[This story has been dramatized and adapted from actual events. It is shared on this commemorative weekend to show how some attitudes from a half-century ago have changed and improved, but that we still have a lot more work to do.]
By Tim Hayes
An otherwise typical Friday morning. “House Party” with Art Linkletter flickered on the television, as she ran the sweeper through the modest home. Marjorie, a young mother, couldn’t seem to shake a nagging, gnawing sense of something amiss, though.
Her oldest child, Jimmy, had left that morning for his walk to elementary school with his friends, just like he had every other school day that academic year. The parochial school he attended stood next to the parish church, built at the highest point of their little borough, at the very top of Ormsby Avenue.
“Oh, what’s the matter with me?” Marjorie said to herself, as she watched her other child, a three-year-old daughter, play with blocks on the living room floor. “I’m getting myself all worked up over nothing. My imagination running away with me. Everything’s fine. We’re fine. Our neighborhood’s safe. There’s no trouble here, and there won’t be.”
She decided to phone her mother, who lived three blocks away. Just to chat and calm herself down. It had been five years, after all.
* * * * *
Inside an apartment, deep within a complex of multiple buildings, another young mother paced the floor, equally uneasy. But Stacy, an African-American woman, had a very clear idea why.
She had sent her son, Joseph, off that morning to school, as well. A public school, located at the base of Ormsby Avenue. But she had later thought better of it. There’d been a lot of noise in the building the night before, the noise of tension about to snap. Hard, jangling, tension. The kind that makes the air itself vibrate.
With the morning’s light, some of that dissonance dissipated, but not entirely. Their cluster of apartment buildings felt like dry tinder. A single spark could set off a conflagration of race-related rage and riot sure to engulf their world.
And if a fireball loomed for her family – even one that had some elemental justification, considering what had happened the day before – she nonetheless wanted her boy safe with her, headed somewhere apart from any burgeoning chaos. Stacy decided to contact the school, to pull her son out of there for the day.
* * * * *
Inside Sister Clarice’s fourth-grade homeroom, Jimmy’s class remained chest-deep in a seemingly unending sea of arithmetic problems. Long division, the hardest one of all. Carrying things from one column to the next, realigning the digits into new configurations of numbers as you go. It never felt natural, it never got any easier. But the result always made sense, you had to admit. Getting there was the hard part.
One floor down, in the principal’s office, Sister Francis held the receiver. Listening through the veil and wimple on her head, she nodded somberly.
“Yes, Captain, we are aware,” she said. “We plan to keep the students inside all day today. Please keep us informed. Yes, thank you. Goodbye.”
“Anything you would like me to mimeo for the faculty, Sister?” asked the school secretary.
“Not now, no, Mrs. Griffin,” the principal replied, observing out her window onto Ormsby Avenue. “Not yet.”
In Room 207, the struggle of Jimmy and his classmates to conquer long division continued.
* * * * *
It took a good 25 minutes to walk from her apartment to the public school, so off Stacy went. The phone call to the school never got answered, a potentially bad sign, which only served to stiffen her resolve to extract her son from his sixth-grade classroom, come hell, high water, or unresponsive principals.
“Lord help this world,” she muttered to herself, heels clicking on the cracked and uneven sidewalks, her spring coat ruffling in the wake of her speedy, crisp pace. “But if He won’t, I will. Help my family, anyway, small though it might be, just the two of us.”
It had been five years since Dallas. Nobody thought it would happen again. Until it did. And now everybody had to figure out where they stood. All over again. Damn.
She trotted over the crest of Ormsby Avenue, past the parochial school, and headed down the long, steep hill. Another seven blocks to safety for her and Joseph.
* * * * *
“So, what are you doing, Ma?” Marjorie asked her mother after the elderly woman picked up the phone.
“Oh, nothing. Just put a loaf of bread in the oven. You wanna come down later and bring the little one for a slice of homemade jelly bread?”
“I don’t know, Ma. Maybe. I’m feeling a little weird today, like something bad’s gonna happen. I don’t know. Maybe I’m watching too much TV at night or something.”
“Nothing’s gonna happen, Margie. Those other places are having all the commotion, not around here. The news never happens here. Why don’t you come on down and have a nice cup of coffee? I want to see the baby.”
“Ma, she’s four, she’s not a baby anymore. I’ll see about coming down later. I’ll feel better after Jimmy comes home for lunch, okay? Bye, Ma.”
As she placed the receiver back onto the wall-mounted rotary kitchen phone, her anxiety didn’t get quelled. Quite the opposite. Marjorie felt more nervous than before, as though her adrenal glands had opened the floodgates.
* * * * *
The back of the eighth-grade classroom made no pretense of paying attention to anything the teacher said. The mood started ugly and got worse from there. These kids were hell-bent on making a statement. A grown-up statement. A statement that could not, and would not, be denied, delayed, or deterred.
“After what happened yesterday, we have to stand up and take what’s ours,” one ringleader said. “My brother said they’re going to wreck the high school today,” another contributed. “So, what are we gonna do?”
“We’re gonna ditch school at the next class bell, walk up the hill, and beat the shit out of those little Catholic kids up there, that’s what. They kill one of ours, we push back where we live. Who’s coming with me?”
And with startling speed, the plan to march up to the hilltop school to protest, frighten, and take out some aggression, picked up steam among students in the upper grades.
But while these budding demonstrators had not been listening to their teacher, he had indeed been hearing them.
* * * * *
Hot, perspiring, and flushed, Stacy marched into the public school’s front doors and straight to the principal’s office, just as a male teacher came out of the office, jogging past her, looking concerned.
“Good morning, Mrs. Harris. How may I help you?” asked the secretary.
“I would like to pick up my son and take him out of school today.”
“Well, that’s a bit unusual. May I ask why?”
“You may ask anything you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want to pull Joseph out of school for the remainder of the day.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to talk with the principal about that, but she is a bit occupied right now on a phone call,” said the secretary, a thin veneer of contempt being poorly disguised. “Would you please take a seat?”
Rather than cause a scene, she sat down, steaming. About 10 minutes later, the secretary went into the principal’s office. Fully expecting a confrontation, Stacy girded herself to state and defend her demand, once the principal emerged.
Instead, the secretary came back out and said, “We have notified Joseph’s teacher. He’ll be down here in five minutes, and you can take him for the day. As quickly as possible, actually.”
Wow, that sure turned around fast, Stacy thought to herself.
“Miss Lewis, could you get the police on the line for me, please?” came a voice from the principal’s office.
* * * * *
Sister Francis kept watch out her office window, as something unusual appeared to be coalescing at the bottom of Ormsby Avenue, down by the public school. Just then, her phone rang.
“Sister Francis speaking. Yes, Captain, I’m noticing that myself. Thank you, but I believe we will be able to handle this ourselves. I appreciate the call. Yes, good bye.”
She stuck her head out her doorway and ordered Mrs. Griffin to turn on the PA system. Picking up the microphone, her voice came crackling into every classroom, saying, “Attention, boys and girls. This is Sister Francis speaking. We have decided to dismiss all students early today. We are contacting your parents, with instructions that they are to come to the alley behind the school in their cars to pick you up individually. You will not be released from the building until one of your parents, or someone they have designated to act in their absence, has arrived to pick you up. Please behave yourselves and listen to your teachers until you have been taken home. I would now ask all teachers to lead their classes in prayers. Classes will resume as usual on Monday, unless your parents have been notified otherwise over the weekend. Thank you.”
When the kitchen phone rang, Marjorie knew her intuition was about to be proven right. She listened to the message, hung up the phone, picked up the receiver again, and dialed.
“Ma? I’m bringing the baby down to your place. Something’s happening at Jimmy’s school.”
* * * * *
Joseph and his mother left the public school, with the intention of catching a trolley to the bus station Downtown, where they could buy tickets to her sister’s house in Erie. Things promised to stay calmer there than they were here. They began walking back up Ormsby Avenue to the trolley stop at the intersection with Janius Street, about halfway up the hill.
About 30 seconds later, a swarm of students burst from the same school building, shouting and shaking their fists, as they also started the climb up the hill to the parochial school.
A squad car left the police station, about a quarter-mile away, hoping to block the mini-mob’s progress and steer them back into the school.
Marjorie climbed into her car, dropped off her daughter at her mother’s house, and started driving to the parochial school to pick up her son.
But unbeknownst to any of these people, word had been spread from bystanders using nearby pay phones that an opportunity for angry, frustrated, simmering adult dissidents to hijack this kiddie protest now existed – and they did just that, in numbers that surprised everyone.
For this was not just any Friday morning. This was Friday, April 5, 1968, the morning following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation had begun to explode in anger and righteous indignation. While other cities saw riots and destruction, this little borough had been spared. But that was about to change.
A couple of windows on parked cars got smashed, as the crowd made its way up Ormsby. Many of the students got scared, realizing they had started something in youthful bravado that quickly careened out of their control into something truly dangerous. They started running in all directions, some back to the school building, others toward their homes, some just running anywhere to get away from the growing violence that the adults around them started considering or committing.
Marjorie pulled the Rambler into the alley behind the school, and Jimmy quickly ran to the car. They came around the corner onto Ormsby and saw a crowd heading their way, taking up the whole width of the street. If she could make it to Janius Street before the demonstrators got there, they could take a different route and make it home safely.
Stacy and Joseph stood at the trolley stop, watching the mob get closer. The trolleys ran every seven minutes, and they’d been standing there more than eight. Where was that trolley? As a car came past them, a driver rolled down his window and said, “Hey, the buses and trolleys stopped running today because of the protests and problems that are starting up around town. There ain’t no trolley coming for you. Sorry.”
Just then, some of the adult demonstrators coming up the hill shouted, “Hey, Lady! You with us? They killed Dr. King, and you and your boy ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it? You’re just like us. Don’t run away. You need to be with us, or there’s gonna be trouble for you.”
Marjorie got to the corner, with the crowd still about a half-block away. “Make sure your doors are locked, Jimmy,” she said, noticing a woman and young boy frantically looking about, a panicked expression on their faces.
Within seconds, Stacy ran to the Rambler, slapped her hands on the driver’s window, and shouted, “Can you please get us away from all this? I just want to get my son to a safe place!”
“Mom, that’s Joseph. He plays pee-wee football with me. I know him, he’s nice,” said the young voice beside Marjorie on the passenger seat.
The squad car came tearing down Janius, blocking the intersection with Ormsby, just as Joseph and his mother climbed into the Rambler. Marjorie hit the gas and took a hard left onto Janius, speeding away from the bubbling mayhem.
Once the police arrived, the mob dissolved in minutes, and any students still in the area returned to the public school. Other than the guy with the crowbar who got hauled in for the car window smashings, no other arrests were made. And students at the parochial school got a jump on their weekend – although most never understood the circumstances that led to it.
The borough remained safe for another day, although most residents remained blissfully unaware how close the situation had come to spinning out of control.
* * * * *
At Jimmy’s grandma’s house, the two boys, their mothers, and his little sister sat around the kitchen table, the grown-ups sipping coffee and the kids enjoying some homemade jelly spread on freshly baked bread. The bus ride to Erie would not be necessary.
A “long-division” problem – people divided from each other for a long time, unnecessarily – got solved. At least with one small group of mothers and sons. And at least for one day.
Long division, the hardest kind of problem. Carrying ideas from one place to the next, realigning attitudes and assumptions into new configurations as you go. It may not always feel natural, it may not get any easier. But the result always makes sense, you have to admit.
Getting there is the hard part.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes