In 1954, the Supreme Court decided that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional—but it was thousands of children who actually desegregated America’s classrooms. The task that fell to them was a brutal one.
In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, vicious legal and political battles broke out; town by town, Black parents tried to send their children to white schools, and white parents—and often their children, too—tried to keep those Black kids out. They tried everything: bomb threats, beatings, protests. They physically blocked entrances to schools, vandalized lockers, threw rocks, taunted and jeered. Often, the efforts of white parents worked: Thousands upon thousands of Black kids were barred from the schools that were rightfully theirs to attend.
But eventually, in different places at different times, Black parents won. And that meant that their kids had to walk or take the bus to a school that had tried to keep them out. And then they had to walk in the door, go to their classrooms, and try to get an education—despite the hatred directed at them, despite the knowledge that their white classmates didn’t want them there, and despite being alone. They changed America, but in large part, that change was not lasting. As they grew older, many of them watched as their schools resegregated, and their work was undone.
Those kids are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s now. Many of them are no longer with us. But those who are have stories to tell.
Here are five of them.
- Hugh Price and his family fought for him to be one of the first Black students at his all-white high school in Washington, D.C. But once he was there, he “couldn’t wait for it to be over.”
- Jo Ann Allen Boyce and 11 other students desegregated their high school in Clinton, Tennessee. Then the riots came.
- Sonnie Hereford IV desegregated Alabama’s public schools in 1963. He was only 6 years old.
- Millicent Brown changed Charleston, then watched it stay the same.
- Frederick K. Brewington’s education came at the end of a bitter civil-rights battle that engulfed New York State, more than a decade after the Court’s Brown v. Board decision.