Desegregation, Integration, & Disintegration.


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As with his account of desegregation, Wolters provides vignettes from several particular places to illustrate what actually happened in the name of integration. One of the most striking concerns “Hamilton High” in an upper-middle-class section of Syracuse, New York. Opening in 1953, this elite public school taught 1100 mostly white students (including a significant minority of Jews). Its story is told in the book The World We Created at Hamilton High (1988).

“Hallways glistened, and lateness to class was a rarity… Competition for grades was keen… The students were neatly groomed and clean cut… The school supported middle-class standards of courtesy and respect, provided good college prep courses, and fielded winning teams.” Male teachers wore jackets and ties; female teachers wore skirts.

By 1966, 8 percent of the student body consisted of “talented tenth” Negroes from prosperous black families in the area. In yearbook pictures, the boys look like young Sidney Poitier wannabes, while the girls “wore their hair like Jacqueline Kennedy.” These black children were described as “quiet, industrious, well-behaved, and eager to succeed.”

Along came the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and decided that Hamilton’s 8 percent enrollment of well-mannered blacks was insufficient in a city more than 15 percent black. They pressured the New York State Legislature into adopting quotas. The authorities in Syracuse closed disproportionably black schools and bused the children to the predominantly white schools. The total number of students at Hamilton remained constant at 1100, but the black enrollment rose from 90 in 1966 to 210 in 1970 to almost 500 by the mid-1970s.

The new black children had “rough manners, were impudent, and were involved in frequent fights.” “Sullen,” “hostile,” “resentful,” and “defiant” were among the adjectives used to describe them.

In October 1968, chairs were thrown and tables upended in the school cafeteria, and the school principal was clubbed over the head and sent to the hospital with a fractured skull.

The following spring, after a memorial service for Martin Luther King, “black students rampaged through the school, breaking equipment in a physics laboratory and tearing into the library where they overturned tables, swept books off the shelf, smashed windows and tore up floor tiles.”

During the first five years of integration, Hamilton High lost 35 percent of its white students and 72 percent of the teachers resigned, retired, or transferred. Real estate values in the area declined by half. The seemingly assimilated middle class blacks already at the school before forced integration were ostracized as “Oreos” if they did not join the militants. Some aspired to become leaders of the black mob, and in order to maintain their position would have to cut off old white friends, even to the point of attacking them physically.

In an attempt to restore order, all-school assemblies and dances were cancelled. Police were permanently stationed in the school. Yet disorder persisted for several years: “riots in that time were a way of life.” Students started to bring weapons in; knife and razor fights were not uncommon. A few pimps were known to be operating in the school. One principal quit, and his successor got himself a bodyguard. In 1971 and 1972 the school yearbooks “featured a grim portrayal of the violence in the school with photographs of barred windows and barbed wire, with police in helmets and riot gear lined up in front of the school.”

Apparently, one factor which brought about an eventual stabilization was the closing of a nearby vocational school and the consequent enrollment of a sizable number of working-class whites. Whereas middle-class whites retreated from physical threats, these ethnic whites were likely to respond and to initiate counterthreats. Once, when blacks were planning to riot in the school cafeteria, these whites got wind of it and came prepared. A leader of the white students went swinging into the blacks with a chair leg. As he later explained: “by the time they got that thing stopped… we had 14 or 15 of those coons spread out all over that floor. They were really out.”

Astonishingly, the author of The World We Created at Hamilton High continued to believe, in spite of all the horrors he related, that integration had been necessary and worthwhile. His book will stand as a monument not merely to integration’s failure but to the liberal mind’s imperviousness to reality.

(The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 1, Spring 2010).

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