I was a high school senior when I transferred to Christian Fenger High School in the fall of 1956. All the faculty and teachers were white and 95 percent of the students were white. Although I lived in a segregated community, I was able to go to an integrated high school because it was in my school district. Something terrible happened that last semester I attended high school.
One day, as I was leaving school, I saw a black male student and a white male student fighting. They were in front of the building near the grass clinging to each other like boxers in a ring. They looked young, I assumed they were freshmen. I noticed the white student’s nose looked bloody when I ran past them.
I was hurrying to catch the 1:15 CTA bus. Fenger High School was located in a white community, Roseland. Waiting for the bus 10 or 15 minutes in the Roseland Community made me nervous. I always felt I was in a place I should not be. I was edgy in the classrooms and hallways too. The hostile atmosphere made me spend no more time than I had to in the school and community. Just as the bus pulled to a stop, I looked back at the boys fighting. They were lying on the grass, the black student on top of the white student. I stepped up into the bus.
The next morning, while I prepared to leave for school, I gave no thought to the fight of yesterday afternoon. My dad drove my baby sister and me to school in his pickup truck. We got out of the pickup truck near the main entrance to the high school.
I didn’t notice anything different until we reached the area of the main entrance. There were 30 or 35 black students standing around and talking. Two female students were sobbing and hugging each other. One male student said, “They never wanted us in this school.”
“I’m afraid. I’m not going in,” a female student said. Some of the students started to walk toward 111th Street to the bus stop. I saw my girlfriend, Irma, at the front of the group and I asked her what was going on. “Look up,” she said. I followed the direction of her finger to the concrete arch above the entrance. “DOWN WITH THE NIGGERS,” was painted in red letters on the grey arch. Not knowing I had seen the fight, Irma told me she heard that a white boy lost a fight with a black boy yesterday. The white boy felt humiliated. He and his friends came back to the high school last night and painted the words on the building.
I felt afraid for my baby sister and myself. I didn’t know whether to go back home or go into the school. Some of the students understood the painted words as a threat to their lives. I had to do something or else I would be late for my first period class. The rest of the students standing at the entrance walked up the steps and disappeared behind the heavy doors. I grabbed my sister’s hand and we went inside the school.
Inside, the school was like zombie-land. Teachers and students were slow-moving creatures in the hallways. Hallway locker doors didn’t slam. No one spoke. There was almost complete silence, except the teachers spoke in low voices in all my classes. I felt that any kind of noise would cause an outbreak of violence.
When I left school workmen were preparing to remove or cover up the hurtful words. They were lining up tall ladders against the wall of the main entrance. I started to run as my feet left the last step. I didn’t want to miss the 1:15 bus.