history and race as seen by young and old

An article in yesterday’s Washington Post begins, “Ask older residents of historic North Brentwood their recollections of the town, and they go into a reverie about kids playing house-to-house and about how the town was self-contained with businesses and shops. Mostly, it was black, and the generations who had lived there gave the place its essence. But ‘change comes,’ said Eleanor Traynham, 71, who was born and raised in the town, in Prince George’s County, and returned in 1992. And ‘you have to be able to adapt to change.'”

North Brentwood is part of the urban core of Washington, DC but located across the state line in Maryland. It was founded by and for African Americans in the days of legal segregation. It is now a major arrival point for Latino immigrants.

It so happens that a high school class and I interviewed the same Ms. Traynham in 2003. Some colleagues and I had organized a program in which the students used oral history to reconstruct the history of their own school, Northwestern in Hyattsville, which had gone from de jure white, to integrated, to de facto African American and Latino over five decades. The class created an interactive website to present their findings and provoke discussion. You will see that both the students and their African American informants were ambivalent about state-sponsored integration.

I have pasted our class notes from Ms. Traynham’s interview below the fold, because they represent a fascinating record of local history–and an example of the good questions that contemporary kids come up with.

Eleanor Thomas Traynham

(Community activist and retired Postal Service Employe . Graduated the all-Black Fairmont Heights HS in 1953. Sister of Bill Thomas [whom we also interviewed]. Interviewed on January 8, 2003 at Northwestern High School.)

I was born in North Brentwood in Prince George’s County and raised long before integration. I grew up when there were only two high schools in the County for African American students. To go to junior high school I had to catch a bus and ride a long way to Lakeland Junior High School, past many schools that were for white children only. Fairmont Heights–a new high school for black students–opened in September of 1950 and I graduated from there in 1953. I attended Bowie State–it was then Bowie Teachers’ College–for 2 years, but decided I didn’t want to be a teacher. The little kids were often spoiled and the older kids thought they knew everything, and I decided maybe I didn’t have enough patience to manage other people’s children.

I brought this book African American Heritage Survey (1996, about Prince George’s County) because I thought you may want to see which has pictures of the schools I attended. In 1949, the school was a wood building, later it was remade in brick.

When I was in school, there was no talk of integration at all. … I had to ride the bus from North Brentwood to College Park to a little school called Lakeland. When Fairmont Heights opened, it was a long ride but it was a beautiful high school. We had to ride all the way there, but we didn’t mind it.

My younger brother and sister came up just as integration arrived. I have a brother who was the first African American here at Northwestern. My sister also was among the first to integrate Mount Rainier Junior School. By the time they went to integrated schools, I had already graduated. My brother was very independent, and after he graduated high school he went to University of Maryland and was one of very few African Americans, and received a degree in Chemical Engineering in four years. It was not an easy task. There were a lot of mean spirited people, although I don’t believe people are born with this kind of hatred in their hearts. They learn it.

The children in the community taunted my brother and sister, saying they were trying to be better than everybody else by going to these white schools. But my siblings stood up to whatever anybody might say, because my mother had instilled in them that education was the most important thing. Eventually after two years my sister caved in and transferred to go to high school with the rest of the kids at North Brentwood, and did just fine.

When I was in school, I was not aware of the fact that the students in the Black schools got the second-class books and materials. I had my older brother’s books and I just figured you received hand-me-down books. I was not aware we got old white school books until years later. But, I think it’s not good to dwell on these things. They happened. Lots of young people did well even with older materials. I think it’s how you apply yourself.

What do you think about segregation in retrospect?

When I was in school, we had real dedicated teachers who took a great interest in young people. I remember a teacher who always talked to us about Hampton University which she loved, and told us great stories about life at Hampton University so we would be inspired. In college, I went to school with lots of people who were not dedicated teachers, and lots of people I wouldn’t want teaching my kids. Between the time I left Bowie and the time my baby sister went – there was an 18 year difference between us – it was different. And now some teachers are more dedicated than others. School is a lot different now. But, I still maintain that you have to put something into it to get something out of it—whatever you do. I got good grades, although it was a bit difficult in college because my mother wasn’t there to keep me going. After I decided that teaching wasn’t for me, I got a job in the Postal Service.

I worked for the US Postal Service for 30 years and 10 months, in the customer-service branch. One thing I learned there is that no matter how they humiliate you, the customer is always right.

How do you feel personally? Do you feel like white Americans stole a piece of your life, a piece of your history?

I don’t personally feel that way. … I have watched movies about how people were treated in the South, and it hurts me, but you can’t live with hatred in your heart. … Hatred is a thing that sort of makes you old and tired, I think. Not all people are bad, and there were a lot of whites who worked with us and for us– going all the way back to the Underground Railroad. And there are some Blacks who will try to hold you back. So you will end up hating all colors and races. We were dealt a low blow, but lots of us have been successful. There are so many African Americans we can be proud of — too many we only hear about during Black History Month.

What do you think happened to the African heritage that’s been lost, and have you done anything to bring it back?

I am one of the people on the African American Heritage Museum project. We did an oral history project. My family has traced our ancestry back to certain slaves in Anne Arundel County who had come from Africa. A lot of us don’t know anything about our African heritage. But, there are a lot of people who are ashamed because of what they saw in movies and on TV [about Africa], but that is because they don’t read, haven’t gone to museums and don’t study other cultures. My mother always stressed the importance of reading. She only went to school through the 8th grade, but was one of the smartest people I know. She was one of ten kids, and needed to help. She worked in a white family’s house and learned all she knew by reading books in their house. I also work with the Community Center in North Brentwood to try to bring culture from many countries to the Center. We’ve brought African singers and dancers, and also performers from Mexico and Taiwan. I am working with the Gateway Community Development Corporation, which has instigated an Arts District in the four cities along Route 1, and they have brought a lot of artists. I also work on a share food program and with the Historical Society. I used to be very involved with the church also, but not as much anymore.

Did you ever get harsh comments or racial comments growing up?

Yes. Not in school, but our community was next to a white community, and there was a Sanitary Supermarket – later became a Safeway – on 34th in Mt. Rainier. We’d have to walk through the white community to get to it. One night at dusk my friends and I met up with a group of men who warned me: “Nigger don’t let me catch you here after dark.” And we never went there after dark. Some would let their dogs out to chase us. The boys in our community would be chased out of the white community at any time of day. But the same thing happens today, and it’s not always a “racial thing”—sometimes it’s a “clannish” thing. We also had it. If the black boys from DC came up to date girls in North Brentwood, our boys would chase them out.

What was your reaction to the name calling?

I think I was scared to death and I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. But, I was mainly a very happy child growing up and I didn’t hold grudges or anything.

How did you feel about Brown v the Board of Education?

From what I remember, it was a very frightening thing, to see kids have to go to school with the National Guard. You’d see the violence, and I’d say these kids should just go back to where they came, and not risk it. But, I was already out of school at that time. I remember my younger sister being terrified, but I will let her tell her own story when she comes to see you.

Was it hard to get a job?

It was difficult getting a job. I was a big girl and so I was up against two hard things – my color and my size. I couldn’t waitress or work behind a counter because they would say there wasn’t enough room. When Prince George’s Plaza first opened I got a job at Hot Shops as a vegetable cook. Then I passed the Post Office exam, and I went and worked there.

Was your mom making decisions on her own or were other parents in favor of integration too?

Not a lot of people that I knew of in our community felt that integration would equal a better education. My mother sometimes thought that our schools were second class. I don’t know if there were other people in our community who also felt that way. In the long run, in all instances, desegregation was not a better thing.

Would you have desegregated the schools, if you had been in charge of the school system?

I probably would have kept them segregated, and I would have demanded that the Black schools be given equal funding. I think that the teachers I had in the segregated schools were much more dedicated than some of the teachers I have seen since, and most of the Black teachers that I know would have preferred to stay in the Black schools.

Do you think segregation still exists in some form, like financially or in terms of Fairfax County vs. Prince George’s County?

There is still financial segregation, and I can see it in changes in the opportunities offered to Prince George’s County students. When I was young, we used to take field trips to the Smithsonian and now there’s no money and no buses for such things. The buses are being used to drive students all day long back and forth from home to school.

What do you think can be done to improve schools?

Parents used to work a lot more with their kids. If the parents don’t work with their children at home, it just doesn’t work. You need the support of parents. Also, if a teacher knows the parent is supporting them, they teach better. But, right now there are no parents in the PTA. There needs to be more money for the schools and smaller class sizes, but in order to get smaller classes you need the money. I’ve kept hoping that Prince George’s County would get more money to dedicate to education, but it’s just not happening, and won’t especially now with the State’s money crisis.