Their School Integrated But Racial Divisions Remained: 'We Missed Knowing Each Other'

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 25, 2019 11:16 am

Eli Brown and Natalie Guice Adams first met as third-grade classmates, when their school in Winnsboro, La., integrated in fall of 1970. Although they would share a similar academic trajectory, Brown and Adams lived very separate experiences.

"I feel like we missed knowing each other," Brown, a 56-year-old African American man, told Adams, a 57-year-old white woman, during a StoryCorps conversation recorded earlier this month.

When Brown's parents told him that he would soon attend a school with white children, he didn't understand why the white students might not like him.

"My first impression was, 'Why?, What have I done to 'em?' " Brown said.

Next week marks 50 years since the Supreme Court ordered schools across the South to desegregate immediately.

Alexander v. Holmes, a little-known but milestone 1969 case, overruled Brown v. Board of Education II's language calling to end segregation with "all deliberate speed," which many schools had resisted for 15 years.

Starting third grade was a big adjustment for Brown.

"The first day, it's sort of a blur," Brown told Adams. "You have to realize, we left our school and came to your school. I can remember seeing new, white faces. Finding the cafeteria, finding the boys' restroom."

But both clearly remember being co-editors of the fourth grade newspaper together.

"I did think I was the smartest person in class," Adams said. "But I realized that you were gonna give me a run for my money."

Brown and Adams shared that competitive spirit.

"To this day, I've never wanted to lose," Brown said. "You know, I was thinking about valedictorian when I was [in] ninth grade. But I knew who would stand in the way of me doing that — it was gonna be you."

Brown and Adams would eventually graduate as co-valedictorians.

Adams recalled when Brown was elected in high school as the vice president of the Louisiana State Beta Club, an academic organization for top performing students.

When he was running for the position, Brown had ribbons that said "Vote for Eli Brown."

One day, when Brown and his father attended a State Beta Club convention, Brown says they found one of his ribbons in a urinal in the men's restroom.

"I remember my dad getting a big roll of tissue around his hand, going into that urinal and getting that out," Brown recalled. "And I said, 'Dad, what are you doing?' He says, 'Nobody pees on this name.' That was the pride he instilled in us."

"You never let your guard down, ever," Adams told Brown. "And our lives were so intertwined in school, but so separate. Like, I have no idea if you had friends. We had segregated dances — I don't even know if you guys had dances."

Brown says that although white and black students had their own segregated dances outside of school, there were no school-wide dances. "We were told that they didn't want shoes on the gym floor," he said. "But we knew why."

Both Adams and Brown were named "Most Likely To Succeed" at their high school. But even that honor was racially segregated.

"It wasn't until I got the yearbooks out that I realized there was a black Most Likely To Succeed boy and girl, and there was a white Most Likely To Succeed boy and girl," Adams said.

Brown says he remembers being upset by that distinction.

"When I looked at that yearbook, it hurt to see that everything was black and white," he said. "I just wish some adult could have said, 'No. We're not doing this.' "

Still, 65 years after the Brown v. Board decision, black and Latino students continue to attend heavily segregated schools across the U.S.

Brown now works as an OBGYN in Birmingham and Adams is a professor at the University of Alabama.

Before their conversation this month, the former classmates had only seen each other once since graduating, at their 20th high school reunion in 2000.

"After we graduated, that was it," Adams said.

"To sit here and talk to you in this way, I never thought I would ever do this," Brown told Adams. "But, your name, and, you know, what we went through, is never far from me."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Camila Kerwin.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it's time for StoryCorps now. Next week marks 50 years since the Supreme Court ordered schools in the South to desegregate. The case was Alexander vs. Holmes County Board of Education. It came 15 years after Brown vs. Board of Education. And it's when third-graders Natalie Guice Adams and Eli Brown met at Winnsboro Elementary School in Louisiana.

ELI BROWN: My mother and father told me that there will be some changes. I remembered vividly them saying that, well, you will be going to school with white children. And there may be some people who may not like you very much. And my first impression was, why? What have I done to them? The first day, it's sort of a blur. You have to realize we left our school and came to your school. I can remember seeing new white faces, finding the cafeteria, finding the boys' restroom.

NATALIE GUICE ADAMS: Yeah. I vividly remember you in fourth grade.

BROWN: Why?

ADAMS: You and I were the co-editors of the fourth-grade newspaper.

BROWN: I remember that.

ADAMS: And I did think I was the smartest person in class. But I realized that you were going to give me a run for my money.

BROWN: To this day, I've never wanted to lose. You know, I was thinking about valedictorian when I was ninth grade, but I knew who would stand in the way of me doing that was going to be you.

ADAMS: I also remember when you were elected state Beta Club vice president in high school.

BROWN: It was our National Honor society.

ADAMS: Right.

BROWN: What I remember most about when I was running, we had these ribbons - vote for Eli Brown or something like this. Well, my dad and I went into the men's restroom, and there was one of those ribbons in the urinal. I remember my dad getting a big roll of tissue around his hand, going into that urinal and getting that out. And I said, Dad, what are you doing? He says, nobody pees on this name. That was the pride he instilled in us.

ADAMS: You never let your guard down ever. And our lives were so intertwined in school but so separate. Like, we had segregated - I don't even know if you guys had dances.

BROWN: No, we really didn't have that. We were told that they didn't want shoes on the gym floor.

ADAMS: Right.

BROWN: But we knew why.

ADAMS: I knew that you and I both got most likely to succeed. It wasn't until I got the yearbooks out that I realized there was a black most likely to succeed boy and girl and there was a white most likely to succeed boy and girl.

BROWN: When I looked at that yearbook, it hurt to see that everything was black and white. I just wish some adult could have said, no, we're not doing this. I feel like we missed knowing each other.

ADAMS: After we graduated, that was it.

BROWN: That was it. To sit here and talk to you in this way, I never thought I would ever do this. But your name and, you know, what we went through is never far from me.

GREENE: Eli Brown and Natalie Guice Adams - they graduated high school as co-valedictorians. Their interview will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.