DMS Students Close Out Black History Month

7th Graders Hear Firsthand Account of Segregation & Integration
Posted on 02/28/2020
This is the image for the news article titled 7th Graders Hear Firsthand Account of Segregation & IntegrationHistory got real for 7th graders at Dresden Middle School the last week of Black History Month. 

The possibly life-altering event occurred as part of their regular English Language Arts class where topics and new vocabulary are introduced, background knowledge is assessed and added to, and small group discussions around poetry, lyrics, written and oral communication are employed. While the students are told and understand they are working toward mastering a standard as set by the state of Tennessee, when they are in Lynn Brasfield’s classroom they are also enjoying the benefits of a life committed to fulfilling what she says is her calling.

And this week, that calling included sharing her own story of what she refers to as the “high school Ruby Bridges” experience.

Bridges, the six-year-old whose story has become a mainstay of February’s Black History emphasis, was re-introduced to the students in a short music video. They heard the young girl was the first to sit in a Louisiana classroom in 1960, for many months alone with just her teacher, as parents of white students refused to send their children to join the young black girl.

“The Supreme Court said she had the right to go. She was only six and she became a hero,” the video played.

Following a second viewing of the video, small group discussion was made easier by the configuration of the classroom that positions four desks circling a multi-shelf set of resources. Brasfield used both visible group numbers and/or the “AKA” names of the students to respond to questions designed to dig deeper into the content presented. (AKA names such as High Flyer, FB20, and event Potato are chosen by students if they wish and are utilized to add to the sense of community Brasfield hopes to instill in her classes.)

In a check of background knowledge, students responded that the 60s were a time when black people were “not allowed to eat in restaurants” and “not allowed to sit in front of bus,” where “schools were separated by whites and black schools,” “people of different skin color didn’t play with each other” and “black children got school books handed down from white schools.”

With the meaning of “segregation” established, the video underscored, “She had courage and determination to overcome segregation.”

Questions the students pondered and (at times with gentle encouragement to make “that soft voice be heard”) readily answered included: How did Ruby change history? How did she show she was brave? How is Ruby’s story similar to other events you have learned about in history?

The compare or contrast activity revealed the students prior learning of Bridges’ story as well as boycotts, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and nonviolent protests. They also became personal as students noted lessons ranging from “be brave and never give up on something you want,” “never give up on what you think is right” and “don’t let other people get to you.”

Next students shared their own questions they would want to ask of Bridges:
• What pushed you to act upon the situation?
• Do you remember how it felt?
• Was it difficult hearing all those bad comments?
• What made you keep going?
• How did you feel walking through all those people you knew wanted to do harm to you?

“Close your eyes, really tight, and see Ms. B as Ruby Bridges,” Brasfield then instructed. “I wasn’t 6 years old. I was much older. But as a person of color, an African American, I remember going through some of those same struggles that Ruby Bridges had to go through.”

Brasfield then walked the children through a portion of her own story. Growing up in Rutherford, Tennessee, she first attended an all-black, two-room school along with her five siblings. She came from a loving family she said, with a father who worked as a sharecropper and a mother who instilled the values and morals that helped her and brothers and sisters succeed in the classroom and life.

She explained that China Grove school had no indoor water fountains, no indoor bathrooms, and no whites.

“After China Grove, I was bused to a middle school – Dyer Middle School, still all black. We did have an indoor bathroom and an indoor water fountain,” she added and then asked, “Dyer Middle and China Grove – separate but do you think it was equal? No, we got all the hand me down books.”

Then it was time for high school and while the plan had been to attend an all-black school at that age as well, they were instead bussed to Rutherford High School.

“We were integrated … make a note of that word … I – N – T – E – G – R – A – T – I– O – N,” she advised and paused her account to hear feedback on what the students knew of that word’s meaning.

“To be brought together,” “to put or bring together,” they said.

“We were going to school with white kids and white teachers, no black teachers. Let me tell you, students, I was scared to death. I was just like Ruby. I was afraid,” she revealed. “But they didn’t treat us bad. We were past the time of Jim Crowe Laws and MLK marches. Still, I was afraid.”

While the laws were no longer in place, social norms were. For instance, she told the now even more attentive group, Rutherford High school still had a whites-only swimming pool.

“It wasn’t a law but blacks just knew,” she said. “It was understood; blacks did not swim in that pool.”

When the tables were turned and this time they could ask their questions of someone who had experienced the history they had just studied, the students were encouraged not to be shy. They were not.

“What would you ask me?” Brasfield allowed. “No questions offend me just because I’m African American but make sure they are appropriate for the classroom.

Some questions from students, along with Brasfield’s answers:
How hard was it for you?
I was very afraid. I had never been in school with whites before. So were the others who were bussed to Rutherford High School.
Why didn’t you just move?
At that time, we couldn’t move wherever you wanted to. My dad was a sharecropper. He worked for a man, and we picked cotton and strawberries, and the house we lived in the man we picked for owned. We didn’t have the money or the time to do it.
Did they judge you?
I did experience discrimination. In the Yearbook, they had “most mischievous” or “most likely to succeed.” I got one of those and the white boy who got it, too, refused to have his picture with me. They remedied it with two photos.
I also always wanted to be a cheerleader. But it was an all-white squad. I got voted the next cheerleader but I didn’t get to do it. You would have to dress out with the white girls and that presented a problem as well… I remember that to this day.

How could you focus on your work with people all around you talking about you?
In the classroom, we weren’t made to feel that way. We were welcomed there. They wanted us to learn.
How long did it take for you to get comfortable?
Freshman year it wasn’t comfortable…. Then I got used to attending, riding the bus, going in, seeing my white teachers and we had some white friends as well. It took a while … but by senior year I was very comfortable. Like anything, it takes time to become comfortable. Just like reading in this class, first time you do it, it’s not comfortable but it gets more comfortable.

Brasfield also underscores that she is glad to have had the experiences that have shaped her into the educator she is today. She gives credit to a Mr. Halliburton, a white chemistry teacher who served as her inspiration.

“He gave me the confidence and modeled how to be a good teacher for my students,” she explained. “Teaching is my calling, I love kids, I love books, I love learning, I love grading papers. I love everything about school. I always have. This is what I was born to do.”

Following Brasfield’s story and the students’ interview, the class moved to posters containing lyrics to an India Ary song, “What If”:
What if Martin didn't stand up?
What if Rosa didn't sit down?
What if Malcolm didn't man up?
Where would we be now?

As the song played and more notable leaders from black history were named, the students wrote their emotions on the displayed posters as Brasfield repeated significant lines, most notably, “We matter. Together we are love.”

When asked what would life be like if segregation still existed, the students showed great insight, noting the hate and disrespect that would be prevalent.

But Bradon Taylor, AKA Lucky, perhaps summed up the class’ reaction best.

“I wouldn’t have you as an amazing teacher,” he replied.

During the break and before the final writing assignment of an objective summary of 5 sentences on the story of Ruby Bridges, Abigal Lozada AKA Potato offered her own praise of Brasfield. “She makes things fun. I like her energy,” she said, and added that after hearing her story, “I look up to her even more.”

Brasfield has spent her entire 20 years as a teacher at Dresden Middle School.