September 10, 2021
It’s Back to School We Go
First graders read during class, Harbor City, California, August 16, 2021 (left); HistoryMaker Phyllis Tucker Vinson Jackson’s first grade class, 116th Street School, Los Angeles, California, May 1955 (right)
It’s that time of year again—the time when fall beckons us back from the lazy days of summer. There are the new clothes and school supplies, the chance for new friends and experiences. During this pandemic, school has new meaning since many who took it for granted are eager to get back to pre-pandemic life. While the threat of the Delta variant is there, we thought we would go into our archives for memories of times past, which include facing other challenges such as stern teachers and school integration. 
Children in masks during the “Spanish influenza,” Starkle, Florida, 1918 (left); diphtheria quarantine sign, c. 1930s (right)
Others recall dealing with pandemics of yesterday when it was time to go back to school. Marie Louise Greenwood (1912 - 2019), one of the first African American school teachers in Denver, Colorado, suffered during the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans: “I wanted desperately to go to school… In the spring of 1918… I caught the flu… that worldwide flu epidemic, after the war [World War I]. My father [Joseph Anderson] came back home in the middle of it, he had it, I got it… I just about died. I don't know how long I was in bed unconscious most of the time.”[1] Major Walter Sanderson, Jr. (1921 - 2017) was kept from school when diphtheria afflicted the U.S., infecting around 200,000: “When I was about seven years old, I was diagnosed with diphtheria. And as a result, the house… was placed off limits to all visitors, and I had to withdraw from elementary school. She [his mother, Yale Scott Manning Sanderson] taught me for a whole semester at home, and when I was re-admitted to elementary school, I was so far ahead of everyone else in my age group, that I was advanced to the next grade.”[2]
Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union receiving a flu shot, 1957
Dolores R. Spikes (1936 - 2015), the first woman in the U.S. to head a university system as president of the Southern University System, remembered the H2N2 virus, commonly referred to as the “Asian flu,” which spread to the U.S. in June 1957 where it caused about 70,000 deaths: “When I was at the University of Illinois [University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]… there was an epidemic of the Asian flu. And if you didn't have a fever of 104 degrees or something, you didn't see a doctor. Best thing they do is go home and try to get your fever down 'cause we have no more hospital—place[s]--no more doctors. And I know I missed about three weeks of school, but most kids did.”[3]
Louis O'Neil Dore in second grade, c. 1950s (left); the old Fulton Elementary School in Springfield, Ohio, built as an all-black school in 1922, which has since been torn down (right).
Returning back to school without a looming pandemic often brought a more hopeful picture of a new start. Trial lawyer Louis O'Neil Dore (1945 - 2019), the first African American senior partner in a white law firm, was all excitement for his first day of school in Beaufort, South Carolina: “[I] remember getting dressed to go to school for the very first day when I was six years old… it was very exciting for me… we got on the bus about 8:00 every morning… I had four older siblings that were bringing books home from school… and telling stories about what happened… So I was, I was ready to become a part of that so to speak.”[4] However, those new starts were not always without their anxieties. Reverend Dr. Richard L. Tolliver, a leader in the Episcopal Church, recalled his youthful days in Springfield, Ohio: “My mother… walked me to school the first day [of first grade at Fulton Elementary School]. And it was about five blocks away from home… the second day, I told her I wanted to walk to school by myself. And she said she really didn't want to do that, but she didn't want to deny me the opportunity either. So she told me, ‘Yes,’ but she followed… And every time she thought I might look back, she would duck and hide… But she said I never looked back. And she knew from that day on that I would always be someone who looked forward in life.”[5]
Phyllis Tucker Vinson Jackson in fifth grade, March 1959 (left) and her school, Keene Elementary, Washington, D.C., c. 1948-1952, which has since been expanded (right)
Phyllis Tucker Vinson Jackson, a former NBC executive, remembered the sternness of her teacher: “The first day of school in fifth grade I rolled my eyes at Mrs. Caldwell, and I had to stay after school. My mother had to come and get me… and she turned out to be my favorite teacher… [But] they demanded respect.”[6] Northwestern University’s African American Studies librarian Kathleen E. Bethel had a similar experience: I remember that first day as being really traumatic because the teacher wanted us to write out numbers, and I couldn't spell eleven. I didn't know what she was talking about… I cried that first day… [The] teacher was stern. It's funny how you remember your sternest teacher… I guess you learn the most.”[7]
Andrew Heidelberg eating lunch at Norview High School, Norfolk, Virginia, c. 1959 (left); and Alvarez “Freddy” Gonsouland in class, Norview High School, Norfolk, Virginia, c. 1959 (right)
The Norfolk 17’s Andrew Heidelberg (1943 - 2015) recalled his anxiety-filled first day at Norview High School in Virginia 1959, when schools were forced to reopen: “Freddy [Alvarez Gonsouland] was… a year older than me… that morning… he came and got me… and we weren't really talking about it… he didn't seemed as though he was really worried… And I said to him… ‘Are you scared, man?’ He said, ‘No, scared of what?’ I said, ‘Man, you don't think nobody's gonna try to lynch you or something? What you gonna do if somebody hit you?’ He said, ‘I don't know. I have to deal with that when it happens.’ … it was about forty something degrees… he says, ‘Are you hot?’ (Laughter) I said, ‘No, man… It's cool out here.’ He said, ‘Well, you must be scared… You sure are sweating...’ (laughter) I had never in my life seen that many white people… the sheer volume of the crowd was scary… it seemed like it took forever for that bell to ring.”[8][9]
Derek Ferguson’s graduation photo from J.H.S. 125 Henry Hudson, Bronx, New York, c. 1978 (left); Stuyvesant High School, New York City (right)
Badboy executive Derek Ferguson recounted a nerve-wracking first day at New York’s Stuyvesant High School: “The guys that I went to junior high school [J.H.S. 125 Henry Hudson, Bronx, New York] with… they're just like peppering me with like, ‘Oh, like that school is all white. They're gonna hate you… They're gonna beat you up…’ my brother [Gregory Ferguson] took me and we rehearsed how to get to the school… prior to the first day. So we took the train. Everything went smooth… For whatever reason my first day of school I walked… in the wrong direction… so I'm late and I'm coming in and… They all look intimidating and in most cases they're all white… everything's going wrong and I show up to… my homeroom class, and there's… Fred Bernard [ph.], African American kid from the Bronx [New York], and it's like… God just put him there for me to calm me down and to comfort me… and we just hit it off. He became like my best friend.”[10]
Woodmere Academy, Long Island, New York, September 1943
Music executive Vivian Scott Chew had a similar story with her first day at Woodmere Academy in New York in 1969: “I had pigtails… I was shined up with the Vaseline, the whole bit and Mrs. Weigel said, ‘who is Vivian Murphy's buddy?’ … they had talked about… a new girl… They neglected to tell anybody that I was black… it was like the air sucked out… nobody said anything… you heard some giggling and Mrs. Weigel asked again… ‘Who volunteered to be her buddy?’ Silence… By this time, I'm totally humiliated and this little voice from the back of the gym says, ‘I'll be your buddy’ and it [was]Marni Geist… Marni's father owned Rockaways' Playland. So I won 'cause my best friend's father owned an amusement park… to this day… Marni's my first call on my birthday, every year from when I was twelve… and I'm the same for her. She saved me.”[11]
Memphis’ Central High School Warrior yearbook, 1966 
Former “Eyes on the Prize” producer and radio host Callie Crossley recalled her first day of school as one of the first African American students at Central High School in Memphis, Tennessee in 1966: “I came to realize how actually frightened they [her parents] were, and they didn't really express it to me… But… my first day at school, Daddy [Samuel Crossley] drove me… I'm just thinking this is probably going to be a little hard but I wasn't thinking bigger than that. And as we pulled up in the driveway of the school… my father… grabbed me on the arm and he said, ‘Wait a minute… If anybody puts a hand on you, I want you to shove them into the lockers as hard as you can and run like hell.’ And I was startled… my parents had never, ever implicated violence at any point… So I said ‘okay,’ and I went in and kind of tense thinking somebody was going to hit me or push me.”[12]
Dr. Edith Irby Jones, undated (left); and an article on Dr. Jones’ enrollment in the medical school, Ebony magazine, 1950 (right)
Dr. Edith Irby Jones (1927 – 2019) remembered her first day at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine in 1950 where she was the first African American student: “The first day I was carried over from Hot Springs [Arkansas] to Little Rock [Arkansas]… by one of the cafe nightclub owners in a white convertible Cadillac. That was the way Hot Springs was sending me over… My city had taken up the five hundred dollars that I needed for enrolling. The mayor had started it off by giving a dollar. My church [Union Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas] had taken up collection. All of the churches, black particular, around town, had taken the collection. Some of the white churches had taken collection… to enable me to go. So I had five hundred dollars in nickels, quarters, dimes… in a flour bag.”[13]
HistoryMaker Veronica Jones (left) with her friend Shirley (right) after their first day of school, Camden, New Jersey, ca. 1953-1954
However the challenge presents itself, as we reflect on back to school times of the past, may we remain resilient and have a successful year of learning!
9/11 Twentieth Anniversary
Memorial lights in honor of the two World Trade Center towers destroyed on September 11, 2001,
New York City
Tomorrow marks twenty years since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, claiming the lives of nearly 3,000 people. During their life oral history interviews, numerous HistoryMakers shared their experiences of this day. Click the HERE to read more.
[1] Marie Louise Greenwood (The HistoryMakers A2006.078), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, April 19, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Marie Louise Greenwood recalls falling ill during the 1918 influenza pandemic
[2] Maj. Walter Sanderson, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2012.068), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 9, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Walter Sanderson Jr. talks about his mother and her college education.
[3] Dolores R. Spikes (The HistoryMakers A2008.065), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 27, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Dolores R. Spikes recalls her living situation at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
[4] Louis O'Neil Dore (The HistoryMakers A2007.038), interviewed by Denise Gines, January 31, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Louis O'Neil Dore describes his earliest memories of school.
[5] Father Richard L. Tolliver (The HistoryMakers A2003.030), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 19, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Richard Tolliver recalls his years in grade school and junior high school.
[6] Phyllis Tucker Vinson Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2013.296), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 17, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 15, Phyllis Tucker Vinson Jackson remembers her first day of fifth grade at 116th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, California.
[7] Kathleen E. Bethel (The HistoryMakers A2008.087), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 15, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 10, Kathleen E. Bethel remembers her elementary schools.
[8] Andrew Heidelberg (The HistoryMakers A2010.015), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 10, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Andrew Heidelberg remembers walking to Norview High School on his first day.
[9] Andrew Heidelberg (The HistoryMakers A2010.015), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 10, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 3, Andrew Heidelberg recalls arriving at Norview High School on his first day.
[10] Derek Ferguson (The HistoryMakers A2014.139), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 15, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Derek Ferguson remembers his first day at Stuyvesant High School in New York City.
[11] Vivian Scott Chew (The HistoryMakers A2012.117), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 18, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Vivian Scott Chew remembers her first day at Woodmere Academy in Woodmere, New York.
[12] Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 23, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Callie Crossley describes her experience being one of the first black students at Central High School in Memphis.
[13] Dr. Edith Irby Jones (The HistoryMakers A2008.041), interviewed by Denise Gines, March 10, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 10, Dr. Edith Irby Jones recalls her first day at University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock, Arkansas.