In 1960 President Eisenhower assigned Federal guards to safely walk Ruby Bridges into her all white neighborhood school in New Orleans. Linda Brown’s case had been decided six years earlier by the Supreme Court, and the South still roiled with protests over black and brown children attending school with white children. These stories are well documented and well known.
But there were problems in the North, too. There were urban protests and school boycotts. A few school segregation cases had been won by the NAACP, but the schools would inevitably become all black schools again as white families pulled out of the school systems and moved to white covenant neighborhoods.
The most famous Northern case, the first of its kind, took place in New Rochelle, an affluent and progressive suburb of New York City. Most schools in the city were (seemingly) integrated but not Lincoln Elementary. Lincoln was 94% African American and had been since 1930. The school had been badly neglected. The classes were over-crowded and the materials were old and second-hand. Hoping to alleviate the situation the school board, made of esteemed community leaders, had voted in 195-- to rebuild the school. But it never happened.
After a decade of frustration the parents pulled their kids out of Lincoln and began boycotts and protests. They refused to wait any more for a new school to be built; they understood their children were being given an inferior education in a city that prided itself in its diverse school population and its enclave of black middle class intellectuals. So after many home meeting in the Fall of 1960 the parents hired Paul B. Zuber, a bright and energized lawyer from the NAACP. Zuber leapt into action, advising the parents to try an enroll their kids in the predominantlywhite Roosevelt Elementaryin the north end of town. When they were denied admission the parents set up chairs outside the school and sat there with their kids.
The press took notice.
So did the Freedom Volunteers, who provided tutors for the kids. And the NAACP who supported the group’s actions.
In our film we talk to many of the parents and students who participated in the protests. Dorothy Oliver remembers the very first parent meetings as loud and angry, but she kept attending, and was part of the protest in front Roosevelt. How could she possibly know the chain of events that would follow? Dorothy shares her opinions with us.
As do others, like Roslyn Williams, whose parents had the whole group over to be trained by Paul B. Zuber in peaceful protest techniques and how to attract the press. Roslyn remembers dressing up to be in the protests and her parents going to jail.
Eventually the parents brought suit in the landmark court case Mrs. Taylor vs. The Board of Education, New Rochelle. Fourteen children were listed as plaintiffs (including Rosyln Williams and her sister Marjorie).
The parents argued that, as opposed to schools in the South that suffered under de jure segregation, or segregation by law, in the North their school district’s segregation was de facto, created by neighborhood school districting, redlining, and covert real estate and banking practices. The court agreed. The school board appealed to the Supreme Court but were turned down. The parents won their case!
The suit made national headlines and was featured on CBS’s _____ hosted by Dan Rather. It took three years and the resignation of the school Superintendent and five school board members before state sanctioned bussing and desegregation would begin, but they won. And in 1963 the city leaders decided to level the now abandoned Lincoln Elementary school to end this painful chapter in New Rochelle’s history.
Then the story disappeared...
NEW ROCHELLE TODAY
New Rochelle's public school is mixed today - a mix of races and classes. Their private schools do not siphon away students in large numbers the way they do in Los Angeles and other cities. They still bus from the low income Lincoln Neighborhood for elementary school. And yet, like many public school districts, they are still struggling for equity in education. Civil Rights and Humanities lessons are there to be learned from the court case of 1961. A case that firmly set in motion a decades long quest for equity in education.
LET THE PAST INFORM THE FUTURE
It was Mothers who started the Black Lives Matter Movement because our civic institutions were destroying their children. The young protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement have torn back the layers of denial of the inequities in race in American society once again. They seek justice and equity in our court systems, our policing, and in education. What is fair?
New Rochelle had to face that question in the 1960s. They literally leveled a school in order to level the playing field of education.
"In 2016, my mother was aging and telling more stories from my upbringing in New Rochelle. She handed me a Girl Scout Brownie book of pictures of a fully integrated troop and explained we were the "left overs" because she took all the girls from all colors and faiths who did not get into the other, all white troop at Roosevelt School. Many of those girls were bussed up from the projects in the old Lincoln corridor - but I never knew it was due to a precedent setting court case. I thought all schools were 'naturally' integrated in our area. I had to conquer my own ignorance and my own lack of understanding of Civil Rights history.
After discovering there was no film about this story, making this film about the case of Mrs. Taylor v. the Board became imperative. I started finding my old troop members on Facebook and the stories grew from there. Like a scavenger hunt with an unknown ending, I began with a Girl Scout story and wound up with a film about the first successful integration case in the North.
I am viewing the story of Leveling Lincoln through the lens of a child. It is the truest lens I have to look through, because it is my own childhood as well. The blurred memories of adults looking back became crystal clear once we really sat down to chat with the participants of the Taylor case. It is stunning how much they were shielded from as children. The children of the opposing side also had strong memories; the loss of their school still stirs their hearts. The transition to whiter, more affluent schools was traumatic for our subjects. Our first wave, our 'Ruby Bridges', paved the way for my class only 3 years later. However, we were not aware of them. By 1964 the school and the public story vanished, but the children lived on through their shared childhood.
For the most part, we conducted long, comfortable interviews in the homes of New Rochelle, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Ojai. The subjects had their photos and history surrounding them as they spoke. We had a gathering in Lincoln Park on the site of the felled school, where key players in the reluctant opposition unburdened themselves while we rolled the camera as unobtrusively as we could.
Dorothy Oliver, now 87, grabbed Andrew Jordan, our editor and 2nd camera, and dragged him by the elbow across the basketball court to point and wave in the air to vanished rooms and hallways that remain vivid in her memory. Thank goodness his hand held camera was rolling.
We will follow the facts of the case with newsreels and photos, but images interject into the interviews like a photo one discovers in an album at a party, or a radio announcement that everyone stops the conversation to say 'Look, look here do you remember this? I had completely forgotten!'
Roslyn Williams is one of the few of the original 12 children of the case willing to interview with us. It is too painful for most. I saw her in her driveway and approached her with my iPhone XR in hand and introduced myself. She had heard about me, and the film Leveling Lincoln. She had been wondering when I was going to find her. She had refused other documentarians, but she and her daughter agreed I was the one to talk to. She came over later to our park gathering, sat in a park chair, and started looking at our photos. Later, she took us over to her home – the home where the plan was hatched in 1959! She was so proud to tell us that her mother made 'everyone spaghetti'. This childhood pride and joy and love for her parents and what they did for her led us to our theme. For me, the director, the truth of her telling about herself as a five year old foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement, is the crux of the film."
~ A. T. Lewis
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