Can New Friendships — True Friendships — Grow 50 Years Later?

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Nelson Mandela

I have a lot of friends. Some are closer than others. I think I understand what it takes to build and maintain a true friendship: shared experiences over time, mutual respect, similar values.

Earlier this fall, I attended a milestone high school reunion. My fiftieth. John Marshall High School, Richmond, Virginia, Class of 1969. I suspect that for many, a 50th reunion is a long-awaited event to renew acquaintances and recapture friendships. It seemed to me that a lower percentage of black than white graduates attended. I wonder if fond memories of high school were not shared equally by both groups.

The ‘60s were a time of great racial change in Richmond and across the country. My high school started the decade as a primarily white institution and finished as a mostly black one. White flight was real. The class of 1969 was probably the last one at John Marshall with a white majority. Our class felt the impact of the changing demographics. The black and the white students were classmates, associates in school clubs, or teammates playing a sport, but we were not friends. At least not friends as I consider them. We didn’t go to social events together or hang out at each other’s homes. Our interactions were casual conversations in the halls of the school or at school sporting events.

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The Daughters of the Dream L to R — Debbie Riddick, Debby Smith, Marsha Ware, Veronica Abrams, Tamara Copeland, Renee Mills (missing: Jean Petties); photo courtesy of Tony Abrams

For my friendship group, the 50th reunion felt more like an inevitable event, not a much-anticipated occasion. We had attended the 40th where everyone, including me, mostly stayed in our old high school cliques, with only nominal mingling. As an inveterate traveler, it is noteworthy I even passed up a trip to Greece with another group of friends so I could attend this 50th reunion. I guess it may have been more important to me than I wanted to admit.

I entered the first event of the reunion weekend with a bit of trepidation. “Cautiously curious” would best describe my emotions at the Friday evening, Meet-and-Greet. There was a much different feeling from the 40th. It was welcoming, inclusive, people seemed genuinely happy to see each other. Racially mixed groups—genuine laughter and what-seemed-to-be real conversations—was what I saw and experienced. That feeling of camaraderie continued at the weekend’s culminating event, the dinner dance on Saturday night.

What had happened between 2009, our 40th reunion, and 2019?

A significant conversation about race had started in the United States. Did that play a role? Did we understand the dynamics of race in a way that we never had before, and did that understanding make basic conversation easier?

Over the decade between the 40th and 50th reunion, cell phone videos had captured startling displays of injustice that could not be ignored. Newspaper articles, magazines, television documentaries were layering messages about racial inequity throughout the popular media. And great attention to the topic surrounded the presidency of our country’s first African American president. Awareness of race and the disparity between races had probably become more prevalent in America during this decade than since the civil rights movement, the time when our connections as classmates were forming. Maybe these discussions and events were a factor in making the encounters across race more genuine. I wonder if the heightened understanding made it easier to walk up to people of a different race and start conversations. We did, after all, have a shared framework—the halls of John Marshall—if not a wholly shared experience. Maybe it was that recognition of only recently revealed, parallel universes that opened some conversations.

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Top: Class of 1969; Bottom L: Carolyn Mosby; Bottom R: classmates: Steve Montgomery, Debbie Lunsford Webb, Harrison Marks and Tamara Copeland; Photos courtesy of Sylvia and Bill Craighead and Steve Montgomery

When speaking at the dinner, Carolyn Mosby, one of the few African American faculty at John Marshall when we were there, said to the group, “tonight we will throw back any regrets, any dislikes, any old grudges.” In those words, she acknowledged that many of the black students had felt prejudice, discrimination, aloofness, racism during our time at John Marshall High School, and acknowledged that some white students, consciously or unconsciously, through words or actions, may have hurt their black fellow students. That was real, but she wanted us to move on. Ever the teacher, she was helping us bridge any racial chasms that had existed and to recognize the passage of time.

Regardless of race, we had all been young with the callousness and insensitivity of teenagers. AND, we were the front guard. The mid-to-late ‘60s were still the early days of integration. When we were in high school, there was not even the semblance of a road map for understanding racial differences and promoting honest dialog across races. There were no experienced guides. We plotted that territory. Mrs. Mosby reminded us to cut each other some slack. We are all different people now than we had been fifty years earlier.

That is an important reminder. We must give each other room to grow, to change beliefs, and to adapt to new understandings of historical “facts” and current reality. Who we were does not reflect who we have become.

I don’t have white friends from high school, at least not yet. In the last few years, I have crossed paths with a growing number and enjoyed those connections. We are friendly, but not yet friends. But who knows, by the next reunion, some budding relationships may evolve into true friendships.

 

Awakening Racial Pride, Racial Understanding

For each of us there is an awakening. Something that has been tolerated is simply no longer acceptable. Sometimes it is a moment when a reality is suddenly crystal clear. Sometimes it is more of a process, over time. For me, and for many of my high school classmates, it was a process of racial understanding and emerging racial pride that began one fall day.

“I wish I was in the land of cotton,

Old times there are not forgotten,

Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.”

Played by the school band, that’s what we heard freshman year when we walked into the gym for our first pep rally. Students were singing loudly and enthusiastically as they stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers. The energy in the room was palpable.

Dixie “Dixie” was the fight song for my high school, John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, that “Dixie.” The song born in the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s, the song that was the standard for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the song that had come to represent the collective of the Southern states, and the Southern sensibility, in the United States. That “Dixie”.

This was the mid-1960s. Brown v. Board of Education had called for the integration of all public schools about a decade or so earlier, but schools in Virginia were slow to recognize the mandate. In fact, they actively worked against it. When I arrived, John Marshall was still a predominately white school with a small number of black students. Many in the all-white, school administration and many of the white students’ parents had fought against integration. Black people were actively trying to prove that they could fit in. Like most at the time, the black students at John Marshall were Negroes, integrationists, assimilationists. No one wanted to do anything to cause trouble. Black people were trying to gain acceptance in a white world. And on that fall day, the students—white and black—were just kids cheering their football team as the players came into the gym.

We were all children of the cultural South. We all knew the words. By rote, almost everyone sang with little regard for the meaning or essence of the song,

“In Dixie Land, I’ll take my stand,

To live and die in Dixie.”

 A traditional fight song for the South, a song of pride, it had probably been the rallying song for John Marshall High from the beginning when the school opened in 1909, just a little over 50 years after the Civil War. No consideration had been given then to any culture other than white and little was offered a little over fifty years later for black students. It is unlikely that anyone—not for a moment—thought this, a school-rallying cry, might be offensive. Did it really matter?

Something about singing the song probably felt wrong from the start, but we went along to get along. Then, one day the words suddenly came into focus. Our consciousness had been raised. The school rallying song did matter. It was symbolic of so much. How could “We Shall Overcome” be the song of the times—more importantly, the anthem of our people—while we continued to sing “Dixie?”

Students asked the administration to stop playing “Dixie.” They were disregarded. Then one day, in our junior year, the black band members—in one catalytic moment—decided to take action. They didn’t refuse to play the song, it could have been played without them. Their action was far more effective, demonstrating the effect that the song was having on us— it was hurtful. When the band director called for “Dixie,” the black band members played other songs, not just one song, many. Cacophony resulted, then silence. That moment of dissonance accomplished what polite requests had failed to do. In that silence was there any racial understanding or compassion? I don’t know, but “Dixie” was no longer the fight song for John Marshall High School.

To learn more about “Dixie,” listen to this episode of the podcast, “Uncivil.” I guarantee you’ll learn something new.

 

When did black become beautiful? For me, 1968

The definition of beauty is elusive, subjective, and changes throughout one’s life. In fact, the concept of beauty, of witnessing it or of thinking someone is beautiful, is really an adult term used with adult sensibilities.

‘Cute’ was how we wanted to be described back in high school and my friend Jeanne Johnson was cute. Everyone thought so. She was bouncy and vibrant, always with a big smile and just the right, witty comment to perk up any conversation. A member of our then club, the Valianettes, she is now one of my Forever Friends. And in 1968 she was crowned homecoming queen at John Marshall High School, the first black homecoming queen at a white school in the city of Richmond.

We couldn’t contain ourselves as we cheered and jumped up and down in the bleachers. A black homecoming queen was something we had wanted since our sophomore year. In our junior year, with some degree of political astuteness, we had orchestrated a bloc voting campaign to make it happen. We focused on the one black candidate hoping the white kids would spread their votes over their five nominees, but they championed just one candidate, too.

In 1968 things were different. There was Jeanne at the biggest football game of the year being announced as THE homecoming queen. And it wasn’t just the black kids cheering for Jeanne. No bloc voting this time. No strategy. She had simply won. The white kids cheered, too.

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Jeanne Johnson wearing Miss Justice homecoming banner

Jeanne was popular school-wide, but it wasn’t just popularity being acknowledged that fall night. It was also a beauty contest. This was still the era in which girls and women were judged most heavily on how they looked. Back then beauty was defined by white criteria: fair skin, long, straight hair, curves but not too plump, were the standards of the day. There had been no black Miss America yet. No black girls were on the cover of Seventeen Magazine nor did we see many who looked like us on television.

That year Jeanne was recognized as THE girl, the all-round girl – smart, popular and pretty – to represent the school. Her selection as homecoming queen was a breakthrough. But it would still be many more years before dark brown-skinned girls were acknowledged for their beauty or before natural hair was seen as the magnificent crowning glory we recognize today. And the plus-sized beauties that seem plentiful in the black community are, even now, just beginning to get their due. Mocha-skinned, wavy-haired, curvy-in-the-right-places Jeanne was a visual bridge between what had been and what was to be.

Not only has our societal standard of beauty changed to be far more inclusive, so, too, have the rules that we use to define women. Just a few years after Jeanne was named Miss Justice, Helen Reddy released the song that would become the anthem of the women’s movement. Its powerful first line, “I am woman hear me roar in numbers too great to ignore and I know too much to go back and pretend” encapsulates how women were beginning to see themselves: strong, capable, aware of the past and positioned for the future.

Given that black women had been working for as long as anyone could remember, many saw the women’s movement as the white women’s movement. Perhaps. But no one can deny that doors opened for black women, too. Jeanne and all of the Valianettes are a product of both the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. Jeanne becoming homecoming queen foretold so much more to come.

May 2019 postscript — look what happened 50 years later