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.

obama shirt

Update:  When we — Tamara Lucas Copeland, Jeanne Johnson Petties and Debbie Johnson Riddick —  learned that Obama Elementary T-shirts were available, we immediately ordered ours.  Unfortunately, the promotion has ended, but, who knows, it might come back.  Add your name to the waiting list at http://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 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, their grandparents might not have learned to swim. If they didn’t, their 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 the current generation.

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.