One day at the grade school
That had been ordered
To desegregate only,
Virginia saw the red clutch bag
On my desk next to hers.
She did not comment; she only
Stared at the purse long enough
To indicate she remembered
That her mother had cheerfully put
The purse in a shopping bag, piled some
Old clothes and shoes on top of it,
Then handed the bag to my mama—
The fringe benefits of domestic work
Bagged together every Wednesday.
Still, I confronted her with the purse
Until she understood that it had
A right to be there, too.
From “The Purse” by Meryl Thornton
My mom remembers this episode from her fourth-grade year at Zachary Taylor Elementary School. Brown v. Board of Education had desegregated schools in 1954, but by 1959 in Jefferson County, only some schools were integrated.
My mother, who was in fourth grade in 1959, attended two such schools. Worthington Colored School, a one-room school house for about 50 children in grades K-8, was closed at the end of the school year in 1957. Between 1957 and 1959, my mom went to two newly-built elementary schools—-a testament to how fast white flight was spreading throughout eastern Jefferson County. My mom was frequently the only black child in her class, and after Worthington Colored School closed, she never had another black teacher until college, when she attended an HBCU.
She described the experience as lonely. “I didn’t have that much in common with the white students,” she said. Most of the people she had attended school with before were relatives, but now that they were in a school with different classrooms for every grade, and the seventh and eighth graders were in high school, she was alone. She had a teacher named Ms. Brennen who would often point her out. “Meryl’s people were slaves,” she would say. The teacher had been at Worthington White School before desegregation.
“I don’t know that the white teachers were prepared to teach black children,” my mom said. While students went to school together, the teaching profession was not desegregated. When a black school closed, black teachers went to another black school until there were no more and they were allowed to teach white children.
Insightful fourth-grader that my mom was, she found something liberating about the lonely situation in which the law had placed her. The purse she describes in the above poem belonged to the daughter of a family for which her mother had done day work. Mom remembers that the purse’s previous owner had written her name on the inside flap, in ink. Mom showed the flap to the girl and said something like, “I think this was your purse.”
“She was looking at it like she wondered, ‘How did poor little ole me get a purse like that?'” mom recalls. Pointing out that yes, it was her purse was mom’s way of saying, “We’re in the same school and classroom now, so you ain’t no better than I am.” Which is true. Parents who didn’t want their kids in integrated schools and who could afford another option would just send their kids to private school.
My mom doesn’t recall the girl saying anything in response to the confrontation. In real life, the scene took place after school, as all the children sat in one classroom and waited for their bus numbers to be called. The girl headed to her bus and that was that. Maybe it humbled the girl, maybe not. But she didn’t stare at mom’s bag again.