Just because my child is Black does not mean she needs a special reading group for the “culturally deprived…”
78 year old Black Woman
50 year Benicia resident
I live on Carolina Drive, which was once an all-African American community. The homes were built in 1954. I understand that it became a Black neighborhood because the original developer fell into financial trouble and needed to sell the homes quickly. He sold his first home to a Black family. After that, he couldn't sell to anyone but African Americans. It was a time when it was difficult for a Black family to qualify for a home loan. A significant down payment had to be secured. The applicant had to be gainfully employed at a stable job, have stellar credit, and sometimes references from a respected White person in the local community.
My mother purchased a home there in the mid-1960s. My husband and I bought the house from her in 1971. It was still an all-Black community at the time and a very close-knit neighborhood. I knew all of the families there. We were hard-working with aspirations for ourselves and our children. Carolina Drive was a Black neighborhood that flourished as a community within a community. While in the broader sense, our children had the advantage of small-town life and a good school system. Yes, there was bias and prejudice, some of it blatant and hurtful, but we held our heads high. Most of the properties were well cared for and maintained. There was no violence or significant criminal activity in the neighborhood. Many of us were churchgoers, and many were volunteers within the church, schools, and community. The community gave rise to generations of gainfully employed, upstanding, contributing citizens. Some became police officers, firefighters, civil servants, court officers, engineers, doctors, nurses, pastors, entrepreneurs, coaches, and teachers.
This story is about one of my daughter's many experiences of racism in the Benicia school system. In the mid-1970s, when she was in the 3rd grade at Mary Farmar Elementary School, she came home one day and announced that she was in a "special" reading group. As a former sixth-grade teacher at Robert Semple School, I understood immediately what that meant. This special group was a remedial reading group. I was stunned and curious about why my daughter, who loved to read more than almost anything, would be put in a pull-out group for students who needed additional support. On Friday evenings once or twice a month, her treat was to spend the evening at the Vallejo library with me. She checked out a bag full of books at a time and devoured them all long before our next visit. She was an excellent reader.
The next day, I went to see the principal, a White woman in her 40s or 50s. I asked her about the program and what assessment measure they had used to determine who should be in the group. She said she didn't know but that she was sure the teacher used some benchmark standard. She offered to invite the teacher into the meeting. I agreed, but when she stood up to get the teacher, thinking I would wait in her office, I said I would walk with her. I didn't want to allow them time to strategize on what to say to "make me comfortable" before I had a chance to know the truth of what I already suspected, which was that there was no assessment used.
The principal ultimately agreed that I could approach the teacher on my own. I walked to her classroom directly. The teacher was another White woman of a similar age as the principal. I learned that this special reading group that my daughter was in was structured no differently than other groups designed to help students who she determined needed it - except this one consisted entirely of the 4 or 5 Black students in her class. I knew them because they lived in our neighborhood. I knew one of the boys in the group was exceptionally bright and certainly wouldn't have been identified as needing a remedial reading group any more than my daughter did. (He later became a city administrator in a major California city, and she earned a bachelor's degree in engineering and a doctorate in metaphysics.)
I asked her why these children qualified for this special group. She proudly told me she had created this group for the culturally deprived students who didn't have books in their homes. I was stunned. Our house was full of books, art, music, and information. I asked her if there had been an assessment tool used. The answer was no. I asked her if she had ever visited the homes of these children. Again the answer was no. At this point, I requested that the children be assessed if they were to remain in the group. She was resistant, but I was steadfast and eventually offered to take my request to the school board. She agreed to assess the children. Less than two weeks later, my daughter's "special" reading group no longer existed.
Racist stereotypes and misinformation guided this teacher's education strategy for African American third graders. Her racial socialization supposed that everyone must aspire to the European-based standard of culture and that anything different was cultural deprivation. She assumed that because of their color, these children were inferior. She was ignorant of the rich culture that exists in the homes of African American families. Her assumption that the families of these children lacked culture was profoundly egregious. In recent conversations with other former students, I learned that my daughter's experience was standard behavior for this teacher and not an isolated incident.
History surrounds us. African American history is American history, and that includes the history of African Americans in Benicia. To alleviate structural and institutional racism and promote racial healing, we must first acknowledge the past. In the words of Carter G Woodson, the Black History celebration founder, "You must give your own story to the world."