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.
4 thoughts on “Elizabeth”
The one black child you see from our P.S. 9 classes (besides Elizabeth) may have been a boy named Albert. I remember we included him in a lot of our after-school activities and my parents treated him no differently than the rest of my friends like you. When we went to JHS 44, things changed. Albert ran around with the other black kids, grew a large chip on his shoulder, and deliberately picked fights with his former white friends. He started up with me, and I took him aside and said, “I know why you’re doing this–to get in good with your new friends. If we can’t be friends anymore, I understand. But I won’t fight with you.” And that was that. I left 44 after one year and never saw him again.
Not all of our memories are pleasant. They have helped make us who we are.
His name was Albert Dixon. The story went that his parents drove him down from Harlem every day.
He was smart and they wanted him in a good school.
We were it.
Same basic setting for me, but in Brooklyn. Most of the kids in my elementary school classes were together from 2nd-6th grade. Most of the kids were Jewish, with a few non-Jews and 2 black kids. As I remember, we all played together, without a problem. I hope I am remembering correctly and not just remembering what I HOPE happened.
My elementary school in Woodside, Queens was predominantly blue-collar, with no African American kids whatsoever and just a couple of Asian Americans in each class. There were only two classes per grade, and we all knew which was “the smart class” and which was “the dumb class,” even though the smart class got the -2 designation while the slower class got the -1.
There were two Jewish boys in my class, and they ended up going to Bronx Science (after the 2-year SP and the local Junior High) and to places like U/Chicago and Stanford, and there was one Jewish girl (who is still a good friend of mine and attended Harpur College/SUNY Binghamton one year ahead of me since I gave up the 2-year SP to attend Hunter) and there was me – half Jewish. (Actually, a couple of the other girls may have been Jewish, but I was never told their religion(s) so I am not sure. Devorin and Altheimer may or may not be Jewish names.) However, when our sixth grade teacher decided to announce the four highest IQ results in the class (not the actual numbers, but just the “rank,”) the highest scorer was an introverted WASP named Bruce, who, I found out decades later, moved to Westchester after 6th grade and ended up at McGill University and became very close friends with a high school friend of mine. My IQ was second highest, followed by the two male Jewish classmates.
One of the most popular girls in the class was a pretty blonde whose mother was head of The Mothers’ Club, which was what functioned as a PTA at that school. At this girl’s 12th birthday party, I discovered that her mother was something of a racist, since we got into a conversation about the ballet she had just seen and this mother was expressing consternation (and maybe mild disgust) at the fact that the corps de ballet included African American dancers because, according to her, it “spoiled the look” of the dances. My argument with her on the point was heated, but polite. I found out, from my Jewish female classmate who attended the same Junior High School as this girl, that the girl was just as popular with her Junior High School classmates, many of whom were African American, and was elected class president, so it appears that little, if any, of her mother’s racism rubbed off on her.