Thirty years ago, Richmond's public schools implemented a massive busing plan. Here are five childhood memories of that era. 

The Great Experiment

The day my mother told me I would be bused to school, she came home from grocery shopping, picked up the Richmond News Leader from the porch and waved it in front of me. I looked up from watching "Petticoat Junction" in the living room of our West End home near Grove and Malvern avenues. It was the spring of 1971, and the Supreme Court had just approved busing as a tool to desegregate the schools.

"They have the new school districts drawn," my mother said, pointing to the front page. I snapped off the television and came into the kitchen, where she had spread the newspaper out on the table. Tracing the lines on the map with her forefinger, she said, "That's good for your sister!" My only sibling, a few years older than me, would stay at Thomas Jefferson High School, my mother's alma mater, traditionally all-white and considered the best high school in the state. It was within walking distance of our house. Black children would be brought there; my sister would avoid being bused.

I would be starting 6th grade in the fall. My mother peered at the map more closely. "It looks like you'll be going to Binford," she said. "You'll be riding the bus," she added, careful to avoid the more inflammatory, "You're going to be bused."

Her face was tight. "Well, well, well," she said, filling the teakettle, then slipping into her chair. "At least it's settled."

I would be one of the 21,000 children of both races scheduled for busing when school started in the fall. Each school's racial balance was supposed to reflect the entire system: 70 percent black, 30 percent white.

This wasn't the city's first experience with busing. The year earlier, in August 1970, just two weeks before schools opened, Judge Robert Merhige had ordered a preliminary desegregation plan involving some busing, mostly of high-school students. But that was far less extensive than the busing that was happening this year.

At one time, Binford had been a white school. As Richmond's population shifted it became mostly black. I would be one of the white children bused to make the school more integrated. It was about three miles east of where I lived, in the same general direction as Carytown. If I had driven past the building, I didn't remember it. In fact, I knew nothing about this school. My sister, and the siblings of my classmates at my elementary school, Mary Munford, had not gone to Binford, since it was a black school.

Mary Munford was nearly 100 percent white, though the preliminary desegregation plan in 1970 had brought in a few black children and the first black faculty, one of whom was my 5th-grade teacher. I had no information about the teachers at Binford, the sports teams, the size and shape of the playground. I had no bearings to imagine my first year at middle school. It was like being on an airplane that flew into a cloud. The view fogged out, leaving nothing but the vaguely sickening motion and the drone of the motor.

My attempts to reconstruct my feelings that afternoon come up maddeningly blank. I remember the sunlight slanting through the window above the sink, the potted plants on the sill, the yellow plastic containers for sugar and flour on the countertop, but not one thing that registers on the emotional scale. If anything, I was equivocal, willing to go along with busing because that's what my mother expected. That's also what my father — who died of a heart attack in 1968, when I was 7 — would have wanted.

Integration was also familiar to me because of my mother's job teaching preschool at Grace House, a community center in the Fan District. She taught children of all races, including refugees from Vietnam as well as the daughters of desegregation lawyer Henry L. Marsh III. I had already been with black people in everyday situations — classes, lunch, kickball games in the street. The details of Binford — what the cafeteria looked like, how long the bus ride would be, whether I would have any friends in my classes — preoccupied me more than the idea of going to school with black people.

called Susan, my best friend and 5th-grade classmate at Mary Munford, that afternoon to see if she knew more about our new school. "We're going to Binford," I said as soon as she came to the phone.

"Yeah, I heard," she said. "At least it's not Mosby."

Mosby was downtown, in the heart of Richmond's black community. It had never been a white school. I had heard nothing positive about it. I had always been told that it was dangerous, no place to learn anything. Anyone who lived across the street from me — in a district that included Windsor Farms as well as the smaller houses right near Mary Munford — was supposed to go there.

Most families seemed to view this school assignment like a low draft number. They were moving, using grandparents' addresses from a different school district, doing everything possible to avoid sending their kids into what they perceived as a war zone.

The governor of Virginia, Linwood Holton, was one remarkable exception. His children had attended Mary Munford with me, though none was in my class. When the busing order was drawn, he sent two of them to Mosby, where each was the only white child in the classroom. [See page 22.]

The anti-busing attitude filtered down to my classmates at Mary Munford. One day, the class know-it-all stood behind Susan as we lined up to go back into the building after recess.

"Y'all are crazy, you know that?" he said. "You're in for it next year."

Susan and I exchanged a glance.

"What do you mean by that?" Susan said, crossing her arms against her chest.

"Y'all are going to get beaten up in that school. You won't last a week. You'd better get out while you can."

The gauntlet was down.

"You're the fraidy-cat," I said. "You won't even try it."

"I know what's good for me," he said smugly. He was already signed up to start private school in the fall.

"Yeah, well, too bad you don't know anything," said Susan.

That Friday, Susan invited me to spend the night at her house. I walked over after dinner carrying my extra clothes and toothbrush in a plastic bag. We watched Julia Child's cooking show for awhile, taking turns standing next to the TV and mimicking her. Then we pulled out the sofa bed in the basement.

"Are you scared about Binford?" I asked her. Our classmate had shaken me more than I wanted to admit. Were Susan and I really going to be in danger? I had no reason to think we were, but who knew?

Susan rolled onto her stomach and waved her legs in the air. She gathered her hair into a bunch, then let it drop. "Not really. Well, maybe. Should we be?"

"I don't want to get beaten up," I said.

"Me neither," she said.

"Well, what are we going to do?" I said.

"I bet it will be fine. A lot of fools just want to make trouble," she said.

"I wish everyone wasn't leaving," I said. I already could name a dozen classmates who would be leaving the Richmond school system in the fall. "Nobody good will be left."

"We'll have to watch out for each other," said Susan.

We fell asleep with the TV on. I woke up in the middle of the night, the room dark, Susan's arm flung across the pillow next to mine. The TV was crackling, showing nothing but black-and-white fuzz. I was scared about Binford, but I didn't want to tell anyone. It would make me look silly. I wanted to be tough as Mom, looking everyone in the eye and saying, "I don't expect trouble." I got up and switched off the TV, then tossed and turned for the rest of the night.

t seemed to me at the time that black children who were bused at least had the mantle of heroism. Backed by the NAACP, they were warriors for social justice. Busing in other cities, especially Little Rock and New Orleans, had taught them to expect resistance — mobs outside the school, threats to their families, racial slurs and harassment from the other students. If the NAACP didn't help them prepare for their new school assignments, a lifetime of racism did.

But being a white child bused to a black school felt different. Most white people I knew thought we were asking for trouble. They would say we were going somewhere beneath us. We were sure to ruin our education if we didn't get beaten up first. When I mentioned Binford to any grown-ups who politely asked where I would be going to school in the fall, most didn't recognize the name. When I explained that it was a public school, and yes, I would be bused, some looked surprised. Some actually gasped in horror. I was left to duck my head, mumble, and try to get away as fast as possible.

There was no group to prepare white kids for our new school assignments. The most vocal white parents who didn't oppose busing, the Citizens for Excellent Public Schools, focused on education. They wanted to make sure white children continued to get a quality education, no matter what race the classmates were. Nobody addressed the day-to-day realities of being bused.

I thought of my new school as being like my afternoons at the Brook Field swimming pool with my mother's preschool class: the black crowd staring at me, a white intruder, their silence, and my wish to keep diving under the water, where I would be out of view.

remember my mother walking me to the bus stop in 1971, the first day of busing in Richmond, a few weeks before my 11th birthday. I was flattered that she had made special arrangements to go into work late, but embarrassed, too.

I tried to talk her out of walking with me as I ate a bowl of cottage cheese for breakfast. "C'mon, Mom," I said. "You can go to work. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

"No, I want to walk with you," she said, taking a sip of her tea with milk. "I want to get you off to a good start."

"Oh, really!" I said. "I'm not a baby."

"Just let me this once. I want to. It's your first day of middle school and all."

Beneath the table, our dog, Cinderella, thumped her tail. She waited under the table every morning, hoping that we might drop a crumb for her to lick up. Half poodle, half terrier, she had been given to us by a family who didn't want to raise a mutt.

"Here, Cindy," I called. She skittered across the linoleum and jumped up into my lap, scratching my bare legs with her toenails. I hugged her and patted her head. Her black fur stuck together in clumps all down her back. She had white eyebrows, a white chin and white paws. "She doesn't have to ride the bus," said Mom with a smile. "She's already integrated." We both laughed.

"All right, all right, let's go," I said, gathering up my blue, loose-leaf notebook and my handbag.

We walked together, our feet scuffing the sidewalk, pale sunlight sifting down through the crepe myrtles that lined the street. In an hour or two, it would be hot enough for my sleeveless blouse to stick to my back, but right now, it was cool and the asphalt street was still slightly damp from the dew.

"Hurry up," said Mom, as I trailed behind her. "You don't want to miss the bus."

"Mom, I'll be fine," I said.

She nodded, and we continued walking in silence. Maybe she was worried that people would be carrying "No Busing" signs and yelling at us when we reached the bus stop, but nobody was. The rush-hour traffic whizzed along Patterson Avenue, the drivers oblivious. We were just a group of kids milling around at the corner. When the bus pulled up, Mom waved to me through the window.

In all my years in school, that was the only day my mother ever walked me to the bus. It was her way telling me that she wanted me to go to this school, that she'd help me face any protesters who showed up. Maybe my father, who was a lawyer and one of the first supporters of Legal Aid, would have done more; maybe he would have helped bring the lawsuits that led to desegregation in the first place. Maybe he would have sat beside me on the living room couch at the end of the day, patiently reading the newspaper or playing cards with me until I was ready to tell him that it was fine, and it was strange. I had no doubt that he wanted me to go to a school like this.

obody was outside yelling or waving posters when my bus pulled up to Binford's main entrance on Floyd Avenue. There were about 650 students at Binford. The racial percentages, the subject of so much debate, were right within the range set by Judge Merhige: 70 percent black, 30 percent white.

The gray bricks of the school building rose three stories. It looked like a medieval castle. There was a granite arch over the front entrance, second-story bay windows with beveled glass panes, and Gothic letters announcing the school's name. I walked up the granite stairs and into the assembly hall, where the entire school convened. From the podium on the stage, the white principal, whose no-nonsense voice matched his iron-colored hair, boomed forth instructions for us to be orderly.

I peered back into the auditorium and saw more black faces than I had ever seen around me before. I didn't recognize any of them. I shivered with the strangeness of the whole situation. I looked down and fidgeted with the handbag my grandmother had given me. It was made of cloth woven with signs of the Zodiac. I rubbed my hand across Virgo, then Libra. I was born on their cusp. What would my horoscope predict about this day, this year? Before I could think much about it, I had to stand up and find my homeroom.

I sat next a girl I knew from Mary Munford. She was about as tall as I, shy, and kept her face hidden by thick glasses and long, black hair. I recognized a few other people from Mary Munford. Everyone else was a stranger.

The plump, elderly homeroom teacher was stumped when she first called roll. She had been reassigned to Binford from an all-white school where children answered to names like Virginia, Lewis or John. "Shar-o-lynn," she said carefully. "Zo-bia. Flor-net-ta. Ty-rone. Reg-i-nald." The bell rang, and it was time for first period.

On the south side of the building, concrete ramps, all painted maroon, led from one floor to another. Staircases went up and down the north side. "Up the ramps, down the stairs," called the 7th-grade monitors stationed throughout the halls, reminding us of the traffic flow. I carried a copy of my schedule on top of my notebook as I traipsed from one floor to another in search of a different classroom for each subject: math, science, French, orchestra, gym, social studies and English.

In the hall, after the assembly, my white skin seemed pale and conspicuous in the throng of black people. I felt everyone staring as I passed by. I kept my eyes on my schedule. I said nothing when a black boy bumped into me so hard I nearly dropped my books and another held out his foot to try to trip me. I didn't want to cause trouble.

When the Supreme Court justices ordered school desegregation to proceed with all "deliberate speed," they must not have understood how kids mill around, sizing each other up, jockeying for position, forming "in" groups and "out" groups, oblivious to the forces that put them together in the first place.

I saw a black girl who had been one of the first group bused in to Mary Munford. She was walking down the hall with a noisy group of other black girls. We had been the first two girls in our 5th-grade class to wear long pants to Mary Munford — the day after the dress code was changed. Our bravery in testing the new rules had given us an instant bond. We had often played together at recess.

"Hi!" I shouted, and waved. She shot me a withering look, as if to say, "Get lost, white girl. I don't have to be nice to you any more." Then she walked on with her friends. I cringed. My white skin shone like a lantern. I wanted to cover myself.

No matter how many times I walked through the halls in the days and months that followed, I always felt off-balance. To point out my discomfort made me feel wimpy, like I couldn't put up with payback time for all the discrimination that black people had faced for generations. So I kept quiet. It was easiest to creep along, shoulders hunched.

Clara Silverstein graduated from the Open High School in 1978. She is a writer at the Boston Herald and lives in the Boston area with her husband and two children. She is working on a memoir about school desegregation. She can be contacted by e-mail at CSilver230@aol.com.

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