Dr. Cynthia Waszak Geary and Dr. LaHoma Smith Romocki, alumnae of Hillside High School, Durham, North Carolina, have done something very unusual: collaborated on a book about their experiences decades ago as Black and White high school students during a period of court ordered desegregation. In different classes and coming from different neighborhoods, Cindy and LaHoma were participants in Durham City School’s “Permanent Plan for Desegregation.” Launched in the summer of 1970, the plan moved Black students to predominantly White schools and White students to predominantly Black schools. Their book, Going to School in Black and White, is a memoir and reflection. Chapters are themed and each author offers a perspective and history. The is not a scholarly analysis of policy. Instead, it is personal and powerful. The women’s individual stories shed a fascinating light on the on-the-ground impact of school integration at a particular moment in a particular space.
By all accounts, both authors have lead full and interesting lives. Geary, who is White, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying psychology through a doctoral program. Now a practicing artist, photographer and writer, Geary met Romicki at a non-fiction writers workshop. Romicki attended Duke as an undergraduate before earning an MPH in Public Health and a PhD in Health Communication at the University of North Carolina, Durham. She has worked in Africa, received grants and has worn many hats in her field: researcher, administrator, teacher and practitioner in public health. Currently Romicki is a professor at North Carolina Central University, an HBCU. The breadth of the authors’ professional experiences, coupled with their commitment to understanding themselves and race relations, imbues immediacy in their writing.
Both authors approach their high school stories with a sense of opportunity and growth. While working on their collaboration, a high school reunion took place, providing a way to talk to more former students. Most shared that they believed the integration plan to have been a positive experience, that their time in school had broadened networks and deepened understanding. Today, however, that sense of accomplishment is long gone. Over the past forty years white flight, along with shifts in housing and education policies in Durham, has led to increased segregation. Durham is far from alone. Nationally, Black and White students are less likely to attend school together than they were decades ago. Realizing that gave the project an urgency to the authors.
The women’s recollections speak primarily to practical concerns, the kinds of issues that all high school students and their families would find familiar. Families wondered if the girls would be safe, if there would be trouble from the school or community. Our authors, like most of their peers, were not mulling over policy and race relations. Instead, they thought about friendships, parties, social hierarchies, dating – all the normal things that fill adolescents’ minds. Like most teenagers, the young women were busy with school, clubs, work and many opportunities and obligations that fill teenagers’ days. Issues of race and racism tended to reveal themselves in conversations, with interactions, and in doing schoolwork and activities together. For example, reading Soul on Ice for class was a revelation to Cindy. Later she realized that it was a book that probably would not have been assigned in a white high school. The junior miss pageant, which had traditionally only been won by White girls, was extremely important to LaHoma. Their high school experiences and friendships shaped college interactions, which in turn affected life choices and relationships. Although drawing a direct line of cause and effect is impossible, and not necessarily a helpful way to think about one’s life, both women acknowledge and are grateful for their high school and the ways that integration taught them new and different things.
In asking “What Now?” the authors close the book, noting that the political will for integration does not exist today. That means that building and sustaining community can be all the more difficult. They call for local discussion, for community-driven dialogue to combat racism. The emphasize that “there are no quick fixes, no silver bullets.” That said, through ongoing conversations they have learned much. They also have become very good friends.
Again, Going to School in Black and White is not a policy book. What it does, though, is make a powerful argument for policy shaped by ongoing discussion. The authors seek what Benjamin Barber calls “strong democracy.” It is not about quick fixes, but rather building trust and understanding through dialogue, especially when navigating through issues of race and racism. This is exactly what Geary and Romacki seek, aided by their own histories. And while it may seem difficult, if not impossible in our times of tweets and pronouncements, it may be our best path forward. Engaging honestly with each other is essential if we are to have community that is democratic, diverse and equity minded.