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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Willie Mae Lee Crews, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Integration of faculty at Birmingham schools in 1970-1971

Here, Crews discusses efforts to integrate the faculty at schools in Birmingham, Alabama in 1970-1971. According to Crews, this was a somewhat tumultuous process in which the prejudice of white teachers was detrimental. She recalls how white teachers believed they would have to lower their standards if they were transferred to one of the African American schools. She explains how many of the white teachers sent to Hayes High School, where she worked, were poorly trained whereas the African American teachers transferred out to white schools were among the best. Crews described how the principal of Hayes, with some success, challenged this trend and fought to keep his teachers at Hayes.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Willie Mae Lee Crews, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

In 1970-1971, when we were going to integrate faculties, the board set up conferences and meetings to talk about how this was to be done. Each school sent maybe four or maybe five representatives. I was greatly disturbed by what I heard in some of the meetings. There was an attitude or a belief system again that black kids cannot learn what white kids can learn. In one of the sessions I heard again and again and again from different white teachers that they did not want to lower their standards. Finally, I could not take it and I stood to all of my five foot eight inches and said 'I had no idea that so many of you have been to the top of Mt. Sinai and God himself gave you a set of standards for teaching!' [laughs] There was absolute silence. 'I would like to know about those standards, and who is to say you will not have to raise those standards? You are presuming that black kids cannot learn. I'm black and I attended one room schools with six grades in one room with one teacher, and we knew cooperative learning even though we didn't attach that name to it.' I said, "Mrs. Adele Child knew and Mrs. Chloe Tutt knew that Willie Mae could read so sit with Clarence who doesn't read very well, John - you're good in math, sit with Paul who is not so good in math, so that at the end of sixth grade each of you will know everything you will need to know to go to seventh grade." They were all just looking. I was just so upset by that.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Were they saying this over and over again because they thought that would keep them from going to a black school?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
No, they thought that they would have to lower their standards and they just wanted us to know that the kids would flunk because they couldn't come up to these standards that God had given them on these tablets. Then the board hired teachers they would not have hired, just for white schools. Some came to Hayes and John Norman said you can't work here.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Did he really send them away?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Yes, yes he did. Indeed he did. One lady came on a motorcycle and we thought she got lost in the woods with this man who was on the motorcycle with her. They were dirty. And then the board would send white teachers to two or three black schools to make a decision to see if they wanted to teach at any one of them or not.
KIMBERLY HILL:
So, they chose the schools?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Right, and we didn't have that opportunity. A counselor came with her mother and father to look the school over and see if their daughter would be safe.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Really? They went through a tour of Hayes to see if it was safe for her?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Some were poor teachers and they didn't understand that children will try their teachers if you are new. It has nothing to do with color. You are a new teacher and we need to know whether you know what you are doing, so we will ask you questions and we will try your patience. We will ask to be excused to see if you will allow us to be excused. That's the way kids are. Some came with the impression from their background that I am white and blacks will respond to me in a designated way or a learned way, and that's not the case.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Which ways did they expect?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
That was what they expected, that kids would - if I see you on the street, if you work in my home or if your mother works for me then you acquiesce to superiority. That was an attitude, and some didn't know that they had the attitude, but it was there. Now we did get some excellent teachers. We had one teacher I remember in particular that the kids liked. When she left, another teacher came who was white and the kids said to her, "You come in here acting like you are Ms. Strawbridge and you are not Ms. Strawbridge." These were smart kids, when she'd turn to write on the blackboard they would clap, stamp their feet or make noises; and when she'd turn around they were perfect. She finally said she couldn't take it. I told her I was glad that she was able to admit that and maybe with more training and more knowledge perhaps she could come back or become a teacher at another school. We had one teacher who had not been out of a mental institution very long. He walked around with one shoe in his hand.
KIMBERLY HILL:
He was a teacher?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
The principal called the board and said you have to come get him, and they did. We had one teacher who was floating, and he said he took forty Bufferin for his hay fever. John Norman was not tolerant of strange behavior; you could be eccentric and know what you are doing, but that he was not accepting of. He believed in having every teacher read the rules and regulations in a meeting and signing that you have a copy and that you have read them, so you could not say you didn't know about this or you did not know about that. The board promised in those meetings that every school would be allowed to keep a core of teachers that the principal's designated, and they'd be in a position to help everyone else work into that school's philosophy and system. That did not happen. Also in one of those meetings I said, "Please do not transfer the best black teachers to schools that are white and leave the black kids with what you deem the poorest black teachers and the poorest white teachers, that's totally unfair."
KIMBERLY HILL:
Did you see that happening?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
It did happen. Carver had wonderful teachers, and I think all four of their department chairs were moved to other schools and they were part of the core for that school. They moved our Art teacher to a white school. She was there for one week and our Principal said to the Superintendent-and Cody would listen - "You cannot leave my students without an Art teacher to give an Art teacher to schools that have one, so I want my Art teacher back." So, in one week our Art teacher was back. On my first visit to the Board, I went and the personnel person did not offer me a seat, did not attempt to rise to indicate that I had come into his office, and he wanted to know when I entered the door if I minded teaching children of the opposite race. Well, you know in my head I was thinking, "Opposite race of what?" I didn't say that, I just said, "No, I do not." He said we will let you know about your assignment. I said, "Please send them to Hayes High School. That is where I will teach them." Then he dismissed me, and that was the end of that. Maybe three or four months later a young woman came to the school saying that she was my replacement. My principal sent for me and asked if I had retired or resigned and I said no. He told me the woman had come saying she was my replacement. I had nothing in writing, when he said "Daughter," that was it. He said, "Daughter, we can't use you" and that was the end of that.
KIMBERLY HILL:
So the board sent a replacement for you without actually -
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Without saying anything to me-without transferring me. But, like I said, that was the end of that.