It never really dawned on me that a portion of my life is contained in a history book somewhere. I just never considered myself old enough to have been a part of integration. But I was. I am a member of the first class of Black students that integrated Atwood McDonald Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas in 1979.

What I didn’t realize then was I and a group of my friends were a part of the “Cluster Plan” that was designed to desegregate schools in Fort Worth and to stop the phenomenon of white flight. The Cluster Plan included 27 of the 78 elementary schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District and focused on distributing white and Black students among the schools to the ratio of race within the district. According to a dissertation by Tina Nicole Cannon entitled “Cowtown and the Color Line: Desegregating Fort Worth’s Public Schools,” the plan called for an exchange program, where the district bused second graders who attended the twenty-seven predominantly white schools to six all-Black schools. Students of the all-Black schools’ rode buses to the white schools for third through fifth grades.

Atwood McDonald was a predominately white school in the East Cluster. Cannon said the Superintendent of the Fort Worth ISD, at the time, explained the Cluster Plan in part by saying “The second grade was chosen [for transfers to the predominantly Black schools in each cluster] because these younger children, yet to develop prejudices, accept each other for what they are, not the color of their skin.” He also believed that “Second graders will be easier to bus, in fact, they will enjoy the experience.”

I can guarantee you, I did not enjoy the experience.

In fact, it taught me that unequivocally Black children had less, were treated less, were thought of less, and were believed to be less than white children. The school that I was bused to in the second grade was dark and dingy. I remember the bathrooms always being dirty. I remember only seeing Black students in that class. As a matter of fact, there weren’t any white students who rode the bus with me from my predominantly white neighborhood to the black school since that’s what the Cluster Plan called for. Most of my white neighbors opted to attend a private school for second grade instead of going to “that Black school.”

We were all joined together in the third grade at Atwood McDonald when the Cluster Plan required the Black students from the predominantly Black neighborhood (affectionately called “Stop 6”) to be bused to our side of town. I was able to walk to school along with my white peers.

Here’s what I remember about that:

The white kids would walk to school with me and my brother but would break apart from us at the corner and walk the rest of the way by themselves. It was understood that they were not to be seen with us within the vicinity of their other friends. It never occurred to me or them that their friends could have seen us walking together through the neighborhood. I guess I thought it was THEIR norm so I didn’t care. I do remember being relieved when they would go off on their own because we never laughed at the same jokes anyway. It was weird.
The white kids did not believe that my brother and I were Black. They were convinced that we were Mexican-American. Coming from Washington, D.C. I had no idea what difference it made being Black or Mexican. I quickly found out that on the totem pole of race, Mexican-Americans were believed to be even lesser than Blacks. It was a fucked-up hierarchy system.

Black kids were not safe in these integrated schools. In fact, I remember the introduction of “safe houses” with the blue handprint logo decals in the windows of homes that you could go to if you felt like you were in danger or being threatened on your way home. I never stopped at one (my brother and I fought our battles), but I remember feeling relieved that they were there just in case we ever needed them.

Only a few of my Black friends were really able to do well in their newly integrated environment. Most of them, however, struggled. They hated the school. They hated getting on and off of the bus. They hated being across town from their homes. They couldn’t wait to go to middle school so they could be back on their home turf and have a choice of whether or not they had to put up with blatant racism and slurs they had to face every day in the name of integration. They look forward to the day when they were finally free.

I remember the white girls in my gymnastics class at the community YMCA refusing to tumble on the mat with me because my Black skin was “dirty” and as the teacher told them, they didn’t want me to “rub off on them.” I remember my mother coming to pick me up from the class, learning about what happened and completely losing her shit! She had had it with the racism. It was one thing for her to face it at work, but for me to have to deal with it in tumbling class was the straw that broke the racist camel’s back.

We were both DONE.

We moved back to D.C. the summer of fifth grade. I was placed in the Talented and Gifted program and life began to equalize. And now when I am having to make decisions for my two children around their education and where we’re going to live, I do so with my past in mind. I understand that my frame of reference is set by my experiences and I welcome those lessons. I believe they make me a more cautious and aware parent. I know what safety is supposed to feel like and because of that, I can make my best decisions possible at the time, until I or my children learn or experience something new.

I also know what high-quality learning is supposed to look like and how the social aspects of a school are just as important as the academic. For example, both of my children have acquired admittance to some of the best traditional public, public charter, and private schools in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. However, we purposely chose our predominantly Black Catholic school (also one of the best) in our community in large part due to the relief my children feel when they walk through the school’s doors and see students who look like them, educators who look like and care about them, administrators who welcome them with open arms, and with extended family members who quickly take on the role of being their parent when my husband or I aren’t around to advocate for them. They know they have a village. They don’t have to worry about being separate and apart from their peers because of the color of their skin. They don’t have to worry about being a minority who is looked at with pity, disgust, or sometimes fear. They go to their high-performing school and receive their high-quality education with advanced academic rigor and do WELL.

We made the decision of where to live and where to place our children in school because when it was left up to the government body to determine the best situations for our family, many times the people making the decisions didn’t look like me or my husband – neither now nor when we were growing up. We were both shuffled along in public school systems because, at the time, that was all we had.

The key lesson that we have both learned is when the system you are a part of is not set up to serve you, you must choose to either work within the system or find alternatives. EIther way, the decision is yours to make. My advice to you is to choose wisely.


This post was written by Tanzi West Barbour and originally ran on the Wayfinder Foundation Blog.


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