The Times West Virginian

Local News

June 11, 2014

First year at Miller had ‘cold divide’

FAIRMONT — Houston Richardson went to Miller School when he was in fifth grade.

It was the year schools were integrating.

It was the year Dunbar closed.

“When you’re that young, you have no concerns,” Richardson said. “They really didn’t tell us that the schools were going to be integrated. They just said that we’re going to Miller School next year, and Dunbar was going to become something else.”

When the black students walked into their classrooms at Miller, they had to introduce themselves almost every time because their teachers didn’t know them.

“They had their books with their seating chart and they know that Houston Richardson sat in this chair ... but did they know that my mom and dad, they were very strict? All you had to do was pick up the phone and call and say, ‘Houston did something wrong in school’ and pronto they would have been there. They didn’t know that about our culture.”

Teachers at Dunbar, who were dispersed throughout the school system and the county after integration, genuinely cared for students and wanted to make a difference in their lives, Richardson remembered.

“You never felt like you left home,” he said. “It felt like home. The teachers looked out for you. They made sure that your parents knew exactly what you were doing in school.”

Dunbar’s teachers always knew what the kids were up to, even if students thought they were getting away with their behavior.

Richardson learned that the hard way.

“There was a young lady in class,” he said. “We were passing notes. The teacher never said a word to me. Before that class period was over, my mother walked into the classroom. The teacher and my mother, they lectured me in that classroom, and that young lady. It never happened again.”

If students did it, they knew to own up to it, tell the truth and accept the consequences.

“That’s what they taught us. There were no games to be played. That’s what they instilled in us.”

Things were not that way at Miller, Richardson recalled.

Students at Miller went outside between classes and sneaked away to buy snacks at stores on Maple Avenue, for example, but they knew they weren’t supposed to leave the school’s grounds.

So the students who came from Dunbar did it, too.

“We were not emulating them,” Richardson said. “Well, we were emulating them. Because if they were doing it, then why can’t I do it?”

Mrs. Peoples, Miller’s music teacher, came from Dunbar with the students that year and noticed her students’ behavior.

“If you see somebody getting away with it, you’re going to do it, too! But that’s not the way we were taught,” said Richardson.

Mrs. Peoples wanted to maintain the standard of behavior teachers instilled in the students at Dunbar, even if the kids weren’t there anymore.

So she took matters into her own hands.

One day in music class, she dismissed only the white students to study hall and closed the door.

“She told us, ‘You guys have forgotten all the things that we have taught you at Dunbar. Character. Presentation. Physical hygiene. You forgot all those things. What happened? Are you letting another society take away from you what we have instilled in you?’ ... And when she finished with us that period, there was a change in that group,” Richardson said.

For him, that proved Dunbar’s teachers still wanted to make a difference, even though many weren’t their teachers after integration.

“It still showed that teachers from Dunbar School looked out for us,” he said. “We were still in their charge, their care until we graduated from high school ... As much as they could, they looked out for us.”

The black children felt displaced at Miller, and they could feel it, Richardson said.

“I can honestly say there was a cold divide for a while between the black students and the teachers because they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to talk to us. They didn’t know how we were going to talk to them.”

Students didn’t know how to talk to the teachers, either. They felt as though they were there because there was no other place for them after Dunbar closed, and they didn’t know how to express their feelings to their parents.

Between that and their negative feelings toward Miller’s principal, black students felt like they had no one to turn to, Richardson remembered.

“I don’t think (the principal) was friendly to anybody, but it seemed like it more so to us than to them,” he said.

Miller’s principal did give Richardson the opportunity to be a patrol boy, though.

“Wow, you know? That was like, hey, I got this little white badge. I helped people cross the street because, at that point in time, I had moved directly across the street from Miller School,” he said. “So that was an honor.”

All the patrol boys got to take a special trip to Washington, D.C., for their services.

“Two weeks before we went, he dismissed me from being a patrol boy, and I cried,” said Richardson. “I told my daddy. And I cried some more.”

He asked the principal what he had done wrong to warrant dismissal, but he never got a real answer.

It was years later that Richardson came to some sort of understanding as to why his principal didn’t let him travel to the Capitol with his fellow patrol boys.

“You have to think about it — in 1960 Washington, D.C., was a segregated city ... so what were they going to do with a black patrol boy going to Washington, D.C.? I couldn’t eat with them. I couldn’t sleep with them. I couldn’t walk with them. I couldn’t go where they went ... that’s the only way I have digested it over these years. ‘I have to terminate him because I don’t know what else to do.’”

Perhaps he wasn’t just being unfair, Richardson thought. Maybe he was doing him a favor.

“What was he going to do with me? He definitely wasn’t going to hide me in his room.”

While Richardson didn’t feel the same love from his new teachers that he had before integration, he never felt like Miller School turned his world upside down.

But it wasn’t Dunbar.

“I don’t remember the first day that I walked into Miller School upon integration, and I don’t remember the last day that I walked out of Miller School ... that love, that kindness, that sharing, that protection that I had (at Dunbar), that I didn’t have at Miller. I remember that with all my heart and soul.”

Email Chelsi Baker at cbaker@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @cbakerTWV.

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