On July 5 – 7, Wisner-Gilbert High School graduates of the class of 1969 from far and near
gathered in Wisner to celebrate their goldenclass reunion. They were joined by graduates
from the classes of 1968 and 1970.
The three classes were the last classes to graduate from Wisner- Gilbert High School, an all-black high school, prior to integration.
George Washington Carver, who’s one of my favorite authors wrote: “Ninety – nine percent of the
failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
The struggle was real in the sixties when we were students at Wisner – Gilbert High School. Looking back over the obstacles and pitfalls we as young people had to overcome daily, it was a struggle, but we did not make excuses.
It was the end of an era when we graduated from high school. The end of segregation, the assassination of Martin Luther King and graduating knowing our school would close in one more year was devastating.
The ambivalence of both happiness and sadness swelled in me like a balloon ready to pop -- the happiness of graduating, the sadness of closing our high school and possibly never seeing some of our classmates ever again. I knew I had to close this chapter and begin a new chapter. It was difficult. It was like a boulder hitting me.
During those years at Wisner – Gilbert High School, seventh through 12th grade, we basically used secondhand books. During the first week of school the teachers would pass out our books. When I opened my books, it was like a ray of sun shining on a beautiful summer day because I was so happy to get them. I was getting books to start a new year. However, my feelings changed, just as the sun fades and clouds begin covering the sky. As I opened my books, I saw names already written in all of them. I asked, myself, “Why can’t we get new books?”
My classmates began calling out the names in their books and everyone started to chime in, and we all began to laugh. Then our names were written below other names already in our books. We knew where the books came from.
Teachers emphasized how important those books were and instructed us to cover them (book covers), and not tear or lose them. Teachers said if they were damaged or lost at the end of the year, we would have to pay for them. They taught us to take care of and have pride in whatever you have.
We knew they no longer wanted them, now we can have them. I never lost a book. The struggle was real.
The struggle was not only at our school, it was in our community. I was young, and they might have had
the signs that said “colored” and “white.” I don’t remember seeing them. You just understood your place.
There was a café in Gilbert. It was called a cafe back in those days, not a restaurant. The name was, “The White Cafe.” It was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jimmie Jones. It was where my mother Martha Richard worked as a cook.
The blacks entered through the back door and the whites entered through the front
I remember seeing my mother every morning relentlessly going to work. Breakfast was not served at
school, so every morning she prepared a hot breakfast for the four of us before we went to school. I
never remember a day we didn’t have a hot breakfast before we left to attend school.
Some of my friends’ parents were on government assistance to survive; they had no choice. My mother chose not to. She was physically able and had a skill, therefore she worked seven days a week with no vacation. She was only off Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
We also had a movie theater, the cost to attend was 25 cents. Blacks sat in the balcony and whites sat in the bottom floor of the theater. The struggle was real.
During that era, many of our parents didn’t have a college degree or a high school diploma. They were
share coppers, bus drivers, housekeepers, farmers, custodians, mostly skilled laborers’ jobs.
I remember some of our black children didn’t attend school until their cotton season was over. Those
students missed a lot of classroom instruction. As a result of poor attendance, during my seventh grade year a program was implemented that stated, students may attend school a half day. Students could come to school part of the day, go home and pick cotton the remainder of the day.
When my friends finally arrived at school that feeling of ambivalence rose again. It was like dancing under a sprinkler of water on a hot summer day, letting the water cool you. At the beginning of each year. I was elated to see friends from last school year. It also made me sad. I witnessed the struggle they had to endure because they were so far behind. Some were ashamed, had difficulty learning and never caught up. Others worked hard and passed on to the next grade, with us.
One year one of my best friends had to repeat her grade. We never had the same friendship after that. I lost one of my best friends because she had to stay at home and pick cotton instead of getting an education.
Some of my friends’ parents were share croppers. They told me when they picked their cotton each year at the end of the season, and they were still in debt with the owner of the property. They lived on the owner’s land, so they had to share their profits with him. They tried hard each year working the farm but felt like they wouldn’t ever be able to save enough money to own their own home one day. Each year they fell farther and farther behind.
The owner would loan them money to get through the year and the debt continued to pile up.
What could they do? They had to feed their family. The vicious cycle continued. The struggle was real.
George Washington Carver said, “Education is the key to unlock the door of freedom.” The struggle was
real during that era. Many of our parents didn’t have a formal education but instilled in their children
the importance of getting an education. In the black families getting a high school diploma, going to college or going to church was not an option. As early as elementary school my siblings and I knew we
were going to college.
In the sixties we only had church once a month and that Sunday we were in church. We didn’t lie in bed and tell our parents we were not going. Sunday’s at 9 a.m., we were not in bed. If we were in bed at that time of the day, we had to be sick and our parents determined if we should be there.
Social media during our era was the party line telephone and black and white TV. Your
phone line was shared with several other families. There wasn’t a designated time to occupy the phone,
so you just had to wait until the phone wasn’t in use. I remember one of my classmates telling me that one of his party line families would go to sleep on the phone. They would have to knock on their door and ask them to hang their phone up.
Our families had black and white televisions. Some of the programs were, The Ed Sullivan Show, Dick Van Dick, Lassie, Roy Rogers, Gun Smoke. There were very few individuals on television who resembled us. Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Portia were some.
Parents had high regards for teachers during that era. Anything a teacher said was true. I mean
anything. Our parents and teachers all lived in the same community and worshiped at the same
churches. Everyone knew each other and had a relationship. We physically and verbally communicated
with each other.
Children didn’t have cell phones, tablets, Instagram or some type of gadget playing
with it 24 – seven. Families would sit on the porch, shelling peas, shucking corn or whatever
from their gardens. If it was during the night, parents would make a fire out of rags and placed them in a bucket to fight off the mosquitoes. Some of the children would be catching dragon flies in a jar to see
how long they would stay lit. Others would have old tires and race them down the road, when they
were not helping with the vegetables.
Yes, the struggle was real, but there was love, happiness and a sense of belonging mixed in.
Our theme at this year’s reunion was “Wisner – Gilbert High School Anchored us in Integrity, Dignity and Love.” As a ship comes to dock, it lowers an anchor to secure it. When that anchor is lowered you feel safe and secure. You don’t have to worry; the ship will remain steadfast.
Wisner – Gilbert School, parents and community prepared us with our anchors.
During those 14 years of Wisner – Gilbert High School’s existence, I never experienced a suicide, school shooting, policeman hired on staff, students cursing teachers, sagging pants, psychologist on staff nor drug dogs sniffing our lockers. Everyday there were high expectations. If a student got out of line it was taken care of immediately. I didn’t hear, “let me call your parents, you are going to time out, you are assigned to in-school suspension or after school suspension.
In 1970 Wisner- Gilbert High School doors closed as a high school. However, it will never close in our
hearts and minds. It helped produce productive citizens in our society such as real estate brokers, truck
drivers, lawyers, medical professionals, ministers, educators, therapists, entrepreneurs, evangelists,
construction workers, engineers, accountants and the list goes on.
It was the end of an era, but we are a part of a new era. The struggles we endured helped to build our character. If man doesn’t have a good character, he isn’t successful. Clothes, careers, houses you live in or the cars you drive do not determine a man’s success. It’s his character.
We as alumni of Wisner -Gilbert High School thank God for allowing us to walk through those doors, experiencing the dedication, love and commitment shown by the entire staff, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, coaches and principals.
Yes, we are celebrating the end of that era and the struggle was real. As Martin Luther King said
regarding his four children: “don’t judge them by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”
Those struggles helped build our character.
Is the struggle over? No. It’s a long way from being over. Now, what are we going to do about it? At this
50th-year, we will pattern our efforts after the Star Fish Story. In the story, which is adapted from “The Star Thrower,” by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977), an old man watches the seemingly futile efforts of a young boy on a beach throwing starfish back into the ocean to save them, only to see that many more washed ashore.
Pointing out the futility, the old man replied:
“But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
Our love, compassion, commitment and a sense of obligation to continue with what our parents and the
staff of Wisner – Gilbert High School anchored us. We will make a difference with one individual at a
The struggle is real.