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Civil Rights Nostalgia

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I suppose nostalgia is part of the human condition. But if so, then the human condition serves a distinctly politically conservative agenda because nostalgia is a no good horrible thing that makes us forget the complexities of the past for easy narratives that do work for those who want nothing to change. The first goal of the historian, in my view, should be to engage in a lifelong holy war on nostalgia in all its forms.

These were my thoughts when I ran across this absurdity about civil rights in Plano, Texas. Turns out everyone got along and everyone’s good today!

During America’s time of integration, Plano was not immune to segregation and racial inequality. What set the city apart from fellow North Texas communities was its willingness and openmindedness regarding integration.

Sure…..

In 1955, the school board created a committee of “colored citizens” to start the integration process. Based on Sherrie S. McLeRoy’s book, “A Century of Excellence: An Historical Perspective,” black Plano residents were happy with their schools – the Fredrick Douglass School in the all-black Douglass community – and did not want to integrate the schools. At the same time, Plano’s two all-white schools were already overcrowded, so the school board decided to pause the discussion until 1960.

There was plenty of willingness among black residents in the South to have all-black schools that were actually equal. Of course, they were never equal. That was the point of segregation. Being fine with keeping black kids away from white kids, a reasonable desire given the rote violence black people were subjected to, was very different than being “happy.” I also love the idea that the Plano school board was like, “well, we are just going to do what the black community wants and they love segregation so let’s just take it real slow and basically ignore Brown for as long as possible.”

In 1961, the school board reopened the conversation about integration with then-superintendent H. Wayne Hendrick, Frederick Douglass School principal John Hightower, board member Ben Thomas and Plano High School principal T. H. “Bill” Williams.

By 1964, the school board voted to allow the black students of Frederick Douglass School to integrate with Plano schools, and the process began.

In “Football and Integration in Plano, Texas,” by Janis Frye Allman, a 1961 PHS graduate, she wrote, “Although the neighborhoods were segregated, we respected our elders, black and white.” The “segregated but civil” community idea helped lead to the smooth integration that Plano was often praised for.

Huge. Eyeroll. Segregated but civil. OK. Segregated means uncivil on principle.

Dr. Myrtle Hightower, wife John Hightower, was also a counselor at Douglass during the time of integration.

“I think they were in awe and they were excited. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They were a little fearful. It was unknown to them,” Hightower said of that first day of integration.

But they had examples in Hightower, Hendricks and Thomas that proved collaboration was possible.

“I tell you, those men – John Hightower, my husband; Ben Thomas and Dr. Hendricks – on Saturdays they walked around to the white families and knocked on their doors and talk about integration. They did door-to-door walks and talked to the families, those three people together,” Hightower said.

I obviously can’t speak to precisely what went on in Plano. I haven’t researched the civil rights movement in Plano. But color me skeptical about all of this. Three black men just started walking around white Plano and knocking on doors? Front doors? And white Plano was totally cool with this? I’m just going to go ahead and assert that this story is way more complicated than what is being presented here. Maybe they went to some of the leaders of “respectable” white Plano and worked something out. Maybe this was set up by the leading white churches and some moderate minister with some of his parishioners. I don’t know. But I am 99.9% sure that we are not getting the whole story here. Hightower is African-American herself but there are ways to extrapolate what is going on here. First, in talking to a reporter (and the reporter herself is African-American) she may very well be telling a safe story that makes everyone in Plano happy without challenging anything. We can easily imagine why she might do this, having to live in Plano today. There is also elite black nostalgia for the civil rights movement. There were plenty of entrenched interests in the black community who didn’t want to shake things up too much. Those entrenched interests did tend to remain entrenched and others who were not entrenched later became so as well. It may serve her own interests and her own memory to tell a story this way. She might even believe it. We all know how faulty memories can be and how much age can change our perspective. This is why oral histories cannot be taken as a truth and why when someone says, “You can’t tell me what things were like in Vietnam because I was there,” you shouldn’t take this seriously. The myth of soldiers being spat upon when they returned from Vietnam--an assertion believed today by nearly everyone but one for which there is ZERO evidence–is a great example of this. So who knows what is going on here, but this is absolutely not the whole story.

Cynthia Matthews, who’s lived in Plano all her life, said she was in sixth grade during integration. As an elementary student, she first attended classes at the Cox Building, which is currently the Courtyard Theater in Downtown Plano.

As a young child, she said the transition was “frightening,” but she’s always had a heart for people and a heart for education.

The state found the Douglass School curriculum unequal to the white students in Plano, so when students left Douglass, Matthews said, “We were going to get better educated.”

“I’ve never seen color. I guess you call it colorblind because I look at people for who they are, and I can love you the way that you are,” she said.

By 1968, the Frederick Douglass School was closed, and the schools were fully integrated across Plano ISD. Plano in the 60s – black and white – shared a passion for education, community and faith, Hightower said, in both the Douglass community and the wider white Plano community. And this was the common ground on which they met.

“The Plano city, the whole city, is for the students. Today, they don’t just look at the color at all,” she said. “They just go on and do. We try to have a positive outlook. This city was a positive, not a negativite, about people. To me, it’s positive and very little negativity, starting with the schools and the city in general.”

I believe the professional term historians use for this is “bullshit.” And look, again, there are reasons for black people in Plano, Texas to tell stories like this that make whites feel good about themselves. But the idea that Plano is a colorblind paradise is, um, not true. A week ago, Plano had to censure a city councilor that shared a Facebook post asking Trump to “ban Islam in American schools.” Pretty colorblind! Here’s another story about colorblind Plano from last month, when four black construction workers complained they were subjected to racial epithets on the job. What a post-racial paradise! Last year, there was some racist graffiti spray painted on a Plano school. But no one sees race in Plano.

Again, there are very good reasons why members of the black community in Plano might tell a local reporter these stories. But these stories also go to reinforce the belief of white people in a Dallas suburb that they weren’t really racist and aren’t really racist today. The unwillingness of white people to confront their racism opens the door for nostalgic stories like this about an unchallenging past when everyone just figured out their problems, respected their elders, and got along, unlike this nasty present.

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