They say the shortest distance between two people is a story. Let’s share our own personal stories with one another here, in an effort to better understand ourselves and our Tiger brothers and sisters and both the positive and negative racial biases with which we grew up. We are a fascinating generation, most of us having begun public school during segregation, then experiencing desegregation at the impressionable years of grades 4-6, many of us being bussed across towns to unfamiliar schools. We 1978 LRCH Tigers were blessed with teachers and faculty who promoted racial equality, giving us a pretty awesome high school experience with which to start our adult lives.
- What messages did you receive growing up in your immediate family about your own and other races?
- What stories do you know from your own family history? If your parents or relatives are still alive, can you interview them to see what you can find out about how they/you were raised? How did they respond to the Civil Rights Movement going on during your childhood?
- What personal stories/memories do you have from your past that influenced the way you see/experience color?
A question was asked when was my first time to encounter race. My grandparents were born in the 20’s, and my parents were born in the 40’s. I heard the “N” word a lot when they would talk about black people. When my dad married my stepmother, she slowly changed that in our immediately family. We didn’t associate with people of color. At Jacksonville Elementary, there were very few black children, but I never personally thought anything about it…they were kids just like me.
We moved to Little Rock in June 1970. I was excited because I was going to be able to walk across the street to go to 6th grade. Boy was I wrong. That is when desegregation hit and I had to go to Southwest Middle School. That is when I first was exposed to a larger number of black kids. My homeroom and first period teacher was a black woman, Mrs. Yancey. I probably gave her more grief than I should have, because that was my background as a younger child, that black people were not the same as the whites. We were part of that move to the private school in 7th grade. That lasted one year. I missed my friends and wanted to go back to public school. Our neighborhood went to Dunbar Jr. High. I went there in 8th and 9th grade, and black kids and white kids were just kids. I do remember a lot of records were played at lunch in the mid-70’s…my first exposure to MoTown. Many of those kids came to Central with me, or I with them…
To me, Little Rock Central was magical. America’s most famous high school, and there I am walking the halls, attending the same classes the Little Rock 9 attended…walking in the same steps they walked. The thing that impressed me the most is how well we all got along. Mr. Holmes was instrumental in that. His leadership, the way he genuinely cared about all of us…that spoke volumes to me. There were no racial incidents that I can recall. Sure there were fights, but none that were racially motivated. That is a fact I am still proud of after all these years. Little Rock Central had a major impact on my life that I came to realize more and more we moved away from graduation.
The next phase of my life was with the United States Navy. So many things I learned at Central I was able to put to practical use, especially in race relations. In the military, we HAVE to trust each other, DEPEND on each other, because that person standing or sleeping next to you is the person you may have to depend on to save your life, and they feel the same about you. I was able to draw upon my time at Central to treat each person, regardless of color or creed, as equals.
When I was stationed in Kings Bay, GA, I was the supervisor of the enlisted personnel in my shop. I would sit down with each of my guys, black and white, each month to go over evaluation points that would eventually make up their annual evaluations. One of my younger petty officers, a young black male, accused me of being racially motivated to give him lower scores. My response to him? I don’t care WHAT COLOR you are. If we both are cut, we both bleed red. I told him to speak with the other young black men in the shop and if they felt the same way, we could go talk with our Chief. They told him he couldn’t be more wrong, and he dropped it. About 4 years later, we ran into each other again. We both had been promoted. He said, “Chief, you remember that time when you were going over the monthly review with me?” I told him I did. He apologized for his accusation, and said that he began to use that technique with his own shop, and it was going well for him. That apology occurred in 1999, and STILL means a lot to me.
Mother’s Day 2018, my wife Carole and I went to see the band Chicago. During the concert, they showed many scenes of the violence that occurred in Chicago during the time we were in school at Central. I have been thinking about that this whole week. I can’t get those scenes out of my mind. I am so THANKFUL that we attended the school we did, and have the relationships we have with each other. I am thankful for each of my classmates, black and white. We have an amazing class, and I can’t seem to find the right words to express my feelings for each of my classmates. Someone mentioned getting to know each other better through Facebook. I must state that I absolutely LOVE Kenneth Monts’ postings about Black History. I have learned so much, and I hope to learn so much more.
Central has been a major part of my life, and continues to be to this day. That is why I am pouring so much into this reunion. I am so pumped about this one. Thanks for letting me share this story.
A Reflection of My Public School Education
I always loved when school started in the fall (my favorite season). The excitement of getting to see my friends everyday, learning new things and usually a new pair of shoes! It was no different when going into 6th grade. The Little Rock Public School District started the desegregation busing program. Some of my friends were put in private schools as parents chose not to have their child go to class with black children. This was my first real awareness of discrimination. Some students I was in school with spread fear of what would happen to us attending an integrated school – “They will cut off your long hair” or “Beat you.” Despite being a little nervous, I quickly found everything was no big deal. I had my first black teachers for Math, Science and English. They were excellent! The kids that were bused to our school were polite, smart and friendly. I had a great year. I attended Horace Mann and Dunbar Jr. High Schools before going to Little Rock Central High School.
My years at LRCHS were also good. Both my parents graduated from Central. My mother graduated with the class of 1958 and saw the riots firsthand. She said most of the students were not involved with the mob crowds and inside the school was nothing like the outside. My grandfather, Gene Smith, was chief-of-police at that time and worked to keep the 9 black students safe from violence. I feel I grew up in a family who taught acceptance and fairness.
My education at Central was good although looking back I could have been a better student. My teachers were caring and competent and always encouraged me to achieve. I met my best friend and husband my sophomore year. We have been married 37 years, have 3 children and 5 grandchildren. We are fortunate to be living our dream and advocate equality and impartiality through our family and involvement in our community.
I feel that diversity at LRCH during my years there gave me a better life experience for living in this world. I find it frustrating the our country still has so much bigotry and prejudice. I know coming together as a class again will rejuvenate my hope to eliminate discrimination. The Class of ‘78 is truly GREAT!
Mignon Smith Gastman