I started first grade at an all-black elementary school in Chester, Pa., a deeply segregated factory town near Philadelphia, in 1957 — three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional.
The crisply dressed first graders who moved hesitantly that day through the halls of the Booker T. Washington Elementary School — built expressly for “colored children” — would be the first in their families to find relief from some of the most egregious humiliations that had come with being black in our town.
A popular restaurant nearby that used to turn away black patrons had begrudgingly begun to seat them. The movie theaters (including the one where black townspeople had watched “Gone With the Wind” from “colored” seats in the balcony) no longer separated patrons by race. The skating rink was the lone Jim Crow holdout: Black skaters could attend only if it was “ebony” night.
Segregated schools for black students were often decrepit, poorly staffed and crushingly overcrowded. But I recall no such infirmities at Booker T., as we called it. It was sparkly clean, quiet as a library and firmly under the control of steely, well-educated African-American women who were sticklers for grammar, could freeze your misbehaving heart with a glare and had the unnerving habit of engaging our parents in conversation on the street.