What’s in a Name? A Lot!

Next month, Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia will open its doors for the first time.

Well, not really. The school, originally named J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, opened in 1922.

It was to J.E.B. Stuart that I walked on the first day of the sixth grade. I had attended the segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School for the 1st through the 5th grade (the highest grade at that school). Even though Stuart had grades 1-6, and my sixth-grade year was well after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, for me, the 6th grade was the first year that the city fathers of Richmond, Virginia allowed me into a white school.

Both Norrell and Stuart were within easy walking distance of my home, but Stuart was a little closer. I lived two blocks south of Brookland Park Boulevard. Stuart was two blocks north. Brookland Park Boulevard was the dividing line, separating black Richmond from white Richmond. The neighborhoods on both sides looked the same—the same beautiful mature trees, the same mixture of architectural styles of houses—but we knew when we crossed the boulevard, it was not the same. While the street itself was rather ordinary, it represented a significant cultural divide. We were foreigners entering the all-white community where our school was located.

As an 11-year-old, I didn’t think anything about who J.E.B. Stuart (a Civil War general for the Confederate states) was just as I hadn’t thought a lot about the eponym of my former school, Albert V. Norrell (an African-American educator whose granddaughter, Faithe, was one of my first-grade classmates).  The names of the schools were just, well, the names of the schools.

In recent years, as the racial consciousness of Americans has grown, how the Civil War is reflected in our day-to-day lives has become an important, and somewhat contentious, topic.

There is no question that for over a century, through many mechanisms, heroic status was given to the leaders of the Confederacy. Literally, looking at the plethora of enormous statues memorializing them across America, and especially in my hometown, gives these men a mythic place in our country’s cultural narrative. And when that fact is coupled with the reality of few monuments or memorials that acknowledge the suffering of enslaved Africans or that celebrate the many contributions of black Americans, you can see why the existence of the statues and the relevance of names is coming into question.

Last month, based on input from the community and from students, J.E.B. Stuart’s name was changed to Barack Obama Elementary. Good, right? Hmmm….. I certainly don’t want to celebrate J.E.B. Stuart and I never did. I do wish to honor President Obama, but it does feel a little strange that now I will tell folks that I attended Obama Elementary. Why is it strange? Because he would have been a one-year-old when I attended that school. Weird, right?

As I thought about it, my first thought was that long-established schools, wanting to change their names, should select non-current historical figures or just something else that is meaningful to the community. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary could have become Azalea Elementary maybe, recognizing the beautiful, spring shrubbery in the Richmond area. Or even Northside Elementary after the section of town in which the school is located, or perhaps be named for another historical figure like Albert V. Norrell, the name of the now-closed, black elementary school. Following that practice would mean that you wouldn’t end up with this peculiar time warp feeling that challenges me just a little right now.

What something is named does matter, having an unconscious effect on some, but great impact for others. This year, 96.4% of the children attending this school will be children of color with 91.8% being African-American. I know that the parents who hold their hands as they walk into Barack Obama Elementary on September 4th will feel a sense of pride. That pride will flow into the children as they learn about the leader for whom their school is named. And on those rare occasions when called on to mention my elementary school experience, the new name will catch on my tongue, at least at first, but I, too, am proud to have attended the only school in Richmond, Virginia named for the first African-American president. Time warp be damned.

I just ordered my Barack Obama Elementary School T-shirt —  🙂 ! You can too.  https://www.bonfire.com/barack-obama-elementary-school-1/.

Swimming in Inequity: Waters Divide

What do you think when someone says “Let’s go to the pool.” A fun place to meet friends, a peaceful spot to read a good book, take a refreshing swim, or do rigorous laps?

Whatever you think, this iconic image of summer rarely brings forth thoughts of race, but that’s exactly what happened to me recently. The racial overtone of swimming pools came to mind when I learned of a play coming to my area called #poolparty. Based on an incident that happened years ago in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, a community just outside of Washington, DC, this play focuses on the unique, and perhaps unexpected, role that swimming pools have played in the history of race in America.

Public pools were off limits for many African-Americans during the years when I grew up. In the late 1950s and 60s, there were none available for black people in Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. City leaders claimed that tight budgets and the fear of the transmittal of diseases, particularly polio at that time, was the basis for this decision. But no one believed that. The real reason, some suggest, was a desire not to mix races in what many felt was the intimacy of a swimming pool. Body-revealing bathing suits and the possibility of touching, even accidentally, brought forth the white community’s historical need to protect white women from black men. Since integration in civic areas was now legally mandated, public pools, at least those in Richmond, and in many other communities, would be closed.

Now, this reality didn’t have too much impact on many whites. There were private community pools and private country clubs. White teenagers still had pool parties, and young white parents took their young ones to pools to learn to swim.

That wasn’t the case in my community. Even though neither of my parents could swim, they both wanted me to learn. I remember them talking about how much fun I could have. It was right before school ended in the 7th grade that these conversations started in my home. Swimming had never come up before. What I didn’t know was that there hadn’t been a place for me to learn to swim until then. The local black Y—separate and pool with stepsunequal—didn’t have a pool like the white Y. At the time, there was no country club for the black community. But that summer a resource became available. A local black physician opened his nearby home to swim instructors from the black Y. They held classes in his backyard pool. That year, the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, I packed my towel and put on shorts over my swimsuit and walked the few blocks to Dr. Jackson’s house to learn to swim. Just as had always been the case, the black community found a way to take care of its own. But for those not fortunate enough to have a Dr. Jackson with a pool in the neighborhood, your grandparents might not have learned to swim. If they didn’t, your mom and dad might not have been encouraged to learn. And the fun and value of learning to swim may not have been transmitted to you.

The lack of access to pools in the ‘50s and ‘60s continues to have an impact today.

Swimming is often seen only as a recreational activity but learning how to swim can, of course, save your life. Even today, the USA Swimming Foundation estimates that 70% of African-Americans cannot swim. Consider that fact against the high percentage of people who lost their lives in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most were poor and black… and they drowned.

While swimming pools are no longer the symbol of privilege they once were, access to swimming is still disproportionately more available to the white community. Certainly swimming and access to a pool is not the symbol of racial equity in America. But the next time you sit by the pool to read, or you invite your friends over for a swim, at least acknowledge that this, too, is representative of the racial divide that continues to exist and is emblematic of a much more profound and significant racial disparity in America.

Daughters of the Dream: The Book!

Last September, I launched my Daughters of the Dream blog to share stories about growing up amid segregation, integration, civil rights and the ongoing push for racial justice. Now, I have captured those stories, and so much more, in a book by the same name. If the blog speaks to your heart, your mind, or your soul, I hope you will order my new book.

If you are a fan of Amazon, go to: https://www.amazon.com/Tamara-Lucas-Copeland/e/B07DLY2L2T/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0.

cover photo

If Barnes and Noble is more your choice, here’s the link: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughters-of-the-dream-tamara-lucas-copeland/1128850552?ean=9781937592813.

And, one other option—Books A Million has the book at http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Daughters-Dream/Tamara-Lucas-Copeland/9781937592813?id=7284467936313.

For all the options, the book can be pre-ordered before its release on June 18.

Through vignettes of the life experiences of eight friends from Richmond, Virginia, the book presents one person’s perspective of what it truly is like to be black in America. Let me know if it makes you think differently, opens your eyes to another reality, or if it simply reminds you of meaningful life experiences.

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.

 

Never a Victim

Friends often ask me, “How could you have grown up in segregated Richmond, Virginia in a stark separate-but-equal environment without witnessing overt signs of segregation?”

Their question stems from a truth I’ve shared with them: I have no memory of seeing whites-only and colored-only water fountains. No time when I was denied access to restaurants. No riding in the back of the bus. None of that. As a child, I had no understanding that my world was defined by race. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true.

Some suggest that my mind has blocked the negative images or memories.

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My parents: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas (next to our home on Edgewood Ave)

I don’t believe that. I think there is a far more powerful explanation: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas, my parents. In hindsight, I know they went to great lengths, as many black parents did, to see to it that I never felt any level of second-class citizenship. Another thing: they did not talk about discrimination, at least not where I could hear. I think that was important in shaping my reality.

My mom would pack a delicious lunch for our trip to visit family in New York. Then halfway there, my dad would pull the car over to a roadside picnic area. No one commented that we were doing this because we couldn’t eat in restaurants along the way. My parents simply pulled out our lunch, put a tablecloth on the wooden picnic table, and we played games — looking for cars with license plates from different states — as we ate and enjoyed what we now think of as quality family time. And when my dad stopped at the Esso, now Exxon, service station to buy gas, we would go to the bathroom. I didn’t think anything of it. But his lifelong loyalty to Exxon was born from that company being the first to let blacks use the restroom facilities in their service stations, a reality that I learned from books, not from my dad telling me.

There was one childhood incident that probably was exposure to separate-but-equal, but I didn’t know it at the time. My mom and I had entered the train station to travel to visit relatives. I remember skipping ahead toward a seat. My mom took my hand and gently directed me to another area. I now suspect that she was leading me to the ‘colored’ area. No conversation, just a subtle re-direction. I don’t recall even noticing it at the time. The possibility/probability of this being a separate-but-equal memory only surfaced as an adult when friends questioned my experience of segregation as a child. Again, the important point was there was no preamble as I was being led away from where I was headed. At no time, did anyone tell me that there was something I couldn’t do or someplace I couldn’t go.

Of course, I lived in a segregated neighborhood and attended a segregated school, but I didn’t know I was being denied anything. My community was lovely, and I never felt as supported in any educational environment as I did in that school. My point, simply, is that the harshness of segregation as a reality that makes someone superior to you never consciously entered my psyche. Was this level of insulation by my parents positive or did it cause me to have an unrealistic sense of the world? I’m not sure.

All I know is that when whites entered my world via integration, I didn’t fear them, nor did I dislike them. I did not feel that they were the persecutor and I was the victim.  I think that is the most important point. Victims are powerless. Being a victim wears you down. You are continually looking for injustice, looking for where/how you have been wronged. It causes physical and mental stress. I am not saying that prejudice has not been a part of my life. Of course, it has, but that is not the frame that I start out with every day. Whites had, and have, more power than I do, but I have always approached my interactions with them as equals, even as a child. Now, as an adult, injustice surrounds me in the governmental processes and structures that have, with intentionality, disadvantaged me and my community. It is in the media that often portray negative images of black people. It is in the rhetoric of the current president of the United States. It is truly in the air I breathe. But, I am still not a victim.

My parents wisely, and bravely, chose to deflect—but not deny—segregation’s impact on me even as they raised me within its confines. They dealt with the reality of it, all the while telling me that I could do anything I wanted to do. Today, as I work for racial understanding and justice, I recognize that I was raised to be a daughter of the dream, never to be a victim.

Popcorn and Picketing

“Are the picketers out today?” a voice on the telephone asked, already knowing the answer. When the expected “Yes” response came, the caller replied, “Okay, then we won’t be coming to the movies today. They make the lines too long.”

At the time, my dad was the manager of one of the Lichtman movie theaters, a chain of segregated theaters in Washington, DC and across Virginia. The movies were a major form of entertainment. So, it wasn’t unusual for a group of us to be munching on popcorn and hot dogs and drinking cokes during a Saturday matinee at the Booker T, named for Booker T. Washington or the Walker, named for black entrepreneur Maggie L. Walker. We didn’t know that they got the movies a little later than the white theaters  only about ten blocks farther down Broad Street. And because we couldn’t go

Loews interior
The interior of the Loew’s Theater

inside those movie houses, we didn’t know of the opulence of their interiors. Many of the whites only theaters truly were old Hollywood movie palaces, Perhaps the most distinguished in Richmond was the Loews Theater that opened in 1928. It was the Loews that was called that day.

The voice on the phone was that of Debby Anderson Smith, one of my Forever Friends. Debby was only in junior high school when she made those calls. Remarkably, at the young age of 12, she had figured out a meaningful way to be a part of the civil rights movement. She was the youngest of three children. Her sister, Anna was in college, and her brother Bucky was in high school in the early ‘60s when the civil rights movement reached Richmond, Virginia, our hometown.

Perhaps, because she had older siblings, Debby, unlike the rest of us, had a deeper understanding of the movement. While we were sheltered from the conversations about protests, she heard them and watched as Anna, a student at historically black, Virginia Union University left home with her sandwich board to picket the downtown department stores. Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads, like all the major stores of the time, denied blacks access to the upstairs fine dining rooms. She watched as her dad and Bucky drove off to Washington DC in August 1963 to participate in the March on Washington. And she watched as her parents regularly drove neighbors to the picket sites. Debby wanted to do something like her sister and brother, but her mother thought she was too young and that it was too dangerous.

That’s when Debby came up with her plan. She understood a fundamental part of the protest strategy: denying revenue to businesses got the attention of the power brokers. The protestors didn’t just march. They stood in line with others to purchase a ticket for the movies even though they knew they would be denied; therefore, the lines were long—very long—to get into the theater. When protestors were there, other customers wouldn’t want to stand in those long lines; so, the theaters lost money.

Simple calls telling the theaters that someone chose not to spend their money with them because they were being protested against, was Debby’s way of having her voice heard too. This was how she supported the movement.

While, in hindsight, we all felt that we had played a role in the civil rights movement simply by getting an education, dressing a certain way, talking a certain way and therefore being primed to walk through the doors of opportunity when they opened. Little did we know, until very recently, that our friend Debby played an active role. You go, girl.

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.

jean on steps
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.

 

School Segregation: Not All Negative

School Segregation: Not All Negative

The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-black school environment. I suspect that I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were black. We were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.

Norrell school photo
The author in front of her classmates at A.V. Norrell Elementary School.

At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.

But there was one significant difference. In that all-black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of every student. From the janitorial crew, the cafeteria team, and the faculty to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to afford us every possible learning opportunity. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.

I don’t believe that black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into  ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of black families, about the inability of black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.

I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me that I would be successful and everyone’s actions were intended to help me open the doors to success and to walk through them.

The older I get and reflect on the current state of affairs, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to black people and the worst.

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For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this.

Forever Friends

One day I got a call from a longtime friend. Madeline, a civilian employee of the US Department of the Army, was seeking a high-level security clearance and had noted me as a reference.

“The form asked how long I had known the person listed as a reference. When I wrote 50+ years, I startled myself,” she told me in her typical dryly humorous way.

We chuckled. How could that be?

It seemed like just yesterday we attended high school homecoming games cracking up at halftime as alumni from various years would be invited onto the football field: 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, even 75. We would laugh out loud and comment in that sarcastic, all-knowing-teenager way, “50 years! Can they still walk?”

Now it is our turn; almost 50 years since we graduated from high school. Sadly, Madeline won’t be walking out on the field for that 50th high school celebration. Dr. Madeline B. Swann, chemist, passed away on July 12, 2017.

You never think of your friends dying. Eight of us had been an unbroken circle since middle school. We were first the Junior Valianettes, then the Valianettes and then in our adulthood, the name that stuck was Divas. We had missed some years in between as we went off separately to college and established careers and families, but we came back together as we reached our forties. We always got together in Washington, DC to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day and went to see the latest black-themed movies. Dreamgirls, This is It, and The Help stand out. We constantly talked about the challenges facing black people in America and bemoaned the ones we faced growing up in racially-segregated Richmond, Virginia.

When I told the group that I was writing a manuscript to try and capture our decades-long friendship—with the overlay of race in America—they were all supportive. But Madeline truly was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She loved the concept and the name I gave my book-to-be, Daughters of the Dream.

madeline-cross-stitch.jpg

Her last gift to each of us was a framed group picture with a cross stitch of each name on that individual’s gift and the inscription: Daughters of the Dream. Today I am even more committed than ever to finishing my book, and I know that Madeline is near, still cheering me on.