I remember the summer of 1978 leading up to the first day of school when desegregation and busing were starting. The Wilmington neighborhood where I grew up was predominately Black, but there were White families. Up until fourth-grade, my classes in school mostly consisted of Black students, but there were White kids mixed in here and there.
It wasn’t like we hadn’t seen any White kids before, but this was going to be a lot different. We wondered how they would be and if there were going to be any problems. I remember watching the news and seeing parents strongly oppose the matter…but it was going to happen.
On the first day of school that fall, I remember getting up early with my friends so we could wait for the buses to come in. We stood watching as the buses pulled up like a parade was passing by and just stared at the kids as they stared at us. I couldn’t imagine how they felt because we were on our home turf and they were in unfamiliar territory.
Once we were in our homeroom classes, one thing stood out to me: There were actually Black kids who were bused in as well. It hadn’t dawned on me at the time; but looking back, they were in the same boat I was in growing up. They were in a neighborhood with Blacks and Whites and wondered how the new school would be and how the kids would dress, act and talk. The difference was that they were outside of their neighborhood.
Years later I would experience how they felt and what was going on in their minds as I, too, would later be bused out of my neighborhood.
Back then, we stayed in one class all day. The teachers had to be well-rounded and teach all subjects. Being around the same kids all day helped us get to know each other better. During lunch and recess, we segregated ourselves, not by race, but by the kids who were bused and the kids who weren’t. It would actually take a few weeks before we really started getting to know each other and making new friends.
Trading Penny Candy for School Supplies
Living in the city, we were no strangers to the corner stores, which sold basic household items, usually from the first floor of someone’s house. The most important thing to us kids was penny candy. One dollar meant 100 pieces of various candies. Even getting fifty-cents worth of candy was a decent haul. These stores usually opened in the morning, so we would get candy before we went to school to hold us over through the day.
The kids from the suburbs didn’t have this luxury of morning candy and having the experience of “shopping” by themselves as kids. Sharing our candy was an icebreaker that build many friendships. After weeks of sitting next to each other and not speaking, Johnny, my first White friend, saw me with a haul of candy and asked for a piece of gum. After that “gum peace-offering,” we found we had the same interests in movies and television shows. Eventually we exchanged phone numbers and would help each with homework.
Because the bused-in suburban kids were a little more affluent, they had something in abundance that not all of us had: school supplies. That wasn’t true for all of us city kids, but those whose breakfast was often their dinner in the morning because they didn’t eat at night, rarely came to school with pencils.
For a while, whenever someone needed a pencil or a piece of paper, all they had to do was ask a White kid. Those transactions led to much bartering of candy for school supplies, which then led to the White kids buying the penny candy at ten cents a pop or more. When it was noticed that they often had money, this led to them getting robbed more and more.
I saw a lot of suburban kids being taken advantage of because they came from homes where their parents did everything for them. Kids from the city learned to do things on their own and used “street smarts” to their advantage. A lot of White kids were picked on and bullied because they were weak or gullible. I’m sure some of them had parents who didn’t want them bused after these horrible experiences; they didn’t want to be here either. I know a few kids to this day who aren’t too fond of Black people because of their experience.
It wasn’t only the White kids who were bullied or treated badly. Many of us consciously experienced racism for the first time in these days. We had heard stories from our parents and older brothers and sisters; but we hadn’t experienced overt prejudice first-hand. Just like there were some Black kids from this city who were bad, there were also some White kids who were bad as well.
They had their own cliques and groups among themselves just as we did, and some of them used the “N” word every now and then. At our young age, we had never personally been called that name and never expected to hear it from kids our age. Granted, when it was said, all we did was call them names back. But it was a reminder of what we were told by our parents could happen.
What Have We Learned
All in all, it was a learning experience around cultural differences. More of an eye-opener on their end as opposed to our end. The roles would later be reversed when we were bused out to the suburbs.
I now have three daughters, all of whom have attended Delaware public schools. One has graduated from college, one is a junior in college, and one is in sixth-grade. None has told me any stories of any racial problems or has even mentioned any issues that have stemmed from any cultural differences.
My two oldest daughters have been in schools that were predominately Black and some that were predominately White. My youngest has been through schools that were totally mixed with Blacks, Whites and a surprising number of Hispanics.
I want to think that busing and desegregation had a part in the multi-cultural diversity in the schools. I want to think that it made it easier when the school districts set up their boundaries.
But now that parents are given the opportunity to “choose” the schools or districts that their kids can go to, it makes me wonder if they are taking a step back by segregating themselves from schools or districts which may prevent kids from being exposed to different races and cultures.
I guess time will tell if they will have to start busing again.