Seven black students recall braving the racist crowds who protested their transfer to Mount Greenwood school in '68
For six months, Steven Palmore had to walk past people screaming "n - - - - - - go home" to get to his classroom. It was the kind of chaos that greeted black students who integrated all-white schools in the South.
But Palmore and five other black students -- one other boy and five girls -- weren't in the South. They were in Mount Greenwood on the Far South Side of Chicago.
The year was 1968. The school was Mount Greenwood Elementary School.
"The people who were outside picketing, they could have been out there until hell froze over," Palmore said Friday. "They could still be out there now. I was going to get into Morgan Park band whatever it took. As far as somebody standing out there yelling and screaming, I wasn't going to let that stop me."
'Who are these people?'
It has been 40 years since the seven crossed racial boundaries to integrate Mount Greenwood Elementary School, and 36 years since they've been together.
Palmore is now a jazz musician living in Queens, N.Y. His band performed at the Maywood Jazz Festival on Saturday afternoon, and he persuaded his former classmates to use the occasion to have a reunion.
Besides Palmore, the "Mount Greenwood Seven" are Omar Hester, a theatrical performer in Amsterdam; Deborah Hunter-Russell, a project manager with AT&T in Dallas; Toni Lewis-Anderson, a cardiovascular metabolic specialist in Munster, Ind.; Adrienne Shumac-Thompson, an orchestra teacher in Atlanta; Janis Weatherall-Clark, a retired special education teacher in Chicago, and Nancy Ward Wysinger, an accountant in Indianapolis.
On Saturday, the group sat around a picnic table in Maywood's Veterans Memorial Park and shared photographs and hugs.
But mostly, they looked back on the role they played in integrating public education on the South Side.
Under the Chicago Board of Education's "permissive transfer plan," black students who attended overcrowded schools in their own neighborhoods were allowed to transfer to schools outside of their district.
All of the former students said they took advantage of the transfer plan to leave the all-black Fernwood Elementary School so they could get into Morgan Park High School, which had a reputation as a very good high school.
"When we drove up, there was a sea of people," Anderson said. "We were naive. We thought we were just transferring. All you could see were picket signs. I saw all of these people, and I remember distinctly turning to my mom and asking: 'Who are these people?' "
At one point, 104 Chicago Police officers guarded the students as they went in and out of Mount Greenwood Elementary School.
On Feb. 2, 1968, the Chicago Daily News described the scene outside Mount Greenwood as being "reminiscent of the integration of schools in Little Rock."
"The people went berserk," Wysinger recalls.
In rain, sleet and snow, the crowd, made up mostly of women pushing baby strollers, kept picketing until the black students graduated.
While the other students were paired, Wysinger remembers being the only black girl in the class.
"I was probably very fearful, but I didn't want to disappoint my family. I didn't want to reflect poorly on my community," she said. "During that time, you represented black folks everywhere."
The most shocking revelation for the seven was the pristine condition of their new school.
Looking back, Hester marvels at the courage of white students who reached out to them.
"They lived in the area, and they had to go home," he said.
'We were determined'
Several of the former Mount Greenwood students said they now realize how brave their parents were. "It is hard to imagine. I don't know if I could do that to my son," Hunter-Russell said. "But our parents didn't make us do it. It was our decision, and we were determined to get through it in order to get to Morgan Park."
Palmore says the experiences shared by the Mount Greenwood Seven have lessons relevant to students today.
"The younger generation takes education for granted," he said.
As 13-year-olds, the Mount Greenwood Seven were willing to take the verbal abuse and insults to get a better education.
In the end, the trauma they endured at the hands of prejudiced whites was worth it, they said.
"We could have easily said no, but we wanted to go to Morgan Park," Hester said. "That was our ultimate goal, and we stuck it out."