Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: November 8,
Camera Rolls: 4044-4047
Sound Rolls: 418-419
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ruth Batson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 8, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
So Mrs. Batson, when your kids were in school were you satisfied with the quality of the education that they were getting?
No, I wasn't. But I wasn't sure of why I wasn't satisfied. Ah, there had been a group that had been started in Boston called Parents' Federation, so because I was always interested in education I joined that group and started going to some of their meetings. But then somebody came out and said that a couple of the members in the group were communists and so that broke up that group. In the meantime I was living in the Orchard Park Housing Project and two of my children were attending the Dearborn School. And I was very concerned with their education because I had the feeling from talking with other parents in other parts of the city that the education was different. And because I was convinced of that I went up to the school and I first talked to the principal and he said, "Oh no, no, all the curriculum material is the same." I talked to the teacher and she told me the same thing. And then after a while I noticed that the daughter that I was speaking about in particular began to get science projects. You know, she would come home and she'd have this science project. One of them, the first one she had was talking from room to room on one of those, you know, those can things. And I was very pleased. I said, "Gee, this is nice." This is encouraging, until I heard her saying, "I don't know why I'm the only one with a science project." So I thought this was strange, so I called, "Are you the only kid in your class with a science project?" And she said, "Yes." So then I thought I'd ignore it. I was a young mother with three little kids. And I said, you know, at least I've got this in my school, I'm not going to worry about it. But it bothered me. And I read in the paper that an organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had opened an office on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Tremont Street. So one day I went up there and I saw the President. And I told him this story and I told him that based on the other meetings that I had attended that I felt that something was wrong in the school and particularly in the schools where Black kids were. And the President said to me, well, I'll tell you, he says, we have an educational committee, but our committee deals with scholarships and counseling. We don't have a committee that deals with public school things, and so I'm afraid we can't be very helpful. That was an answer that I found very strange. But I came out and I was kind of discouraged and trying to figure out, well, what should happen in this case. And about three days later the President called me and said, "Um, Mrs. Batson, we've decided to set up a subcommittee which we will call the Public School Committee, and um, we'd like to ask you if you would be the chairperson of that committee." Well, I was so excited, you know, I thought this was wonderful. But that determined my life. My whole life has been pointed in that direction and the improvement of education for Black kids.
OK, Mrs. Batson, I want you to talk to us about what your work was as chair of that education committee. What you did and talk about going before the school committee.
When I first became chairperson of the NAACP public school committee I gathered a group of people around me and we sat down and decided how we would start. And one of the things that we thought we would do, we would go around and look at some of the ah, predominately Black schools in Roxbury. And we did what we called a survey. Of course we didn't even know that we were doing a survey. We just thought we'd go around and ask these principals these questions about education of Black students. And of course in those days we were called Negroes. And so, we went to one school and we found the principals, just, oh, they were very free in telling us what they thought. They didn't, they didn't think it was anything to, they would say anything they felt like saying. And in one school one um principal said, well, the question we would ask, "Well, do you think that Negro students learn in the same way that bla--that White students learn?" "Oh no, oh no," she said, "they don't learn as well at all," she said. And then in addition she says, "You know, they all have different names, they come in a family, and in one family you can find three different names," she says, "it's immoral, immoral." So of course we left that school knowing what was happening to Black students there. And we went to another school where there was a male principal and it was an all boys school. And one of the things he did was lean back and say, "Look at, look at all our trophies our boys win," you know, "they're wonderful athletes. They run and they do this--" And every time we tried to pinpoint him to talk about what was happening with academic studies we couldn't get any answers. And this was repeated in different schools. And as our fame grew we found that parents would start calling us up and the biggest complaint from parents was that when their students left the public schools in question as honor roll students and went to other schools, to high schools they would get these terrible marks. And when the parents would go up and talk to the ah, the high school student principals about it they would say to them, well, they're not prepared. They haven't had this, they haven't had that. So we started getting those kinds of complaints, and we started writing them down. Today you would call it "documenting it". And then, um, a teacher one time wrote us about, and sent us a Kruger Beer bill--billing pad paper, and she said, "This is the kind of paper that I've been forced to use. A friend gave them to, gave it to me, because I can't get enough money to buy paper." And then the things started to mount. Well, in those days if you wanted to transfer your student from one of these schools you would merely have to go up to the new school and say, "I want my child to move here." Then you'd go back to your old school and you'd get the report card and all of the records you needed and take your child. And suddenly this stopped. When, um, the School Committee issued a statement that in order to transfer a child from its neighborhood school the principal of the neighborhood school would have to call the other school to see if there was room. So, um, most parents would go up to the principal. He would call the principal in the receiving school and more than likely they would be told that there was no room. Now if it was a savvy parent, somebody who knew their way around, they would then go to a politician and suddenly the child could be moved. So all of this evidence was mounting and mounting, and every time we'd go up to the school department and record some of our concerns, "No, this was not true. No, no, we're not doing that. No, it's not like that. It's really--" So as things went on we decided that where there were a majority of Black students there was a neglect of the education of these students. And so, um, with, with, we formed a negotiating team. I was chair of the team. Paul Parks and Mel King, both men who had been deeply involved in the education, public school educational--education concerns, ah, joined me, and we sat down and we decided that we would bring these complaints to the Boston School Committee. By this time, this was, um, in 1963. My children were out of school at that time, but we decided that we'd go on. And we made a nice statement out, and we listed 14 points. It's important to remember that only one of those 14 points dealt with segregation. Um, and the, the statement that we made to the School Committee said that, um, we found, as I said before, where there were a majority of Black students there was not concern for how these kids learned. That there were crowded classrooms, temporary teachers, not enough books. And supplies were low and all of that kind of thing. Even physical conditions were poor. We went into school systems in the basements where we would find toilet tissue chained to the outside of the toilets. And I often wondered what happened to a kid who got in and didn't take tissue. These kinds of basic things were missing. So um, we went before the School Committee and we said to them that this condition that we were talking about was called de facto segregation, and that by that we didn't mean at all that anybody on the School Committee or any official was deliberately segregating students, but this was caused by residential settings and so forth, but that we felt that this had to be acknowledged and that something had to be done to alleviate the situation. All the other points dealt with educational issues such as, um, intercultural education. We talked about the lack of a Black principal. At that time there wasn't a major American city that did not have a Black principal within its public school system. We talked about class size. We talked about guidance courses. All of these things we talked about. So we go prepared to the school system and we were really innocent. We were naive. I think that even Paul and Mel would acknowledge that. We walked in thinking that we weren't saying anything so special. And when we got to the School Committee room I was surprised to see all of the, um, the press around. We thought this is just an ordinary School Committee meeting, and we made our presentation and everything broke loose. We were insulted. We were told our, our kids were stupid and this was why they didn't learn. We were completely rejected that night. We were there until all hours of the evening. And we left battle scarred, because what we found out that we, we had brought to them a wonderful political issue, and that this was an issue that was going to give them, um, length and breadth and stability, give their political careers stability for a long time to come.
Great! Are we rolling out? That was fabulous.
Let's give people a sense of what the Boston public school committee was all about. You described it as a political body. They weren't concerned with educational policies?
Um, when we left the s--ah, the ah, school committee ah, room that night what we realized that was that we had confronted this very unique political body. The school committee was an un--
Can you describe the Boston school committee as a political body for us?
Well, it's important to note that the Boston school committee was a unique political body. For one thing it had always been used as a stepping stone to a higher office. The um, members were unpaid and of course, the only reason for them to serve was never their um, interests in education because I used to attend a number of school committee meetings. And the only things I would hear discussed would be promotions and assignments, things like that. Very seldom did you hear real educational issues discussed. Now, um, Louise Day Hicks was chairperson of the school committee at that time. And it's interesting to note that um, some of the people on the NAACP general committee felt that she would meet our concerns favorably. Um, she had been endorsed by the Citizens for Public Schools before. And so they thought that oh, Louise'll be fine. Well, um, Louise turned out to be not fine at all. She was an enemy from the minute that we stepped into that door. And this shocked a lot of people. Somehow she was smart enough to know that here was an issue that she can hang onto and move, just move ahead. Well, after that meeting we were asked to come to a private meeting with the members of Boston school committee. No press. Just us and them. And so we would sit down and we would talk. And one of the things that was interesting about her is that she would completely ignore me and talk to the men. Um, she never addressed me directly. I would continue to address her but she ignored me completely. And as we moved on she became tougher. Um, at one point she said, "The word that I'm objecting to is segregation. As long as you talk about segregation I won't discuss this." Well, now, remember now, we didn't get past the de facto segregation issue. And so um, we would drop these little sentences saying where there is a majority of Black students, these students are not being, ah, given the education that other people are given and so forth and so on. And she'd say, "Does that mean segregation?" And so the whole thing would be dropped. We went through all these routines with her. And the other thing that's interesting you know, when we'd come back to a board meeting and report there were some members of the board that said, well you know, the problem with this, the reason this is not being taken care of is that there are two women heading up this negotiation. And that you know, women are emotional and so forth, but I had wonderful co-workers on that committee, Paul Parks and Mel King and they immediately debunked that theory. But these are the kinds of things that we were getting, plus with the press. The press came out. NAACP is wrong. This is wrong. We got very little public support and we got absolutely no um, political support. I remember once um, when Martin Luther King came. I think it was 1967. I, I'm not sure. Came to Boston. And one of the things he was going to do when he was here was go visit the school committee and go visit the mayor and so forth. He never got to the school committee. But we did go to see the mayor who was Mayor Collins and he made an appeal on the basis of peace and s--that we'd got no public support whatsoever. And so what the, then, now the people in the community started to react. Um, there were um, um, pray-ins outside there. We had a minister whose name was Reverend Vernon Carter who did a walk for I don't know how many days in front of the school committee. And then we decided one night to sit in. And ah, we went. We sat there. We were sitting there waiting to be arrested. And ah, the captain came and announced that if you're not gone in t--so and so minutes you'll be arrested. When Melnea Cass, that wonderful woman, um, who was always called the First Lady of Roxbury, walked in and sat right in with us. And of course, nobody was going to arrest Mrs. Cass. We did all kinds of things outside that school committee. We did all kinds of, made all kinds of appeals. And they would do nothing. In the meantime, Louise Day Hicks' fame was spreading and she was a cult hero. They loved her. And ah, the only person that we had on that Boston school committee who supported us was a man named Arthur Gartland. So constantly we had these five to one votes. And of course, he was vilified in this city. It was a horrible time to live in Boston. I also got, oh, all kinds of hate mail. Horrible stuff. And, and I also got calls from Black people in Boston and they would call up and they'd say, "Mrs. Batson, I know you think you're doing a good thing. And maybe where you came from there was segregation, but we don't have segregation in Boston." And I would say to them all, "Where do I come from?" And invariably they would say South Carolina or North Carolina. Of course, now, I was born in Boston. So there were people who could not accept the fact that this horrible thing was happening to Boston, the city of culture.
What was the thinking behind wanting to desegregate the schools? Did you think that Black kids were inferior?
Um, it was very important in our mind to desegregate the, the Boston public schools. Now, we received a lot of criticism. One thing, Mrs. Hicks and other White people would say do the--This was Mrs. Hicks' favorite statement. "Do they think that sitting a White child beside a Black child, by osmosis the Black child will get better?" That was her favorite statement. And then there were Black people and a lot of our friends who said, "Ruth, why don't we get them to just fix up the schools and um, and make them better in our district?" And of course, that repelled us because we came through the separate but equal theory. This was not something that we believed in. And we have s--Even now, when I g--talk to a lot of people they say we were wrong in pushing for this desegregation. Well, I c--We were not pushing for it because of the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man concept. But I believe that children should be educated with a whole lot of different people because I consider education basic. Not just arith--reading and writing, arithmetic, but the kinds of, of um, learning that you get from learning with a whole lot of people. So that's my philosophy. But it was a very practical reason to do it in those days. When we would go to White schools we'd see these lovely ah, classrooms, small sizes, a, a small number of children in each class. The teachers were permanent. Um, we'd see wonderful materials. When we'd go to our schools we would see overcrowded classrooms, children sitting out in the corridors and so forth. And so then we decided that where there were a large number of White students, that's where the care went. That's where the books went. That's where the money went. In fact, we knew that there was more money being spent in certain schools, White schools--not all of them, but in certain White schools--than there, than there was being spent in Black schools. So therefore, our theory was move our kids into those schools where they're putting all of the resources so that they can get a better education. We never seemed to be able to get that point across. But im--it's important to note that in spite of the fact that there were differences of opinion within the community, as there always are, the community really stuck with us on that de facto segregation issue. I remember one night getting into a cab when they started talking about racial imbalance as the term and not de facto. And the cab driver said to me, "Aren't you the de facto lady?" And I said yeah. He said, "What'd you change that thing for? I just got that thing clear and understand what it means, now you're changing it to racial imbalance." I was never in favor of changing the term because I didn't feel racial imbalance meant what de facto segregation meant. But we were supported by the community, by the Black community. Our membership went up, way up, more than it had gone up in years. And so we always felt supported but it's important to have these differences and to discuss them.
How come Black parents wound up in court?
Well, after the um, all of this hoopla, the sit-ins and the stay-outs and the meetings and th--All kinds of things happened. Right after that Operation Exodus c--came about. METCO was devised. These were some of the benefits. There were ah, all kinds of independent programs that started in the community; New School for Children. Um, ah, an experimental school. All of these, the Black community turned its efforts to trying to set up various programs to give parents options because we were not getting any place with the Boston school committee. But then there were always students left in this school system. And so um, those parents began to mobilize. And they tried everything. They tried the appeals. They tried going to the school committee. They tried going to everyone to get help. So finally they decided that the only recourse left to them was the court. You know, it's part of our history that the court will help us. And um, we had always looked upon the court as a friendly place to go at that time in these issues. And so they went to court.
Great. Cut. Excellent.
After Garrity handed down his decision, did the Black community think that things were going to be easy?
When G--Garrity's decision came down in June of 1974 we were sunk when we heard some of the remedies, the one of busing to South Boston because, and Charlestown particularly, because those of us who had lived in Boston all of our lives knew that this was going to be a very, very difficult thing to pull off. And we knew that the people in South Boston, or at least we felt that way, that the people in South Boston and Charlestown would not be receptive to having Black kids bused into their city or their little t-town or whatever they called it. And um, so we were fearful but they had masters who were appointed to make the, the ah, the ah, case and so forth. But somehow we knew that things weren't going to go well. And at that point I think that we should have um, tried some kind of legal way of injecting ourselves into the case, but we didn't. The, you know, the parents were handling this themselves. And at that point they were making their own decisions. And somehow we didn't feel as if we should do that. We would stay on the sidelines and watch this thing. Well, it's history. The kind of things that happened and the kind of response was just terrible.
Can you go back to that summer? How was the community feeling? I mean, you were based at the Freedom House in--
Yes. Well, you see, the, the--Actually, ah, the ah, um, decision came down in June, 1974. The order really didn't go into real effect until September of 1975. And at Freedom House it was decided that all of the agencies would meet there on a regular basis to discuss what was going to happen and discuss how we would work during that emergency. It was a wonderful group of people who gathered together under the direction of um, Muriel and Otto Snowden. And um, Ellen Jackson and I were chairpersons of this small group. And we would meet to get legal updates, finding out what was happening, where it was going. And there were all kinds of appeals coming in from the school systems so we needed to have that understanding. Well, in the meanwhile, I was um, director of a program called Consultation and Education at the um, ah, Division of Psychiatry, BU School of Me--of Me--of Medicine. And along with my co-worker we sat down to try to figure out what we would do about it because we knew that there would be mental health issues that would come up during this transition. And ah, so we went down to Washington, the National Institute of Mental Health, and asked them for money to train people to um, work with the students during this period. Um. We then set up a training program which went into effect in um, the summer of 1975, whereby we chose to develop teams of people who would work on buses, ride buses. Work at ah, various schools. And they couldn't get into all the schools but they'd work at the staging areas. And they'd receive the children afterwards. Meantime, the group at Freedom House, with all of the um, the institutions in that area, Multi-Service Center, Lena Park, Alma Louis School of Fine Arts. All of these schools and all of these agencies were stewed together ah, to--bringing in their resources to help these kids do this terrible time.
Tell me, why were you afraid of reaction in South Boston?
Well, because as a child we had encountered the um, the wrath of um, people in South Boston. And I just felt that they were bigoted. I just felt that they made it very clear that they didn't like Black people. And I was prepared for them not to want um, Black students coming to the school. Plus, which they said it! I mean, they made it very clear. The other thing was that there was absolutely no preparation made for this transition. Um. There were a couple of um, ah, athletes and other people who would go on TV and they would say, you know, "We have a--this thing that we have to, hap--have happen in our city. We're going to be busing kids and so forth and so on. And um, we have to be brave about it." And you say to yourself, "Well, what are they expecting?" Here were little children that were going to a school and they were talking about being brave as if some alien from some planet was coming into the school. I never heard any public official on the state level or on the city level come out and say, "This is a good thing. We should all learn together. We should all live together." There was no encouragement from anybody. I call it complete official neglect. And so therefore there was no preparation being made. Then those of us who knew the police departments and so forth felt that, many of them lived in South Boston. And how were they going to divide their loyalties? And so we felt that this was not going to be a happy occasion, and we were right.
Can you paint a picture for us of riding a bus to South Boston. Tell us what you saw, what you heard inside the bus, outside the bus.
Well, I remember the time that I rode the bus that stands out in my mind mostly, because I w--was not on the bus at the very beginning of the year, but sometime in around October I started riding the bus. I would always go to the staging area, see the kids on to the bus, meet our team, um--
Cut. Sorry for the Sirens.
Let's pick up with your riding the buses and to Southie.
Well, um, s--beginning in October I decided I would the ride the buses, along with some of the other team members, to find out for myself, you know, what was happening. We would get reports from team members and from other members of our group ah, like Percy Wilson, who would ride, and a number of people who would ride the buses. Well I hadn't done it so I thought I would do it. And I remember the first morning I got on the bus and the kids were like kids are on a bus--boisterous and happy and having a good time. And then they would sing, "Here We Come Southie, Here We Come." You know, and, just a real raucous occasion. And I remember as you start up that hill going to the um, school seeing signs that people would hold out of windows, or they were on walls and so forth. And um, it really shocked me that this was going on. The other thing that shocked me as we pulled up to the school was the large number of women standing there making noises and making ah, gestures at these children. And you know, it really bothered me because somehow I felt that you know, women would be more understanding, and even if they didn't agree with what was happening, they, they would at least have this motherly feeling or aunterly[SIC] feeling , some kind of feeling for these children. So I was amazed at the number of women there. And then, along with the o--these were older women, I'd say, middle aged women that I saw there. Then the other group that I saw, there were a large number of younger men who should have been working in my opinion, you know. They seemed to be in their early twenties. Large number of them. And then the other thing that bothered me was that as we went up the hill and approached the school our students got very, very quiet, where they had been just like any other kid riding the bus, making noise, laughing, talking. Suddenly, as they approached this place they got very, very quiet. And um, then they would have to stay there until the police came over, escorted them out the bus, and in through the metal detectors, into the school. It was ah, I began for the first time to say, "Ruth, maybe you shouldn't have gotten involved. Maybe you shouldn't have urged this desegregation." It, it, it killed me to see our Black students go through that procedure.
Mrs. Batson, you talked about how when the judge put Southie in receivership, that was a significant turning point. Could you tell us the story of how that came to be?
Well, I'm not sure how it came to be but um, this was something that I felt had to happen. And I tried very hard to get our group, the Freedom group--
Could you say something about putting Southie in receivership
OK, sorry, I believe that putting South Boston High School into receivership was the turning point in this whole case. Um, I had long felt that this was an important step to take. And after my first trip to South Boston High School in October I came back to our group at Freedom House and I said, "I want us to write a letter to the judge saying to the judge that we have to put South Boston High School into receivership." And they said, "Ah, Ruth. He'll never do that. It's just a waste of time. He'll never do it." And I really pushed my argument. And, and they said, "No, ah, we'll just aggravate the situation. They'll never do that." Well, um, always being the kind of person that would follow through on what I felt I said, "Well, I'm going to write the judge on my own." So I wrote the judge a letter in October saying to him that I had been out to South Boston High School and one of the things that I believed was that this thing would never be solved in, at the rate it was going because the people in South Boston felt that this was their school, that they owned this building. Somehow they had paid money for it. It was their school. And as long as this was the situation of turf, that this was never going to be solved. And I pointed out to him the kinds of things that I had seen happen in the school. And ah, so I said to him, "Judge Garrity, I really believe that this school will have to be put into receivership. Take it out of the hands of the people of South Boston, have an outside group look at it and handle it until we get over this crunch." Well, lo and behold, it, it was really a big day for me when the judge came out with the ruling that South Boston was going into receivership. Now, I'm not by any stretch of the imagination saying that he was influenced at all by a letter that I would have sent, but it thrilled me to have this happen because ah, for once I said, somebody is looking at this situation realistically. And of course, my co-workers and co-community activists were very impressed, you know, that I had this, this idea and um, somehow they linked it up. But I, I'm not sure that--But the point wa--
When you were growing up in Boston, was it your perception that this was the cradle of liberty in terms of race issues?
Um. As a small child in Boston I think I had maybe a more unique bringing up. The, though there, there were many people who I know um, had this same um
That's OK. You can just
Um. I--When I grew up in Boston ah, my parents were from Jamaica. And ah, my mother was a Garveyite. By that she was the devotee and a follower of Marcus Garvey. And so every week, every Sunday, there were meetings held in a hall that was called Toussaint L'Ouverture Hall. And my mother was o-one of the Black star nurses. And I would have to go with her to these meetings. And at these meetings I heard Africa for the Africans at home and abroad. And we heard racial issues constantly being discussed. And so as I grew up I was not swayed as much as some people I knew by this business of Boston being such a wonderful place to grow up, being such a great city with the cradle of liberty. I knew, even though I wouldn't have expressed it this way, that there were flaws in the cradle of liberty. I know I used to go home and tell my mother things that the teacher said or did and s--and she would go up to school and say something to them but it was an, it was an unusual um, upbringing that I had. The thing that I remember most about being a little girl in Boston was that when my mother would take me downtown you wouldn't see any Black people usually. Ah, you know, the shopping area. And that when I would see somebody coming, a, a Black person coming I would pull my mother's coat and say, "Ma, there's a colored lady across the street," or "there's a colored man across the street," because you saw very few Black people in certain areas of the city. Um, and so um, I think I was always aware. And my mother talked about it constantly. She talked about the people who didn't treat you right. She used to say, "If somebody calls you a name, just take up a, a--if you got an umbrella, take anything and hit them with it." And we used to laugh, you know. We di-didn't think she really meant it. One of my, my s--most serious memories about being a small child in Boston was one day I was taking dancing lessons and we had to go over to the um, conservatory to rehearse for our recital. And I had money to go to the restaurant. It was a White towel restaurant that sold hamburgers and hot dogs. And with some of my friends we walked around to the corner to get ourselves something to eat, then to go back to the, to the conservatory. And all of us ordered hot dogs, something cold to drink. And the man put the hot dogs on the, on the counter. And when I bit into mine it was raw. And I turned to the--my playmate at my side and I said, "This is raw. It hasn't been cooked." And she looked at hers. And I turned to the other one. And the other um, kid said, "Well, I, I like, I always eat raw. I always eat mine raw." Stood there and the tears just came down my face when I realized what this man had done. And I never, never told my mother because I knew she would be ashamed that I sat there and paid for this hot dog. I've never gotten over that memory. So you know, I'm, I'm not saying that this couldn't happen in any city but it happened to me in Boston and I remember remarks the teachers would make and so forth. And so um, I, I wouldn't say that this doesn't--as I said before, that this doesn't happen every place. But um, I was well aware that there were attitudes and that there was, that racism abounded here in Boston.