It must have been third or fourth grade at PS9 on the northeast corner of 82nd Street and West End Avenue. It was an old building even then. The playground was the cement enclosed “courtyard” in the rear of the building and the sidewalk on West End Avenue. There was a typical West End Avenue apartment building alongside the school to the north and more across the avenue. Up 82nd street was Broadway and down was Riverside Park.
Elizabeth was very dark. We learned she came from Liberia and heard that her father worked at the United Nations. Of course, how would a black child be in our class unless they or their parents were somehow special? We were tracked in those days. Ours was an “IGC” class. We were intellectually gifted children. Our West Side liberal parents permitted this tracking of their children into classes for their “intellectually gifted” and white offspring. This was a 1950’s privilege to be kept together on a track to better teachers, high schools and beyond with the other white, predominantly Jewish children of the neighborhood.
I remember Elizabeth as tall and thin. Her eyes and teeth provided contrast, gleaming white out of the very dark face. She was bright like us. Played with the girls. Her long legs outdistancing everybody in the short spurts of running that the area permitted.
I’m pretty sure it was Fall and early on in the school year. We were running around on West End. This was not unusual; nobody seemed to worry that we were not safely contained in the rear yard. Today I imagine it is quite different.
Elizabeth fell and scraped her knee. She fell near the little fence around the planting of the neighboring apartment building. As she lay on the sidewalk, we all gathered around the injured party to see the damage. In this case it was a revelation. The murmuring in the crowd of school children flowed, “look, she’s white!”
We would learn of course that the layer of fat beneath the skin, regardless of our color on the outside, appears white. To us Elizabeth was now one of us. She was white too. Probably one of the most important lessons we learned at PS9.
Looking back from today I see only one Black child in my classes through junior high. We were in the SP (special progress) program (7th and 8th grades combined into one year). As you looked at the three year SPE (special progress enriched) program there was a little more color and then as you marched from classes designated 9-1 to 9-11 (the former allegedly being a better class and so on) there were more and more children of color.
We were segregated but I do not remember being conscious of it.
In some way I repeated the cycle. I left Manhattan when I married and we raised our children in a very white area of Nassau County. We moved there because we were comfortable in that environment. Unlike my West Side neighborhood this one was segregated, racially, religiously, economically.
We sent them to a camp run by the Hartford YMCA because we wanted to be sure they were exposed, in a healthy environment, to people from all walks. I think it truly helped make them the wonderful open adults they have become.