By Ernie McCray
I just got back from a Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High Reunion. Dunbar was Tucson’s first-thru-ninth grade school for “colored” kids aka Negroes.
Many of us show up at the school’s auditorium, the Friday after Thanksgiving, every two years. As black people and/or African Americans.
And let me tell you, it’s so nice to be among people who were at your side when you were a kid growing up trying to figure out how to make it in a world where you’re looked at as “Those people.” People to be looked down upon.
Like Muslims today, who, in the way we look at folks, could be anyone wearing a head scarf that covered their face. It’s a “They all look alike” kind of thing.
I had a couple of nice conversations at our gathering about such as that and we kind of summed it up with the idea that in spite of all the wonderful changes that have opened doors that were shut for some people for so long – it seems like very little has “really” changed when it comes to how we treat each other in this society.
But, hey, there were far more lighthearted fun moments than serious intellectual rap sessions, as we recalled old times, old nicknames, how we used to tease each other, the games we played, the partying we did…
I’m still reliving our time together, looking at a couple of pictures, one of me as a little boy in the 40’s, and another of a pathway alongside the old Dunbar School. Both trigger all kinds of images in my mind:
The times I skipped along that path, overflowing with glee, having just aced a quiz or found a nickel or a penny; the times I would run wildly through it trying to tag somebody and make them “it”; the times I hid in its bushes in a game of hide and seek or walked heavy footed and down hearted in its shadows trying to understand (and I still don’t to this day), why people could hate me so, just because of the color of my skin, just because I was one of “those people.”
But, we survived Jim Crow and use our time at the reunion to celebrate that we’re still breathing, still making it, long after school desegregation came along back in 1951 and Dunbar graduated its last Ninth Grade Class in May of that year. All to say: we’re old. And proud of it.
I had the honor of doing some spoken word and leading a round of our school song, “Hail to Dunbar Junior High,” with the always witty, and forever mighty pretty, Barbara Lewis.
At the mike, as I looked out at the small crowd, I couldn’t help but think: what a beautiful sight to see. There was my first girlfriend and several of my crushes…
There was Morgan “Buddy” Maxwell, the first black person to eat at the U of A Student Union… Charles Todd, one of our beloved teachers, a recent centenarian… Laura Nobles-Banks-Reed, iconic educator and entrepreneur, lighting up the auditorium with one of the most radiant smiles one could view…
And speaking of smiles, I saw one on Jimmy Hill’s face that I used to see when he and I would crack up in the library reading Dunbar’s lines in dialect: “G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy – put dat music book away.” Pride doesn’t come easy.
Looking out at Donald Lander I flashed back to when we were lifeguards at Estevan Pool, the pool for “Those people,” a pool smaller than some waterholes I’ve enjoyed in friend’s backyards – but, oh, how great it felt to have a job that didn’t require a mop and a broom and a toilet brush and some jive boss complaining “You call this cleaning?”
There sat Jannie V, a dear old friend I’ve known since infancy; at one time we were about as close as any two people can be… Vonceil, known for “telling it like it is,” one of the brightest and funniest people I know… Willie Ray, a gifted artist, I would say…
Willie Fred, one of the strongest human beings I have ever known or seen… Herman and Toddy, who could have been swimming stars in another world, in another time; Ron and Kate Batiste, who I hadn’t seen in an awfully long time; James Barnes, a a dear friend of an older cousin of mine; Clannie Mae, who had to put up with her cousin and me when we’d just hang out at her house… Charles “Turkey Red” Greene, a legend in Dunbar’s “fighting scene” who went on to be a Montford Marine and social worker supreme; Tina, a missionary; Vernon and Clarence and Lonnie and Sam, folks with whom I developed my basketball game; master engineers, Harry and Chee, who lives in Manhattan, a far cry from Tucson’s dusty streets…
Ah, “those people” are some of the most amazing human beings I know, because I know how hard the row, we all had to hoe, was.
But we survived out of our love for each other and for our country, at large, and, in that spirit, and in our name, I wish that our country would adopt our old Dunbar School Motto: “Be the Best!”
It would make for such a better world. But I ain’t holding my breath.