Black lives do matter, but why is it taking so long? – Part 2

As discussed in my previous post Black lives do matter, but why is it taking so long? – Part 1, I grew up in the lily white West Hills of Portland, Oregon during the 60s.  Portland’s black community was over on the east side of the Willamette River, geographically  and socially isolated from the white enclaves of Willamette and Kings Heights, and Council Crest.

I attended Chapman School in NW Portland. I myself rode a bus to school, but only because I lived out on Skyline, five miles away in unincorporated Portland. So riding a bus was nothing unusual. However, beginning around 1972, another bus started dropping off kids at my school. This bus carried black kids being “voluntarily ” bused in from Albina as a part of Portland Public School’s “Schools for the Seventies” plan under the direction of Superintendent Robert Blanchard. As a fourth grader, I had no awareness as to why this was happening. But as I started school that September, I remember seeing the faces of two rather apprehensive African American students in my class, a boy and a girl, in the sea of white faces.

chapman school
Chapman School

I also remember that I was not particularly happy with my teacher assignment. By this age I knew from older friends and my brothers who the favorite teachers were and Miss Elmquist was not on the list. Not that she was strict. Not at all. On the contrary. She had a reputation for disorganization and boring lessons. I loved learning and thrived with teachers who were stricter and had a strong work ethic. So from day one I was pretty depressed.  Not only that, my best friends from my early years weren’t in my class, so I was in desperate need of a new friend. That new friend turned out to Monica, the new black girl assigned to our class.

Monica was sweet and kind, but it was apparent from the beginning that she was struggling in the classroom. One day I had gotten a hall pass to go to the bathroom and found Monica down there playing on tops of the toilet stalls. I already knew Monica from the playground. She was the best climber on the Monkey Bars and taught us how to play Double Dutch. Pretty soon Monica and I were sneaking out during free reading time and playing down in the bathroom. I was already reading way ahead of my grade level and it had no effect on me.

However, Monica’s time away from the classroom had a huge effect on her. Thinking back I still am amazed that Miss Elmquist never seemed to notice it. Or perhaps she didn’t care. I’ve spent time reading about the busing program and it was highly controversial and so poorly thought out. Reflecting about it now, I truly believe this was Portland’s lame attempt to jump on the desegregation bandwagon. How could sticking a handful of black kids in a school without any black teachers, counselors, or administers, be a good thing? Unlike Berkeley, California’s busing program which was a two-way program, PPS was strictly one-way – that is black kids went to majority white schools.

Monica only lasted one year at Chapman. It clearly was too difficult for her. As my dad would say, Monica was a “token” black. A chip to be played in card game that was all about numbers and not about the children themselves. In !972 the number of children being bused to white schools increased by nearly 900 students in one year, from just under 500, to 1400. It may have looked good on paper. But the real question is, did any of these students benefit? Did any of the white students benefit? Did they learn empathy and appreciation for a student of a different race? I seriously doubt many did.

In my opinion, this was a missed opportunity for Portland. Two-way busing might have encouraged more interaction and understanding between black and white students.  The busing program was shelved by the 80s and eventually PPS adopted more of a magnet school approach.

However, what does all this have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement? Well, a lot. Too much to discuss in one paragraph. I will try to give my perspective in my next post. It certainly won’t have all the answers, but I will give my opinion on why nearly 50 years later so little has really changed.

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