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Larry Hypes

February is the right month to work on the true meaning of “E Pluribus Unum”

Little Rock, Arkansas came up black and white (now that’s important) on the television screen in the early fall of 1957. When NBC News came on at 6:30, both Chet Huntley and David Brinkley had their attention focused on Central High School where a group of Black students was attempting to enroll and get an education.

Never had I seen such attention being given to kids trying to enroll in school. Around here, most of the problems had always been in the other direction – just getting boys (mostly) and girls to go to school was the major concern. Once, in the fourth grade at Abb’s Valley School, the most exciting thing I had seen up to that point in any classroom came the day W.D. opened the old metal casement window and leaped right out.

There was complete silence for a moment. I guess we thought the world might come to an end right there. No doubt someone went after him, although I cannot remember whether he ever came back or not. He may have left formal education behind forever, but his attempt to escape reading, writing and arithmetic was one of my first lessons that not everyone had the same value system.

Therein lay the problem at Little Rock Central High, where the state had decreed colors must not mix and “separate but equal” would remain the law of the land. At least, in that land. In the years after World War II, there was plenty of separate but not as much equal, as I was beginning to find out. School was often the first place to notice that.

Sometimes it was in churches, though, where the truth really came out. There were lots of Christians in those days and just about every community in the coalfields had at least one house of worship, and often several. To be honest, a lot had at least two – one white and the other black. I remember going into a “Black” church for the first time when I was about 8 or 9 years old and wondering why Jesus was not white in the picture hanging up front. That was often the way of things back then.

Yet, in Little Rock, those teens and their families were willing to risk their lives to see if some of the ways could be changed. If you saw any of those newscasts, you probably remember how brave they were, walking through mobs of people who yelled things our mothers would have whipped us for saying – people who would have killed them if they could. The National Guard had to be called out to keep order and even then it was not a sure thing.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had learned a thing or two about battle during the war when he was Supreme Allied Commander in the war against the Nazis, finally had all of it he could stand and decided to send in the guard to defend those kids and also the Constitution. It was all settled, finally, but I am sure we never knew about all the behind-the-scenes suffering.

Even those guardsmen, some of them, had gone through some problems. Within 10 years of Little Rock, soldiers of all colors had finally gotten equal pay in the military for equal work. It only took about 200 years.

I had heard about what a struggle it had been for Jackie Robinson to break the “color line” in major league baseball in April, 1947, and that was 10 years before Little Rock. He had a been a soldier, too, and got in trouble (for a while) because of where he wanted to sit on a military bus. Guess Rosa Parks was not exactly the first person of color to make a headline because of vehicle seating!

Some of my first examples of race relations came from sports, too. When the St. Louis Cardinals got Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock, they started winning. In those days, players of different colors had to lodge in separate areas before and after games. I was proud when the Cardinals just went out and bought an entire hotel so the whole team could stay together. Curt Flood got that ball rolling.

Schools, even around here, were not so different. Even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 against segregated facilities, several places in both Virginia and West Virginia took the phrase “with all deliberate speed” to heart. As late as the mid-1960s, white Beaver High School sat on the hill while across the N&W tracks, black Park Central High School stared back at it. In Tazewell County, the students at Burke’s Garden, Richlands, Pocahontas and Tazewell were mostly the same color and so were the boys and girls at Tazewell County High School in Bluefield, Virginia, just not the same color as those at the other schools.

I remember when I enrolled at Bluefield State College, a friend asked me why I was going to a “Black” school and I said it had all the classes I was interested in and the people there were super nice. I had just finished two years at Bluefield (Junior then) College, and since we had both had math classes, I figured division must have been his strong suit. Both schools were and are equally distributed in my diploma.

Now football is coming back at Bluefield State and I hope the Big Blues rock. Bluefield College already has competitive football and several other quality sports. They have made several headlines of their own in recent days. It certainly has made a lot of folks think, that’s for sure.

Half a century after Little Rock Central made headlines, we are still working on “E Pluribus Unum” and maybe one day we will get it right.

February is the right month to work on the true meaning of “E Pluribus Unum”

— Larry Hypes, a teacher at Bluefield High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist. Contact him at larryhypes52@gmail.com.

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