How 4 women fought racism as Mississippi schools integrated
GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — The year was 1965, and twin sisters Janis and Iris Moore along with Pat Yeldell and Linda O’Neil became four of the first African-American students to attend Mississippi middle schools E.E. Bass and Solomon during desegregation.
Until that year, Greenville Public Schools had been largely segregated and black students weren’t allowed to take classes at certain schools, like E.E.?Bass or Solomon.
It wasn’t until a Freedom of Choice plan designed by the local school board was approved by the U.S. Department of Education and Welfare that gradual integration at the schools began with four grades per year over a three-year period.
Thanks to Freedom of Choice plans across the country, students in segregated areas, like Greenville, were given the option to attend the school of their choice.
That freedom led O’Neil to choose Solomon Middle School. Many of her friends, however, enrolled at E.E. Bass Middle School.
“I was the first black at Solomon,” O’Neil said.
“E.E. Bass was the older school. Solomon was the brand new school with the air conditions and everything — new facility.”
For the next three years after O’Neil began classes at Solomon, more black students began attending the still very segregated classes at E.E. Bass and Solomon middle schools. Greenville’s public school system in 1970 graduated its first fully integrated class.
While O’Neil was excited to attend Solomon, it wasn’t the easiest transition.
On her first day, she discovered she was the only black student in the entire school.
“I got over there to the school and there was nobody but me,” she said.
“It was just a very interesting situation because now I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, I made a big mistake. I shouldn’t be going here.’”
Although it’s been more than five decades since her first day, O’Neil will never forget how other students received her.
“The first day, when I got out of the car, everybody was looking at me. Some came up to me, and I was fine. As the day went on, the day got a little difficult because there were kids jumping out of the hallway, out of my way,” she said.
When school dismissed for the day, parents rode the brakes, driving slowly past her so they could get a glimpse of this student attending classes with their white children.
“They were looking at me, but I didn’t know it,” she said.
In her mind, the students had accepted her. On her second day of classes, she quickly realized her classmates were doing what they could to avoid her.
“When I went up to step up to where people had received me the first day, it was a turnoff. They went this way and they went that way. Everybody was scattered,” she said.
Janis Moore said she will never forget the hatred that was exhibited toward her and the other black students on the first day E.E. Bass Middle School opened its doors to black students.
“There were a bunch of parents here with signs and yelling. I remember the sign clearly, ‘Help get the n(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk) out of Bass,’” she said. “I had never seen adults act like that toward children.”
Iris, however, said she doesn’t remember the blatant racism as vividly as her sister but nonetheless, attending Bass is an experience she will always remember.
“That first year was just real interesting,” Iris said. “The first year was rough. I can remember us missing the bus on purpose.”
Before their seventh-grade year started, both Moore girls had plans to attend the all-black Coleman Middle School. And, they were excited, as their aunt was a teacher there.
Their father, Charles Moore, a retired marine, postal worker and civil rights activist who pushed for desegregation, gave his daughters the option of attending Bass or Coleman.
“My father asked us, ‘Did we want to go?’ We said ‘Yes,’ but we didn’t know what we were talking about or what we were getting into,” Iris said.
Janis remembers their father giving them a choice, but not being as eager to attend as her sister.
“I was more perceptive and more sensitive. I knew it was going to be hard but I didn’t know it was going to be as hard as it was,” she said.
Before classes started in September 1965, the Moore sisters had an opportunity to tour Bass and meet some of their soon-to-be white classmates.
“I can remember sitting around the table because I had never been around white people other than to see them in the grocery store,” Iris said.
Although she and her sister did not talk to the white students, they did observe them and realized they weren’t all that different from them, Iris recalls.
“They’re just like us. They act like our friends,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘This will be a breeze,’ but it wasn’t a breeze.”
The experience of attending the school was not at all what Iris had imagined.
“I was really caught off guard, blindsided,” she said.
Both sisters said they were warned that students would call them names or avoid them, but neither realized how true that would become.
“When we would go out in the public and ran across these kids, it was as if we were invisible,” Janis said.
What was hard, Janis said, was their white classmates were treating the black students as if they were their servants — or at least beneath them. Sadly, it was the way they were used to treating the black people who worked in their homes.
“One of the biggest issues was they were used to dealing with the kids of the people who worked for them — as domestics — and we didn’t come from that background,” Janis said.
The majority of the white students expected their black classmates to address them as “sir” or “ma’am,” just as they would be bid at their homes. The Moore sisters and other black students refused to do that, though.
In a seventh-grade English class, one student thought she could order Janis around. However, she quickly found out she could not.
“This student in the next row dropped her pencil and she said, ‘Pick it up,’” Janis recalled.
Not used to taking orders, Janis did not respond. So, the girl asked her again. When Janis still did not comply, the girl raised her hand to get the teacher’s attention.
“She raises her hand up and says, ‘Ms. Kellner, I told her to pick that pencil up and she didn’t do it.’ And Ms. Kellner said, ‘She’s not going to,’” Janis said.
Iris fondly recalls Ms. Acre, another teacher at Bass, who welcomed all students, regardless of their skin color.
“She was just wonderful. She always greeted us happy. She never treated us different. She just saw kids,” she said.
Not all teachers were like Ms. Kellner and Ms. Acre, though.
“You still had teachers who were prejudice and didn’t think it was right,” Iris said. “I could tell that some of my papers were graded more harshly than the white kids.”
Although at a school across town, O’Neil said she, too, was mistreated by her classmates. They would move their desks further away from her or get up from the table if she sat down with them.
“The teachers allowed it; they didn’t stop it,” she said.
At Solomon, though, O’Neil found the wealthier children who came from affluent families were always nice to her.
“They knew how to treat people because their parents were in prospective places, doing things and their businesses were with black people,” she said.
The school’s principal, Dave Dunnaway, and school counselor, Robert Montesi, also made the school days a little more bearable.
“They helped me get through. They told me if anybody bothered me just let them know,” Iris said.
Yeldell, who attended school and was friends with the Moore sisters, remembers the protests — students walking out because they did not want to share facilities with their African-American classmates.
“They wanted separate bathrooms and separate cafeteria time, separate lunch hours,” she said.
Although they were loud, they didn’t get their way. Despite the uproar, the black students remained — and continued to join their white classmates in the bathroom and the cafeteria.
“We didn’t make it any better because once we found out they didn’t want to have lunch with us, we would go to the cafeteria. Each one of us would put our tray down and they wouldn’t sit down,” she said.
O’Neil, too, remembers not being accepted during lunch hours. So, she made an effort to sit at a different table every day. And that infuriated the students.
Eventually, O’Neil couldn’t take the hatred anymore and decided she would bring her lunch to school and eat it outside under the shade of a tree.
Still, students found a way to taunt her.
“I had two or three white girls (say), ‘What are you doing?’ And one of them tried to throw a cricket on me,” she said.
O’Neil realized she couldn’t change people’s ways but she could report them to the school administration.
“If they are going to bother me, I’m going to make sure they know who did this,” she said.
The girl who attempted to throw the cricket on her received a two-day suspension as did another student who bumped O’Neil with her musical instrument.
Despite so many cruel classmates, Janis said the actions of one particular classmate still bring tears of joy to her eyes.
“It was just a small, simple thing but it always kind of cheers me up when I talk about it,” she said. “Connie Dunn was in the car with her mother and she waved at me. It was so powerful. She was with her mother and most of these parents were teaching their kids to hate us and the fact that she did that, I just never forgot it.”
The four women said their Christian upbringing taught them from a young age to always “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Although there were times they wanted to retaliate when classmates taunted them, they tried their best to ignore the hatred as they knew their education was more important.
“Even as a child, I knew not what it was to be prejudiced,” O’Neil said. “We were just taught to treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Over time, the stress of school took its toll on O’Neil. She developed a bleeding ulcer, which led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. Through treatment from doctors, medication and prayer, O’Neil said the effects of her disease eased up.
“If I had said something back, I probably would have released a whole lot inside of me and wouldn’t have had that ulcer,” she said. “Because I had to eat it up and suck it up, I had the health issues. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I was really getting things, things I really needed, to nourish me, so I stayed.”
Unlike the Moore sisters, Yeldell said she didn’t experience as much hostility at Bass. One reason for that might have been because her father was a well-respected doctor in the community, unlike the Moore sisters, whose father was a civil rights activist.
“The kids didn’t really try to be friendly, but they didn’t bother me,” she said.
Even if the children treated her like she was invisible, “I didn’t care,” she said. “I know there was some name calling, but I can call names, too.”
Like her friend Yeldell, Iris did not let other students get her down.
“Compared to my sister I was the more aggressive one. I would talk back to them and stuff like that,” she said. “I didn’t fight before then, but I wasn’t going to back down.”
For Iris, physical abuse often came at the hands of her male classmates. And although she was only about 4-feet-11-inches and weighed less than 100 pounds, that didn’t stop her from defending herself.
“I remember one time, it was after school on the bus, and I was walking down the aisle and this boy just hit me in my back for no reason so I turned around and started fighting. This kid was on the football team. He was a big guy,” Iris said.
That wasn’t the only fight the two got into. After telling the bus driver the bully wouldn’t stop kicking her seat, Iris took matters into her own hands.
“I told him stop kicking me, stop kicking me,” she said.
The boy wouldn’t, so she hit him back. That landed Iris in the principal’s office, where she received a stern warning but never a suspension as she never instigated a confrontation. Soon after, the Moore’s father had them removed from the bus.
Although they weren’t riding the bus anymore, they still had run-ins with that particular student.
One Sunday after church, Iris and Janis remember walking to a nearby store, where they encountered the boy, the same one who kicked Iris’ seat. The sight of his squalor was shocking, Iris recalled.
“I saw him raggedy as I had never seen a child,” she said, adding he was barefoot and dirty. “He was just dirt poor.”
Iris said the look on the boy’s face was one of mortification and fear that she would tell others at school of his poverty.
“I saw him at his lowest,” she said, adding after that encounter, he never bothered her again at school.
After they stopped taking the bus, the Moore sisters began walking to school. There was a man along their route who took it upon himself to watch to make sure they made it safely to school each morning.
“We would just kind of wave to him,” Janis said.
In one of their only conversations, Janis said she remembers the man, who spoke with a heavy accent, validating their reasons for attending Bass.
″‘You have every right to go to this school. Don’t let them stop you,’” he said to the sisters.
“You had kindnesses like that,” Janis said.
Today, the women have found people will stop and make a point to apologize for their mistreatment or their passiveness in not stopping the prejudice decades ago.
Ironically, one of the students who used to mistreat Iris became one of her co-workers and later friends. He made a point to apologize.
Not one to hold a grudge, Iris said his repentance was unnecessary because his guilt and remorse for what he did was his punishment.
“The fact that you feel bad about it is enough,” she said.