Living in Xenia, Ohio was both unique and interesting in a lot of ways. The town itself that I grew up in was a functioning small town with all of the charm, injustice, fun and community that such places are famous for.
The town was very segregated as far as housing was concerned, with blacks living in the East End of town. Interestingly enough somewhere back in the mists of history it might have been different. The reason I think so is that Cherry Grove, the traditionally black cemetery ( yes segregation extends even unto death) is in the West End of town and there is a “white” cemetery up on East Third Street. So perhaps sometime in the past the two groups switched sides for some reason.
As with most small towns churches and schools were the centers of the community. I loved school so that was fine with me. I was not integrated until the 9th grade when I was sent from East to Central Jr. Hi. My brother Robert had gone to Central when it was the white high school. Not because he was white, although I had reason to think he might have “passed” when I went there, but because he was large. East could not field a football team, not enough boys, so large black boys could go to the white high school so they could be on the football team. Kind of like the better paid exploitation of black athletes currently. But I digress.
I had three teachers who impacted my life the most. First, my sixth grade teacher Ms. Taylor. She was gorgeous! A shapely woman with the highly prized characteristics in the black community of the time, and if truth be told of today, of good hair and light skin. All of the boys in my class, just entering puberty, were in love with her. She was also a great teacher, not only requiring that you paid attention and stayed engaged in the lesson, but searching out enrichment activities for us.
For me she was the ideal. Beautiful, smart, she lived in an apartment in a town that probably only had fewer than 50 apartment units. Everyone lived in a house, having an apartment was way cool! And she drove a convertible. In the spring of my 6th grade year she insisted several of her better students ( that would include me) prepare a science project to present at Central State University nearby. I did one–I think it was about plants, but do not remember–and was declared a regional winner, eligible to go to the fair at CSU.
Ms. Taylor came and picked me up in her convertible on a Saturday morning and then, gloriously, remembered she had forgotten something at her apartment, so we had to drop back by there. It was, by modern standards, a very modest apartment, kind of a modified efficiency with a separate bedroom, but to me it was sophisticated and exotic, kind of like Ms. Taylor.
We drove out to Wilberforce and I presented my project, I won a ribbon, but not one of the top prizes. Still, this was the first time I had ever been made to feel truly special for something academic that I had done. Ms. Taylor also pushed me to audition for a play that was being put on in what was then the fairly new integrated Xenia High School. It was an attempt to mix black and white students from elementary schools, which were still segregated, prior to required integration. I wanted to audition for one of the minor roles, or even a role working backstage, but Ms. Taylor vetoed that idea. I was to read for the lead.
The play was “Pandora’s Box” and I actually was chosen to be the lead–Pandora ( there are some people who think I was type cast, I have been known to open up a box of turmoil from time to time!) . At the time I did not think much of it until I announced to my parents that I was the lead and they were shocked. A black girl in the lead of an integrated play at XHS? Wow!
So, Ms Taylor taught me two lessons, you can be singled out for praise due to academic achievement and you can do things you don’t think you can if you try.
My second teacher was Martha Lightheiser, a white woman who was my high school French teacher. By now I had been integrated and was in search of a connection, a role model, a champion. Martha, a short, dark haired woman was different from most of my other teachers. My 9th grade French teacher, Emma Boli was a sweetheart and took me under her wing, but Emma was a quiet, gentle soul, so we did not share similar personalities. Martha, on the other hand was a spitfire. She also, in an era when most of my white teachers ( I never had another black teacher after integration, they sent them all down to the elementary grades) wore very conservative and unremarkable, even dowdy clothes, dressed to the nines! Martha wore designer before most people in Xenia knew what designer was! She and I became fast friends which lasted for decades, including when I came back to the district after graduating from college and taught with her. She would tell me all kinds of things about life, about men, about race and about money.
When I was a sophomore Martha put me on the French Scholarship Team. This was a group of students who took state achievement tests. There were various disciplines, math, science, English,etc. I placed in the state on the French test and another black student, Richard Williams, the son of one of the Spanish professors at CSU, placed in Spanish.
This caused a bit of a dilemma. The banquet to recognize those who had placed in the state was held at Geyer‘s Restaurant. And Geyer’s was one of the few places in Xenia that did not allow blacks to eat in the restaurant. I always thought it was odd that blacks could cook there but could not eat there. So, the school officials were in a quandary, now that they had black student winners where could they hold the banquet?
Quite a controversy erupted and it see sawed back and forth between moving the event to canceling the event to having only the white kids and giving the black kids theirs in a school assembly to insisting black students be allowed to come. This last had another problem, however, in that some of the black parents now said that if it was held at Geyer’s they would not let their children come. Meetings were held and finally it was decided that the banquet would be held at Geyer’s in a private dining room. The parents were mollified and the event went off without a hitch.
Martha had been one of the most strident voices insisting that the banquet go on as usual and that the black students, of course, be included. She was willing to buck the school administration and the town folks who did not mind a segregated restaurant in either theory or practice. I was her student and she was not going to have me disrespected because of the color of my skin.
Martha taught me that being an original was much better than being a copy, no matter what kind of original you were or what you might think you wanted to copy. She taught me not to compromise, but to go after what I wanted and stand up for what I thought was right, even at the risk of being unpopular. I have a sign over my desk right now that reminds me of her whenever I look at it. “What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular.”
My last teacher/mentor/role model was Dr. Wilhemina “Ma” Robinson. A statuesque light skinned black woman who taught me history at Central State University. She was the adviser of my Phi Theta Kappa Chapter ( History Honor Society for you science types) and a great influence on my young adult days. Everyone loved this erudite, classy woman. I actually taught out of a text book co-authored by her early in my own teaching career. The essence of ” Ma” though was demonstrated most clearly one day when Stokely Carmichael visited our campus. This was in the late 1960’s and he was quite the celebrity. He was coming to speak to Ma Robinson’s history class.
In this time period there was no “white” state college in the area. Wright State ( we called it White State) was one building standing in a corn field. As a result many white students from Xenia and the surrounding area went to CSU. When I was at CSU from 1966-1971 ( It took me five years because I got married and had a baby) we had almost 30% white students.
When Stokely arrived and looked at our class with the number of white faces in it he announced he was not speaking to the class until the “white devils” left the class. My white classmates began to look uneasy, they were after all in the minority and did not know what their situation was at the moment. Would they be asked to leave?
Ma Robinson gestured for him to join her in the hall. We could hear her, even through the closed door, dressing him down and telling him that those were her students and that he would either talk to her entire class or he could just leave.
Five minutes later a chastened Stokely came back into the classroom and gave his talk. He answered questions and treated everyone with respect.
Ma Robinson taught me that sometimes you have to stand up for folks who might not be in a position to stand up for themselves.
All three of my role models are gone now, I have others who are still with us, but these three woman, more than any other outside of my family have helped make me who I am today. Thank you Ms. Taylor, Mrs. Lightheiser and Dr. Robinson. I hope I can pass on the torch you left with me.