Hello, I’m Dee Pendleton, and my story starts in 1970.
I was 8 years old when my mom informed me that the schools in Tyler were going to integrate. And what this meant to me was I would not enter the fourth grade at my beloved Mamie G. Griffin Elementary School. And this broke my heart, because Mamie G. Griffin was an extension of my family.
Instead, I would be going to Birdwell Elementary, a school across town that I’d never heard of before. Now my neighborhood, which is located just south of Martin Luther King and Caldwell Zoo, was divided up into three zones: Ramey, Birdwell, and Orr.
As everyone began to get their home room assignments, it became apparent to me that I would know no one in my homeroom class. I’d always been a good student, but to add insult to injury, I was very afraid that I wasn’t academically ready to join a predominantly white school. I’m not sure where that notion came from.
I’m the daughter of an educator, but still I did have those inhibitions. I was very anxious about starting school. But I really liked school and I loved shopping for new clothes and new school supplies and helping my mom get her bulletin boards ready for class.
Now in my household, we had three sets of clothes: We had play clothes, church clothes and school clothes. I decided I needed to wear church clothes for my integration debut. I decided I was going to wear an orange skirt, white shirt and black patent leather shoes.
When I went to get my school supplies, I eyed this briefcase. Not a book bag, not a book satchel, but a briefcase. I asked my mom could I have it. And she said, “Are you sure you want to briefcase?” And I said I was sure.
So I arrived the first day of school, and I wish I could’ve seen my own face. All the kids had on shorts, cullotes, jeans, tennis shoes. And here I was looking like a corporate attorney with my briefcase.
I made it to my homeroom only to find out that I wasn’t on the roll, so I ended up going to the principal’s office until the administrative glitch was taken care of. By the time I arrived back to my classroom, all eyes were on me — me and my briefcase. My teacher sat me down between Glenn Kleeburg and Janis Johns, and I settled in for the day — only that briefcase kept tripping her up as she walked down the aisle.
So, she asked me to put it on the counter. As soon as I put it on the counter, she said, “Now class, pull out your pencils and paper.” And of course mine was in my briefcase. Needless to say, that was the last day I brought that briefcase.
Our class was divided up into three categories, the A group, the C group and the B group. I was in the C group, and I thought that group was the least academically inclined. But it turned out those were the students with the highest academic ability. And I was the only Black in that group.
That was the first time in my life that I’d been the only Black in any group, but it would not be the last time. In fact, it would happen so much in my life that it no longer became unusual or uncomfortable.
Needless to say, by the end of the day, I had new best friends and Birdwell wasn’t so bad.
So, there are a couple of lessons that I learned from this experience. One is that education seemed to level the playing field. I realized that if I study hard and I excelled that I could gain respect with my education, even when I wasn’t respected outside of the classroom. I also learned that most kids don’t come into life with hatred or prejudice in their hearts; I think that’s something that we learn. So as an adult looking back on this situation, I’m grateful that I was able to experience such good things by attending Birdwell.
In the end, Birdwell became as big of an experience as Mamie G. Griffin had become. With all the political unrest that there is today, I wonder how this affects other little 8 year olds.
As an adult, if I could look back and tell that eight year old something, this is what I’d say:
Number one, don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see. Enter every situation with an open mind and make your own decisions. And don’t let the expectations of something negative that might happen dictate what positive could happen.
Dee Pendleton is a native Tylerite and retired business analyst with American Airlines. She currently serves as president of Tyler Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and is an advisory board member for Texas African American Museum and The American Heart Association.
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