50 years of open doors

Monday, May 17, 2004

There's not much to remember about that first day. No fanfare. No rioting. On Sept. 7, 1954, Leola Twiggs simply walked through the glass doors of Central High School and went to class.

Except walking through those doors -- doors previously barred to Twiggs and her classmates -- wasn't really simple at all. The key responsible for unlocking them came from a courtroom 880 miles away following a two-year legal battle that pitted a group of black parents against a school district bent on segregation.

Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown et al. vs. the Topeka Board of Education, ending segregation in public schools across the country.

At the time, Missouri was one of only 17 states with legalized segregation laws. For Cape Girardeau and the surrounding areas, integration of schools was much like everything else surrounding desegregation, quiet on the outside for most, painful on the inside for some.

"It's one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in American history. It touched all of American society," said Dr. Frank Nickell, a history professor at Southeast Missouri State University and director of the Center for Regional History. "In my opinion, African Americans did not anticipate the strong white resistance. It was to a lesser degree in Cape Girardeau, but it happened here, too."

The Cape Girardeau School District waited more than a month after the Supreme Court ruling to officially open up grades 7 through 12 to all students. Officials took even longer to decide where to place black elementary children but eventually opened Jefferson Elementary as a voluntary school for them.

Black students were given the option of attending their neighborhood school along with white children, but the majority chose to go to Jefferson that first year.

Leola Twiggs was one of 24 black students to enter Central High School in the fall of 1954. She was the sole black student in most of her classes there and soon began to feel separated even within the integrated school.

"My expectation was teachers are teachers, and they treat children alike. I found out they didn't," Twiggs said.

In one class, she remembers watching her white classmates gather around the teacher's desk, laughing and joking. When she approached to ask for help with an assignment, the teacher asked her to sit down.

"I started thinking, 'They don't want me here,'" Twiggs said. "When they'd ask me a question, I didn't want to answer anymore. It didn't seem quite worth it."

Like most of Cape Girardeau's black children, Twiggs spent her pre-integration years at John S. Cobb School, constructed in 1890 at the corner of Ellis and Merriwether.

Less dramatic change

In March 1953, Cobb school was destroyed in a fire, and Twiggs' last year there was spent in the gymnasium, the only part of the school undamaged by the fire. Partitions were set up to divide the gym into makeshift classrooms for black high school students. Cobb's elementary students were relocated to Jefferson School, which operated as an all-black school for the year.

Most historians agree that situation made the decision to integrate much less dramatic in Cape Girardeau than in some other school districts.

"With the deplorable conditions at Cobb, there was little else that could be done except to transfer the African American students into the full school system," said Nickell. "But many African American students were enrolled in special education classes, so they were segregated within the schools."

Nickell said that practice was common during the 1950s. Black students with even the slightest behavioral problems were placed in special education classes, rather than allowing them to integrate into the mainstream school setting.

Twiggs remembers Cobb's highly regarded principal, Mr. Gravette, gathering the students together and telling them it cost too much to build a new school so they were going to integrate with the white school system.

Twiggs' mother died when she was 6, and her father had never attended school, so news of the court ruling and integration was received with little fanfare in her Fountain Street household. She entered Central High as a senior, but because she joined her father and siblings working in fields for several months every fall, she was required to attend an extra semester and graduated in January 1956.

Influence of Cobb

Twiggs' year and a half at Central was hard on her self-esteem, but the influence of Cobb's teachers has lasted a lifetime.

"Had we not been made to feel good about ourselves at Cobb, I don't know what would have happened that first year at Central," Twiggs said. "I think most students wanted to accept us, but there was a division."

Howard Bock was a 33-year-old science teacher in his first year at Central High School when the schools were integrated in 1954.

He recalls Central principal Raymond Sheets gathering the faculty together to discuss what desegregation would mean for the school.

"He told us we may run into things we've never experienced before but to try to treat everyone the same," said Bock, who retired as a Cape Girardeau schools administrator in 1982. "We discussed that black and white families might be different in culture."

Bock remembers only one black student in any of his classes that first year and says overall the change was a smooth one.

Memories of integration are a little different for black students who were among the first to join white students in an equal education.

"When we got to Central, we found out they had so much more than we did," said Clara Daniels, a Cape Girardeau resident who entered Central as a senior in 1954. "At Cobb, we just used old stuff from them."

Daniels graduated in January 1955, the first black student to participate with white students in a Central High School commencement ceremony.

During the five months she spent at Central, Daniels said she felt isolated.

"I was scared and nervous," she said. "I guess they were scared and nervous too, because they didn't talk to us."

Jackson's integration took a path similar to Cape Girardeau's, but with a significantly smaller black population the transition was less of an issue.

In 1947, the city of Jackson built a new two-room brick school for black students on Oklahoma Street. Within a few years, the building had grown too small for first-through-12th-graders, so high school students were bused to Cape Girardeau's Cobb school.

In June 1954, members of the Jackson school board joined the Cape Girardeau school board in integrating seventh through 12th grades. As in Cape Girardeau, Jackson officials were hesitant to do the same at the elementary level until an attorney general's ruling was issued allowing the creation of voluntary schools.

"The difference between Jackson and other places was the population of African Americans was fairly small. There wasn't a real division between the populations like there was in other places," said Dr. Alberta Dougan, a history professor at Southeast who has researched integration in Jackson.

'It just happened'

The former black school was turned into a central office for administrators that year.

"I don't think there was any fanfare or hoopla. It just happened," Dougan said. "Taking the African American school and turning it into something important to the district I think diffused any ill feelings from African Americans."

The building, located across from Jackson High School, is still standing and houses the district support services offices.

Susie Lewis had several children in elementary and secondary grades in Jackson when the ruling came down in 1954. She remembers a smooth transition out of segregation and says her children were immediately welcomed in extracurricular activities like football, cheerleading and student council.

"We never had any problems. We really were accepted," said Lewis, who still resides in Jackson. "My kids got to participate in anything they wanted to. There were no problems with teachers. I guess we were blessed, because some kids may have had problems."

The two teachers from Jackson's black school -- a husband-and-wife team -- were not hired into the system when the district integrated. The same was true in Cape Girardeau.

During the first year of integration, two of Cobb's eight black teachers were relocated to Jefferson Elementary, which the district made a voluntary school for black children who did not want to attend school in their neighborhood. Eventually, however, those teachers were let go.

Cobb's esteemed principal, Mr. Gravette, was hired at Central High School. Teachers who were at Central during that time remember him as a coordinator. His former students say his role was actually errand boy.

Some say the repercussions of not hiring the Cobb teachers are still felt today in Cape Girardeau, where 24 percent of students are black but only 2 percent of teachers are.

Impact on business

Mike Woelk, a local minister, believes the decision caused a flight of black professionals from Cape Girardeau. Woelk said integration also had a negative impact on the black business community on the city's south side.

"When segregation ended, the blacks began to shop in the white community, but that was not reciprocated," Woelk said. "The whites didn't say, 'Oh good, now we get to shop in black stores.' Many black businesses shut down because of it."

Nickell says the great failure of the Brown ruling was not recognizing how complex the issue was and how much planning was necessary.

"To this day, for economic or social reasons, we are still not fully integrated in this community," Nickell said. "Progress has been made, but it's unfortunate that it's taken 50 years to achieve what we've achieved. Maybe that's the price we pay for 400 years of wrestling with the issue of living side by side."


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