayed at Central and strayed at Central, she and my dad would have steered me back on course, found ways to keep me motivated. I believe her. But it is also easy for me to see myself evolving mostly as an athlete at Central, never working for the school newspaper, never being encouraged to develop my writing talent, accepting a basketball scholarship at some small college. And from there, who's to say?
Who knows if I would have been writing this article for The Washington Post? What I do know is that 25 years ago a bunch of us embarked on a scary journey that changed our lives forever. And now that a judge has agreed this experiment should cease, I have to say the trip was worth taking.
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