In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional and must end. Mostly it didn’t. In 1955 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that integration should happen with “all deliberate speed.” And yet when I entered high school in 1964 our school remained all white. North Carolina, along with a number of other schools throughout the United States, had a Freedom of Choice Plan, which gave students the right to choose between white and black schools, independently of their race. Therefore, many schools remained segregated. So much for integration, right? However, in 1965, my Sophomore year, 3 black children chose to attend my school. Two students were in Elementary School. One was in high school – a Freshman. A thin girl with skin the color of cocoa named Gail. It caused quite a stir!
I am sad to say that many students treated her cruelly. She was not in any of my classes but I heard boys in the hallway and stairwell jeering and calling her hurtful names. Otherwise, she was ignored – which was every bit as painful, I’m sure. She walked alone and stood alone at break times. I heard she ate alone in the cafeteria although I never saw her because we must have had lunch at a different time. I felt sorry for her. I could only imagine how lonely she must have felt. She looked completely miserable and terrified. Only one student in all of my school had the nerve to seek her out and attempt to befriend her. That girl had a cross burned in her yard. Although it was reportedly a group of young boys and not the KKK the message was as clear as it was awful.
I wish that I could say that I was that one brave person who attempted to befriend the forlorn girl. I am ashamed to say I wasn’t that person. The next year Gail did not return. That she had survived the previous school year was a miracle, in my opinion. That she didn’t come back was completely understandable. I thought about her – wondered what had become of her. I felt guilty about my own lack of action. I had certainly felt compassion but I had failed to show it. So what good was that? There was no way to absolve my sin or resolve my guilt. Over the years I tried not to think about it too much.
Many years later I was grown and working as a nurse in a chemotherapy clinic when I met with another girl named Gail. She was a delightful person who laughed easily and always had a twinkle in her eye. I enjoyed her company. We had lunch together often and talked endlessly – about all sorts of things. We became good friends. Gail was my first friend of color that I was comfortable in talking about race relations. I was grateful for her openness and honesty.
One day she shared this story: Black churches were instrumental in moving the Civil Rights movement forward. During the era of Freedom of Choice in the 1960’s her church decided that they should select some children from among their members to attend a white school. Gail was one of those children. She attended an all white school her Freshman year. It was awful. She was taunted, ridiculed, humiliated, and terribly lonely. After that miserably wretched year she was so depressed that her mother did not insist she return. It took her a long time to recover.
I was stunned. Oh, my God!!! Here was the poor little girl I had so sorely wronged all those years ago. What could I say to take that pain away? Words of apology were necessary but inadequate. I wanted to throw myself to the ground and grovel at her feet. I wanted to cry but felt I didn’t deserve such release. Nevertheless, with tears in my eyes and an enormous lump in my throat I told her how sorry I was that this had happened to her and how I regretted my sorry inaction. At first she was confused. Through a jumble of confusion and words we were able to discern that she had not attended my school but a different school in a different county in North Carolina. She was not the Gail of my memory. It was a simple coincidence of names. Or perhaps not – I guess it depends on whether or not you believe in “coincidence”. In the end I asked her how she had managed to survive and how she could even tolerate white people. She touched my arm gently, smiled kindly, and bestowed more grace with these words than I could ever have given my own self: “There comes a time when hate must end and you choose to forgive.”
In that moment if the heavens had opened and a golden crown had been set upon her humble head it would not have surprised me. Yet nothing visibly miraculous happened. Even so, I believe that Gail’s choices of grace and forgiveness are indeed her crowning achievement. Would that the rest of us could learn these lessons as well as she.