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What Prejudice Taught Me About Advocacy

In 1966, as my twin sister Harrietta and I were preparing to go to high school for the first time, the federal government encouraged the state of Arkansas to ramp up its public school desegregation efforts that had started just a decade earlier. It was announced that more black students would be attending Little Rock Central High School that fall. Harrietta and I had been excited to attend Horace Mann Senior High School, an all black high school where our older sister had attended.  But we were selected along with 133 other black kids to go to desegregated Central High School instead.
Just a decade after the “Little Rock 10” had famously desegregated that school, traces of resentment and discomfort lingered. Being a young woman still trying to sort out my own life and wants and needs, I was hesitant to be a trailblazer. Like many young people, I just wanted to do my own thing and not draw much attention to myself. The idea of “all eyes on me” at a time that I just wanted to fly under the radar made me anxious — and as a young black woman growing up in volatile times, attending Central High School made me a little scared, too.
So when our parents told us we would be attending Little Rock Central High School, we told them that we didn’t want to go there.  Harrietta and I wanted to go to Horace Mann, just like our sister had. My parents knew the significance of what having my sister and I, and others like us, go to the traditionally “white” school meant though. They would not waver on their decision about our educational future.
They told us that although we were young, we had an important task to attend the newly integrated school and stand up for those who would follow us.  My mother reminded us that many people had fought for the opportunity to show that black children could excel and thrive in the same educational environments as our white peers. This was very difficult for us to accept but as the first days of school grew closer, we finally began to understand our role in facilitating positive change in educational opportunity in Little Rock and beyond.
Even though there were many positive changes in how black students were being treated in those days, Harrietta and I still experienced a lot of racism and prejudice.
Some teachers ignored us and never called on us in class, as if we were invisible.  I had always been a good math student. But I was devastated during my first semester at Central when I received a failing grade in geometry.  I had already told my parents that my teacher never let me answer questions in class. Knowing that this was a subject that I would never fail, my parents met with the teacher to ask what was wrong.  She explained that I had never participated in class, and that this was a large part of our grades. Of course, I told my parents that I had tried to raise my hand many times but she never called on me, so I finally gave up trying to participate.
The principal investigated the situation and he quickly learned that the teacher had failed all of the black students, believing that none of us should have been there.  I was allowed to retake the class and earned a passing grade.
Unfortunately, my geometry teacher wasn’t alone in thinking that we shouldn’t have been there.  Other teachers and students made it clearly known that they believed we belonged somewhere else. Most of the white students wanted to be receptive to us but were often afraid to befriend us and were sometimes encouraged by adults to stay away from us.  It was tough for us to go through the normal challenges of high school with that kind of pressure.
I’ve always believed that if the black and white students had been supported at that time by some of the adults we would have had a much more positive experience in high school.  In fact, 50 years later, my classmates both black and white have worked to put all those uncomfortable memories behind us. Our recent Little Rock Central High School Class of 1969 reunion was a joyful one, with positive interactions among all the attendees.
But back in the moment, in those days, I begged my father to allow me to transfer to Horace Mann.  I was just too unhappy. He gently but firmly explained to me that I had a responsibility to continue there to set an example for my younger sisters. And I took that challenge very seriously. I vowed that I would stay at Central High School and do my best. Of course, I had my twin Harrietta for support and we have always believed that together we could accomplish anything. It was also comforting that many of the 133 other black children who were attending there were my childhood friends. Many of us had been classmates in segregated schools since first grade and we helped each other.  On May 28th, 1969 we graduated with pride and joy. Standing there receiving our diplomas with over 700 students was incredible.  The look of pride on our parent’s faces helped us understand that no matter what our difficulties had been, it was definitely worth it.  We had been educated in the best high school in Little Rock and the doors were wide open for us to be successful in the future.
In retrospect, those difficult days at Central High School were the start of my lifelong call to advocate for educational opportunities. I learned that being uncomfortable, and making others feel uncomfortable, are all part of the necessary process of positive change. If I’d simply hid my head in the sand, like I’d wanted to do before my freshman year, I would have missed out on a world-class education alongside peers from all backgrounds. I developed greater confidence around who I am as a person, just as I am, and learned to speak up for others who may experience unfair treatment.
The true spirit of advocacy is founded in a place of necessity and fueled by a passion for positive change. I learned that in my formative high school years and continue to follow my heart today, even when the path may be uncomfortable.