New Orleans, 1960: “As Bad As They Make It, the Stronger I’ll Get”

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

"Tessie was the first Negro child to step into that white school. There were three of them, 'the three little niggers' they were called, but Tessie stepped into the building first. I saw it with my own eyes, and I won't forget it, you can be sure. That night I said my prayers, just as I have for over 60 years, but I added something. I said, 'Lord, you have started giving New Orleans your attention, at last. The whites are screaming at Tessie and me, but that's because they know You are watching; and they're mad, because they know they're bad, and they'll soon be punished, soon now that You've decided to take a hand in our lives here.' That's what I said, and some more, too - because I had to repeat myself, I was so happy. The way I see it Tessie and I can be cursed every day, and it will only mean we're nearer our freedom."

Tessie's grandmother lives alone in a little house next door, alone except for a frisky mongrel dog. Tessie is an only child, and an only grandchild. Spot is her dog, boarded with her grandmother for the convenience of Tessie's mother, who is very neat and resents Spot's untidy habits. Tessie lives in a new, small ranch house of yellow bricks and pink shutters, with firm, waxed hardwood floors and a kitchen fitted with electric appliances.

Her grandmother's house is older and her grandmother is a casual housekeeper.

Her life, and the lives of her only son and his wife and their only daughter, had been very difficult from the fall of 1961 until well into 1963, when she remarked to me: "I haven't seen a crazy letter in two months. They must have decided we're going to live." They weren't always sure they would live, she and her granddaughter. Tessie's parents felt that without Grandma they all might have lived - I think they had their doubts about that, too, but never could admit them to themselves or anyone else – but none of them would have really survived the fear and tension. It wasn't just her extra house and land, and having another person around, it was what Tessie called her grandmother's "gumption."

I thought the two homes did seem like an enclave at times as I watched grandmother and grandchild leave their territory to walk to a nearby public school through curses, spit and brandished fists, through biceps tightened, tongues pointed and mouths filled with what the old woman called "unpleasantness," demeaning her and the little girl pitilessly, confronting them daily with terror and the need somehow to make terms with terror. "I said I'd sooner die than show them one ounce of fear," Tessie's grandmother told me one afternoon, the child nodding along, staring in devotion at the lady. "Some days I thought we were going to die, but it was a test, going by them to get our rights, and the worse it got the more certain I was that we could outlast them."

Tessie's mother is a thin woman of medium size with a noticeably oval, dark-brown face. She has wide eyes and exceptionally long lashes covering them. Sometimes when speaking of her daughter's experiences at school, she would close her eyes for a few seconds but keep on talking. "I try not to go beyond each day. The way I look at it, if you can get your strength up for the present, the future will take care of itself. It was my mother-in-law who was best with Tessie, though. I cry too easily." She had wanted her daughter to go to a desegregated school, but she also acknowledged that she worried about the strain of it upon both her daughter and herself.

"The truth is," she said quietly one day after talking about how she felt when she answered abuse with silence, "I might have taken Tessie out, returned her to a Negro school. I held firm because my husband held firm, and we both held firm because of Tessie's grandmother. My husband and I were angry and scared, but she never gets scared, and if she gets angry only she knows it; and she understands the whites. She's lived and worked with them. We haven't."

She and her husband were young. In many ways they had tried to insulate themselves from the white world, and for a long time had never been much impressed by their mother's intimate knowledge of that world. It was a knowledge, they felt, that stemmed from a kind of peonage, and they wanted no part of it. "My mom still wants to know what's going on in the white world," was the way her son James put it, "but a lot of us younger Negroes didn't much care for a long time. Then the Supreme Court decision came, and we realized we had to come out from our shells, and once and for all fight our way into the white world. It was a good thing people like her were there to help us. You need to know the people you're trying to get with, and you have to know the enemy, too, I guess."

"Can you imagine a more confused three years of school for Tessie than these three?" her grandmother asked me when Tessie was promoted to the fourth grade. Her grandchild and two other girls of six had been the only pupils at school during their entire first year. Everyone else had boycotted. "I guess it wasn't segregation and it wasn't integration, they just had the whole school building for themselves. I kept on telling Tessie, she'd never have it as good again, all that building and teachers to herself and everything. Take advantage of the white man's mess, because it'll work for your gain, that's what I said to her when I thought she needed a little helping word here or there."

When the boycott was partially broken the second year, Tessie learned to live with a few white classmates. As her grandmother told it, "That was a big thing for the girls, counting how many whites came back to school. They gave me a day-by-day accounting. I would know all their names and what they would say every minute of the day." Finally, after a pleasant year in a school of about 20, their school was decreed a Negro school; however, as "integrated" students, in contrast to all their Negro neighbors of like age, they were transferred to another white school, for the third year of what some brochures, advertising the city's assets, called "quality education."

It was no great blessing for the three girls to leave McDonogh. In their new school they were alone in a mass of white children. They found the sheer numbers of children strange, and they found the attitudes of some of the older children, the fifth and sixth graders, decidedly unfriendly. In a sense, they also saw themselves leave the stage of history, disappear into the crowd, left with their memories – of newspapermen, cameras, federal marshals and letters from all over the world.

"Tessie was always quiet, so she kept quiet during all the troubles. The teachers never quite knew what she was thinking, and it bothered them a lot. They couldn't help feeling that if she talked more she'd be in a safer state of health. They worried about how brave and silent she was." Her grandmother followed that description with her own attitude: "I tell her that it doesn't make any difference what you say, or if you say anything. It doesn't even matter if it's easy or hard for you at school. It's going to be hard, sometime or other it's going to be hard in this world, and Tessie girl, you'd just as well start getting used to it now." 

Tessie was indeed a silent child, a deep, thoughtful child, I felt. With paper and crayons and with some games, she could give expression to what she felt and thought about the world around her. She liked to draw, and she put a great deal of time and energy into her efforts. When the drawings were completed, she wanted to keep them, holding them in her room for weeks, looking at them, sometimes decorating her walls with them, and eventually giving them silently and shyly to me. She knew she was telling me something about herself and giving me something of herself. I thought it was helpful for her to give her fears and hopes some expression, to put them into pictures. She could give representation to her tormentors, to her dread of their vengeance, to her feelings of weakness, to her natural wish to escape, to be a little white girl living a less turmoil-filled life. By keeping the drawings with her for a while, she could confront them when she felt able to, and eventually allow them to settle in her mind as the fantasies they were.

Then, the master of their contents, she could hand them over to me. "I know it's scary sometimes going to school," she told me one day, "but not as scary as what I can dream up. So I told Granny that as bad as they make it for us, the stronger I 'II get, because I 'II beat them to the punch by imagining it even worse than it is, like I did with that picture I drew the other day. Remember?"

I saw Tessie much less frequently when she was in fourth and fifth grades. I was studying the psychological adjustments of migrant farmworker families, and none of those families came near New Orleans. But I always tried to see her on "promotion day." It is her favorite day of the year. Her grandmother bakes a "promotion cake" for her, and each year I receive a card from both of them asking me to come celebrate "Tessie's Day."

In June of 1965, she was promoted to the sixth grade. I noticed then how very tall she was becoming. It is in her blood to be tall, I know, but I was surprised to see such growth in a child not yet in adolescence. I told Tessie that and she replied: "It's because you go away, then come back. If you stayed, you wouldn't notice me growing, then I'd just be Tessie, not tall Tessie." She added very quickly, "It's that way at school now, too: everything goes fine with the whites until I get sick and stay home. Then, when I come back to school, it takes them a day or so to get used to me, all over again. They look at me as if I was a stranger, then the next day it's all forgotten and I'm glad, because they know me again."