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Playing a role in desegregation

| Saturday, Feb. 25, 2006

Within days after my 15th birthday, August of 1954, my family moved to Washington, D.C., from Greensburg.

My younger brother, Bob, and I explored the city. If we walked to Pennsylvania Avenue we could get a bus, then after crossing the Anacostia River, transfer to a streetcar. From there we had access to everything in the Capitol. We sometimes spent hours sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons and watching people from all over the world.

Not long after arriving in the District, Bob and I scampered onto a streetcar and moved to the rear of the car trying to find seats. A couple of dozen black men in the rear section of the car seemed to hold their breath. It took me a few seconds to realize we were in the wrong space. I stopped, backed up and held onto a strap until a seat became available in the front of the streetcar. Dad told us about the separate restrooms for blacks and whites but forgot to tell us about the seating arrangement on public transportation.

The day I went to register for classes at Anacostia High, Mr. Eugene E. Griffith, the acting principal, proudly bragged the school had a mock airplane and taught flying. When I asked him to enroll me for the class, he laughed aloud. His reaction stunned me. Only boys could take the class because the mock plane was in their area. The boys and girls had segregated gymnasiums.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president (1952-1960) and he appointed Earl Warren to chief justice of the Supreme Court. One of Justice Warren's first decisions was to declare in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional.

The integration of Anacostia High School was to take place immediately. Five to seven black students enrolled. The news is not well received by students or faculty. Almost all of the students went on strike.

Anacostia High School is a very impressive large red brick, ivy covered building with massive white columns at the front entrance and sits back from the street. The front door seemed very far away, but I knew that I had to cross the picket line. I saw the students facing me, heard them hurl insults and scream, "Damn Yankee go home" as I walked past. I looked straight ahead. I did not want to know who was saying these things.

I recognized the snarling face of a boy from one of my classes because he yelled and took a step toward me. With resolve, I looked him in the eyes. He backed away. Later the same day, a group of us gathered behind C.P. Montgomery, the student council president, as he filmed a plea to all students to return to class, and it aired on the television evening news.

The strike was over in a couple of days. I smiled at one of the new girl students when our eyes met in the hall. The smile was not returned. Friendship was not to be tolerated by whites or blacks. The strange thing is that every other race in the world was represented in the student body, and many foreign students were accepted leaders in academics and various organizations.

I am glad to have been a small part of the desegregating of the schools in our nation's Capitol. My daughter, Julie Murray, is a pilot and says she was inspired to pursue her love of flying after hearing of my short-circuited dream. My husband is retired and we reside in Dunbar Township.

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