When Deborah Northcross graduated from Central High School in 1969, she was one of a handful of black students who had integrated the school in 1966. When she returned to the school recently to make a presentation, the situation was reversed.
"I could count the number of white students in the audience on both of my hands," she says. "It's like we're just doing a slow walk back to the way it was."
The way it was, of course, was segregated schools. They were the law of the land until May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled them unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. An important Memphis footnote to that case was Northcross v. Memphis Board of Education in 1960, which led to the desegregation of Memphis City Schools in 1961.
Northcross, namesake of that lawsuit which included several plaintiffs, was not one of the students who integrated the schools. Under the desegregation plan approved by the federal courts, that dubious honor fell to 13 first-graders. Northcross was 9 years old and remained at Catholic schools until she enrolled at Central.
The Brown decision and its aftermath are the subject of several books and documentaries this year on the 50th anniversary. Memphis is rarely mentioned as more than a footnote, however, because desegregation was peaceful in contrast to the mobs and violence that made headlines in Little Rock in 1957, New Orleans in 1960, and Ole Miss in 1962. But that's not to say that students like Northcross and Menelik Fombi, one of the Memphis 13, did not endure taunts, slurs, and isolation.
The first-graders who desegregated four Memphis elementary schools that October -- four weeks after classes had already started -- were a disarmingly innocent civil rights vanguard in bow ties, bobby socks, and patent-leather shoes. Some of their parents were locally well-known activists, and they were backed up by the legal prowess of Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Benjamin Hooks. But when the alarm clocks and school bells rang, it was the children who had to climb out of bed, put on their best clothes, walk through the crowds of police and spectators, and enter a classroom in which nearly every other face was white.
"It was a horrible year for me," says Fombi, who changed his name from Michael Willis in 1986. His father, A.W. Willis Jr., was a prominent lawyer and civil rights activist.
Fombi was one of three black students at Bruce Elementary, one of whom soon transferred back to his old school.
"I didn't really understand what was going on," says Fombi. "I remember thinking, Why are they doing this? and Why me? The fact that my father was a lawyer and seen as partly responsible for this made me a more visible target."
He remembers being called nigger, pushed down steps, and mocked with cries of "you can't wash the brown off" when he went to the restroom. His teacher was mean, and the few students who befriended him were likely to turn on him suddenly.
Brown v. Board of Education was only the opening act of school desegregation. In Brown II in 1955, the Supreme Court ordered lower federal courts to implement desegregation plans with "all deliberate speed." Years later, after he became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Marshall reportedly told his clerks that his joy turned to disappointment when he realized that "all deliberate speed means slow."
Slow certainly describes the pace of school desegregation in Memphis. Memphis NAACP secretary Maxine Smith has said she visited more than 200 homes looking for volunteers in 1961. The 13 students who agreed were spread among Bruce, Rozelle, Gordon, and Springdale schools. Another grade and a few more students were added each year. Even in 1966, when Northcross enrolled at Central, the situation was still tense enough that the school cancelled all social functions including the prom.
"I got an education second to none and was quite prepared for college at Mount Holyoke," says Northcross, director of the Memphis McNair Program for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Once reluctant to talk about her experience, she does it now "because there are so many students who have no idea what went on before them.
"Desegregation gave whites the impression we wanted to be with them and that was not the point," she says. "It was a matter of school choice and educational equity."