Negroes in the Private Schools

A school involving itself in integration often skates so close to failure that it becomes overdependent on success, Charles Merrill has found in twenty-five years’ experience with racial problems in education. But he has found also compelling reasons for continuing inning and expanding the experience. A graduate of Deerfield Academy and Harvard, and a teacher since World War II, he is headmaster of Boston’s coeducational Commonwealth School.

ONE of the more interesting changes in American race relations over the past five years has been the rising number of Negroes in private schools. Even if this rise has affected, on a long-term basis, only three to four thousand Negro boys and girls, its impact upon the white middle-class youngsters who go to these schools may add up to some genuine social value.

There were always a few schools with a name for racial liberalism — Andover, Exeter, Northfield, Mount Hermon, less well known schools like Wooster and Windsor Mountain, city schools like Collegiate in New York, Georgetown Day in Washington, Francis Parker in Chicago, the Quaker schools around Philadelphia — but until recently, these schools were few and the numbers of Negro children involved were few indeed. Even schools that considered themselves liberal took refuge in the policy of “We’ll accept any qualified candidate who applies,” and then sat passively when no qualified Negroes turned up. In reality, so few roads existed between the white world and the Negro that not many people were in the mood to travel.

Both sides saw only their fears. A Negro father paying his first visit to a boarding school asked lots of questions, but “Who will cut my son’s hair?” was his most personal worry. Then, how about dances? I taught at a school in Missouri which admitted its first Negro boys in 1952 under the proviso that they not go to the dances. The second year they did, but danced only with Negro girls. I am now ashamed of the timidity we showed, but at the time it seemed forced on us. The tiptoeing schools kept looking for some never-never combination of Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson that would guarantee success.

A fair amount has changed, however, during the past five years. Last fall I made a survey of twelve Boston private schools — primary and secondary, boys, girls, and coed —and where in 1962—1963 these twelve schools had a total of 23 Negro students, they now have 104. Where in 1965—1966 they had spent $61,000 in scholarships for these students, in 1966—1967 the figure was $92,000. For half these same schools more than half the scholarship budget for this year was set aside for Negroes.

These changes have been the result of a number of individual decisions by headmasters, teachers, trustees, alumni, even students, that their school should pull its weight in facing the issue of racial justice. Negro parents are more aggressive now in seeking out private schools; the schools are more experienced in exposing themselves to outsiders. The matching-up process has also been helped by development of two types of placement groups.

The most important of these is the Independent Schools Talent Search Program, started in early 1964 at Hanover, New Hampshire, to recruit and place Negro (plus some Puerto Rican, Indian, and proletarian white) boys into boarding schools in the northeastern part of the country. Twenty-six schools joined the first year, and their membership dues of $1 per student paid for most of the administrative costs of the headquarters, located on the Dartmouth College campus. The idea received a great boost by the addition of a seven-week summer program called A Better Chance, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and held at Dartmouth, to prepare the boys for their arrival at Groton or Pomfret by training them intensively in reading, writing, and mathematics, as well as in such middleclass skills as wearing a tie and playing soccer.

The second year saw the addition of girls, a new summer center at Mount Holyoke, and, even more important, the financing of new students by the Office of Economic Opportunity, under Sargent Shriver. This was the first time that the federal government had given aid to education at private secondary schools. The aid was generous: $2500 per student for tuition, room, and board, plus $250 for pocket money, travel costs, and medical expenses. By the summer of 1966 college centers had been opened also at Williams, Carleton, and Duke, and in September ISTSP had placed 500 boys and 175 girls at 104 member schools, with almost 400 of these children financed by the government.

Another approach has been that of local groups trying to place Negroes into private day schools of a given city. The Negro Student Fund in Washington, under the leadership of Mrs. Lydia Katzenbach, wife of the then Attorney General, and a board of prominent professional and government people, was the first example of this type. It received some help in meeting scholarship costs from the Ford Foundation, and in the two-year period of 1966 and 1967, succeeded in placing 64 children. In Boston the same sort of project, the Boston Area Schools Placement Program, started in late 1965 under a different kind of leadership. One director was Melvin King, a Negro social worker who had run unsuccessfully three times for the school committee and was by then convinced that neither the public school administration nor the Boston voters were interested in improving the education of Negro children; another director was David Stockman, a businessman who had become indignant upon finding that the schools were offering places and scholarships to Negro children and none appeared to fill them. The Boston program had weaker resources than the one in Washington, with one young Negro paid administrator and a fair amount of volunteer help, but by September it had placed 40 students in independent schools and 72 in parochial schools, had assumed $3500 worth of partial-scholarship obligations, and had a bank balance of zero.

WHAT is the life of a Negro youngster in a private school, and what is the impact upon such a school when a number of Negroes go to it? It is hard to isolate the issue of race when the differences are also of class: the majority of these Negro students are the children of working and lower-middle-class families, while the majority of their white schoolmates come from business and professional families. And the differences of class, cultural background, previous schooling are compounded further by lack of family support. Of the two dozen Negro students my own school has had in the last six years, only half had a father at home.

The main problem is the scholastic one. So much has to be done at first that neither the teacher nor the student knows where to begin, whether from the youngster’s lack of the tools of the trade or his inability to buy the discipline of the middle-class system: “Write this paper along these precise lines and hand it in tomorrow at eight thirty.” And it doesn’t come in. One form of self-protection is to obey orders, another is to disobey any order given: “They’re not getting me!” To keep from losing his temper at what seems like unnecessary failure, the teacher is expected to have instant recall of the whole race sociology of American history, whose evils these students pay for and pay for: the Southern laws that imprisoned a master found guilty of teaching a slave to read; the slave system that broke up families and sold each child separately; the employment system that keeps a Negro from getting a job to let him support his family; a society that good-naturedly despised his music-loving shiftlessness and furiously attacked him whenever he tried to break out of the stereotype.

A teacher who works with Negro students gradually comes to learn how overwhelmingly racist is the totality of American life. The direction of education is to bring a child in, to involve him in his own learning and the setting of his own goals. The whole direction of American history has been to leave the Negro out. In my school I teach American history to the eleventh grade. What to say? Jefferson’s and Jackson’s concepts of democracy specifically excluded the Negro from any participation in them. Lincoln was kind but condescending. Wilson froze racial segregation into the federal civil service. A primary aim of our labor movement has always been to protect white standards against Negro competition. And in the usual American novel, the heroine would have been glad to accept the young Negro reader as a servant, not as a friend.

“When the others sing ‘America the Beautiful’ in chapel, I can’t,” one of our boys said. The impact of racism means that any school with a sizable Negro minority is going to have a direct acquaintance with the realities of American life that are quite outside books. A girl with us from Mississippi had been suspended at her previous high school for wearing an LBJ button in the fall of 1964, and then expelled and imprisoned for going to the wrong drugstore for a Coca Cola. One of our graduates has been imprisoned four times now in summer organizing work in Mississippi and Alabama. Out of this type of experience the Negro student comes to school with a range of interests pretty well limited to his own problems. And if his education does open the world to him, he may find himself cut off from his old community. He is an “Uncle Tom,” the most dread and spirit-shattering of epithets, not because he laughs at Mister Charlie’s jokes but because he is interested in mathematics.

A school involving itself in integration skates, all too often, so close to failure that it becomes overdependent on the victories achieved by each individual Negro and the way these victories then allow him to come in to the school community. The first successes are likely to occur in athletics. Our soccer varsity generally has two or three Negro stars, boys who had never seen a soccer ball before they came to us. Yet the stereotype of the Negro as the professional athlete is worth avoiding. We needed the two good artists and the skilled politician we had; we needed especially the girl, richly endowed with beauty, character, and academic distinction, whose success helped strengthen every other teammate in difficulty. In a school like ours, set into an almost rigid liberalism, Joyce was secure enough in her position to become the most articulate spokesman, in any argument, for the conservative point of view. In a large boarding school in Connecticut, a number of boys, shortly after school had opened, were talking about the drama club’s fall play, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. They couldn’t figure it out. A Negro boy who had seen Rhinoceros at Dartmouth the previous summer told them what it was about and how it represented the theater of the absurd. His classmates then looked upon him in a different way.

Failure has the opposite result: the outsider goes further out. In trying to avoid academic failure, the school is faced with some serious problems, theoretical and practical. Is it trying to serve the child who needs help the most or the child most likely to succeed? For the Negro parent whose child has never been taught to read properly in the public schools, admission to a private school is the last chance to make it. “Isn’t that what you’re there for?” No, not entirely. Even if the new school will lighten the course load and give extra tutoring, the difference in standards is almost too great. For a child who has not picked up what the public schools can offer, it is too late.

How should schools act toward failure in Negro students? “If Harry has been with you two years you can’t send him back to the sort of school he came from!” That is partly true, but there is a limit to the energy and skill a headmaster can ask from his teachers for those at the bottom of the class if he is also asking a great deal for those at the top. And it does no one good to have too many people around who can’t pull their weight.

On the other hand, “I’m going to fail anyway” is a disease that Negro students are susceptible to; Negroes help provide an antidote to the disease of white adolescents from educated and affluent families who are forever saying: “What is the purpose of all this? I’m just going through the motions to satisfy my parents’ need for status.”

IN SOCIAL rather than academic matters, when a school community acquires a little experience, it can begin to relax. Every new event is no longer an ordeal, and children acquire an unselfconscious tact, or learn when tact doesn’t seem necessary and they can rely on frankness. This makes life easier for the popular Negro youngster, invited home to dinner with the family as almost a routine matter; it makes life harder for the unpopular youngster because no one feels any compulsion to go out of his way to give him a hand. Or the problem simply changes rather than improves as it goes from theory to practice. At biracial parties the theoretical problem used to be Negro boys dancing with white girls. The actual problem, however, is that white boys and Negro boys are likely to dance with the white girls and no one dances with the Negro girls.

Then too, as the size of the Negro minority grows, the results may not be what one hopes. The human cost of token integration has always seemed extraordinarily high to me. The one representative is always on parade, always on guard. If he has some colleagues, however, he can choose at mealtime between his white or his Negro friends. But if there are enough Negroes around to provide a minimum range of interracial friendships, yet not enough individuals on either side with the warmth and ease to reach toward the other, all one gets is two societies, courteous but distinct. The spirit of the times also has changed. There is less optimism and perhaps less generosity, on both sides, in 1967 than in 1964. “I really don’t think I can trust any whites,” said one of our boys. And a girl: “The only time a white man does anything for you is out of a sense of guilt.”

Nevertheless, there are strands, hard to see sometimes, that tie young people together. A girl too shy and bookish to make friends readily with other Negroes finds one close white friend who sees the world with the same thoughtful eyes. Another girl, far from her home in Georgia, falls seriously ill, and in the visits she receives at the hospital, realizes with a bit of surprise how firm a place she holds in her schoolmates’ affection. A mixed quartet pick up the habit of going off to listen to records together. These are fragile strands, and nothing in American society helps to make them stronger. Nevertheless, friendship is not the only gain of a racially mixed school: a frank recognition of difference and even of hostility has its values.

“Don’t always load the dice on the race issue,” said one of our Jewish boys in a class where we were discussing poverty and its relation to race. “My grandfather when he came from Russia was just as poor as yours, and he was able to work his way up to a fair sort of life for him and his children.” This is an explosive issue, and the girl he said it to exploded. “Sure he was poor. But there were still jobs he could get, and when he got money he could be a part of American society, and my grandfather couldn’t.”

The most thought-provoking example of maturity in race relations appeared out of a play that one of our Negro seniors wrote last winter. Leroy, an intelligent though not a particularly successful student, came originally from Tennessee. His father is dead. His mother, who works in a beauty shop, is a fundamentalist who fears that her son’s soul is endangered by all the Godless things he has learned, partly at our school. Leroy’s hero is Malcolm X, and he talks about race pride and the necessity, perhaps, of violence as a way of defending this pride; but Leroy is also fascinated by science, and a beautiful scarlet silk-screen abstraction by him hangs in the main hallway of the school.

Leroy started writing his play as a way of involving local youngsters in group activity more creative than hanging around on street corners, but as time went on he began to persuade more and more of his middle-class schoolmates to play the white parts and to share their skills in lighting and design. And while the play was rehearsed and argued over in a Roxbury parish house, each person involved kept adding new lines, new episodes, new ideas. The story is coffee and cream, the Negro term for mixed sex relations, only the cream is sour.

The chorus, the background of meaninglessness and ever potential violence of ghetto life, is a gang of loose-jawed, beer-drinking, street-corner casuals. Against them are set the earnest members, complete with white liberal, of the teen-age Action Group who will help organize the community. The actors who play these “good” young people are playing themselves. Their words are a little too reasonable, too articulate, and they know it. Joe, the white liberal, falls in love with Laverne, the Negro girl. Laverne is then shown with her frightened, Jesuscalling mother, Joe with his whining, selfish parents. Girl and boy walk a road of sorrow, insulted and threatened by all who pass them, particularly by Laverne’s jilted lover from the street corner. Then Joe, seated with Laverne at a Negro restaurant, where the waiter calls him trash, sees his father enter with a Negro prostitute. Horrified, he flees; Laverne runs after. Her scream pierces the blackened stage. She has been knocked unconscious and raped. Joe must be the assailant. The Negroes close ranks, and when Joe reappears, now with a white girlfriend, both of them are brutally attacked. The play ends in two more scenes: Joe in bandages at home, tended by his new girl, rethinking his allegiances, and back to the street corner, where the casuals are joking nervously about the cops. But who did rape Laverne? The joking turns sharper. A little old lady stands up. She had seen it. The attacker was the jilted Negro. “I did it because I loved her!” he cries, and the lights go off.

All the arguments made by this crude little play are a lot more complex than they would have been five years ago. The villain is still the white society that castrates the Negro male and leaves him impotent or in a rage, but white actions in a time that speaks a civil rights language are more complex than they used to be. And the Negro response is also more complex. Laverne takes Joe as her sweetheart because he is more gentle as well as more secure than her lover on the street corner. And the ultimate crime which sets off a holy war of race was committed by black against black.

Perhaps then the value of these limited contacts between white and black adolescents in one or two hundred private schools is to confuse racial attitudes a bit, to show that the situation is not simple and that despite all the official rhetoric, both races distrust, resent, and fear each other. And if matters are bad now, they will get worse in the 1970s when the real fight is locked as to who controls the cities. Will the Negroes who cannot escape into the suburbs be allowed to elect a mayor — or district attorney or chief of police — of Newark, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago? There had better be a fair number of men and women then who have dealt with the other team as human beings and can accept them as colleagues, as neighbors, as parents of their children’s friends; who accept, from personal experience, the complexity of motivation and result. The exhaustion of scholarship budgets, the end of federal support for educational experiments, and the increasing coldness of opinion in the surrounding communities may see in the school year of 1967–1968 the first downward turn in academic integration in ten years. We must not let this happen.