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Commentary: Race, Education and Using History

By James Mardis, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

In the same Fort Worth Star-Telegram that told of Everman High School principal Kathy Culbertson being replaced for comments about black student test scores and motivation, there ran a remembrance of the 1956 struggle to integrate black students into Mansfield High. Ms. Culbertson used one of her first school intercom chats to rally "just eight more black students to pass the math portion of the TAKS test". Her comments caused various degrees of misunderstanding and judgment that seemed to be based on one or more of the words used in Ms. Culbertson's intercom challenge. Being White and in charge means that you are supposed to be careful about the interaction of words like "black", "failure" and "standards".

The other story of integrating black students into Mansfield High School fifty years ago also included arguments that likely utilized some of the same words that Ms. Culbertson used in her intercom challenge. Surely when they were uttered by the White mob that included a reported 500 students in 1956 there was little discrepancy about their meaning or intent. There were burning effigies of a black student on the lawn of the school. A Texas Ranger had to rescue a local clergyman who advocated tolerance and acceptance of the change. The legendary Thurgood Marshall and the national media descended on the small, farming enclave of Mansfield a year before the turmoil of the Little Rock Nine overtook the Nation's idea of educational disparity and State's Rights.

Both of these stories revolve around the extreme politics of students, their communities and administrators. Interestingly, the one aspect of change that often escapes the debates and chaos within the schools is the effect of learned history. Communities like Everman and Mansfield, are a mere sixteen miles apart, but their legacies are intertwined by economic and social overlap.

Actually, I doubt that anyone in Everman or the Tarrant County school system could have told you about the fifty year anniversary of attempts to integrate that region's schools. Surely not even the parents of black students have dared to recall that their post World War II education in Everman was in an old munitions plant: separate and unequal. So, it is little wonder that the only means to motivate black students is to shame them to strive for the lowest degree of success on the TAKS.

The legacy of Mansfield High's racial disparity and struggle for equality is not a burning topic for the region and certainly not within the textbooks. It should be. The students in Tarrant County deserve to know that they are standing on the backs of dynamic black men, women, boys and girls who fought to have a dynamic education within that community. They deserve to know that Whites and others struggled through their bias and bigotry to move beyond the least that could be done. Everyone in that community needs an understanding that educational excellence has risen the economic tide and that educational stoicism will sink the communities ship of dreams for a long time to come.

According to the newspaper, there are various members of the 1956 Mansfield student body still alive and recently retired to a life of playing dominoes and being ignored by their grandchildren. Instead of replacing the errant principal, Everman could have merely informed her motivational tactics. She could have dared to spend that morning's motivational moment with a story of how fifty years ago a little known black lawyer named Thurgood Marshall came to Fort Worth and told black students that they deserved better and that, before they got it, they had to keep doing better.

James Mardis is a writer from Lewisville.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.