Memphis 13

Students who broke color barrier in Memphis schools 55 years ago say there’s still work to do

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Harry Williams, Dwania Kyles and Michael Willis, who now goes by Menelik Fombi, were honored at Bruce Elementary for being among the "Memphis 13" who helped integrate the city's public schools.

In October of 1961, three children with police escorts became the first black students to attend the previously all-white Bruce Elementary School in midtown Memphis.

Fifty-five years later, the same three people, now in their early 60s, revisited the historic school on Monday amid cheers and celebration, but also an awareness that education equity remains elusive in public schools.

The school honored three of the 13 men and women, known as the ‘Memphis 13,’ who bridged the racial divide beginning with four elementary schools in the former Memphis City Schools on Oct. 3, 1961.

“The Memphis 13 is a great indicator for why Black Lives Matters is important still for our community,” principal Archie Moss Jr. said in introducing the honorees. “The Memphis 13 made a statement that we will not sit by idly, but we will advocate for what our students need.”

Bruce Elementary Principal Archie Moss Jr. speaks with one of the Memphis 13, Michael Willis (Menelik Fombi).
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Archie Moss Jr. speaks with Memphis 13 member Menelik Fombi.

Bruce Elementary is a very different school from the one that Dwania Kyles, Harry Williams and Michael Willis entered as first-graders. In 1961, Bruce was pristine, the books were new, and its students were mostly from higher income families — a school that Moss, as a black man, acknowledged “wasn’t originally designed for me.” Today, it’s a majority black school, and almost all its students are considered economically disadvantaged.

The families of Kyles, Williams and Willis, who now goes by Menelik Fombi, were recruited to integrate Bruce seven years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared state laws unconstitutional in establishing separate public schools for black and white students. The transition happened without violence, but members of the Memphis 13 recall that the experience was challenging every day.

“It was very difficult to find 12 black families (one family had two children in the 13) who were willing to send their 5- and 6-year-olds through that,” Kyles told the crowd. “Our families were fearless. I’m honored to be here today … to be recognized for what we did 55 years ago.”

Moss elaborated after the ceremony that he hopes education equality becomes a main focus of Black Lives Matter, which has had a national focus on police brutality, and has incited debate on whether or not the movement belongs in education reform.

“What the Memphis 13 did was so brave and significant, but it just gets us in the door,” Moss said. “I want to make it so that every child in Memphis and across the nation has access to equal education, regardless of their zip code.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, spoke to the assembly about America’s growing disparity in income, which he called the “racism of today.”

“Even though doors are no longer closed because of race, they are closed because of income inequality,” said Cohen, who is white.

Though students of color now attend any school in the city, all schools are not equal, Fombi told Chalkbeat later. “For students living in great poverty, there is a great lack of resources,” he said. “This still falls on African Americans disproportionately.”

Bruce Elementary choir students perform in honor of the 55th anniversary of the Memphis 13.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bruce Elementary choir students perform in honor of the 55th anniversary of the Memphis 13.

The Memphis 13 were recruited by the NAACP with the promise of attending schools closer to their neighborhoods.

They were honored last year with historical markers placed at Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle and Springdale elementary schools. The group garnered renewed interest five years ago, when Daniel Kiel, a Memphis School of Law associate professor, directed a 45-minute documentary film about the students.

“It’s important to honor people who made progress possible, even at a time when we’re not satisfied with the progress,” said Kiel, who was present at the celebration. “It shows where we are, and how far we’ve come, and what there is still left to do.”

Emergency fix

Mold-infested Detroit school will be closed for the rest of the year, school board meeting ends in chaos

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy will be closed for the rest of the year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

A water-damaged, mold-infested elementary school building in northwest Detroit will be closed for the rest of the school year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified the school board about plans for the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy during a board meeting Tuesday night that became so raucous, the board called a recess for nearly an hour before voting to end the meeting without addressing most of the items on its agenda.

The meeting was ended after security guards attempted to remove a loud protester from the meeting, prompting objections from her supporters.

Vitti told the board that the 500 students at Palmer Park will be relocated to two nearby schools.

“Starting on Monday,” Vitti said, Palmer Park classes will resume “in other buildings where we have space.”

Specifically, he said, elementary school students will likely go to the now-closed former Catherine Ferguson building and middle school students will move into extra classroom space at Bethune Elementary-Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided, he said.

The district is checking to see if this week’s five-day closure will require the district to add extra hours to comply with state class time requirements.

The potentially dangerous health conditions in the school, which teachers say caused some educators to become ill, were among several matters that had a large group of protesters angry with Vitti and board.

Earlier, protesters led by activist Helen Moore had loudly urged the board as it met at Mumford High School to discuss Mayor Mike Duggan’s plans, announced during last week’s State of the City address, to create collaborations between district and charter schools to grade Detroit schools and to work together on student transportation.

The activists warned that the mayor was trying to usurp the authority of the elected board.

“That’s how they take over,” Moore shouted.

The crowd also shouted loudly as Vitti discussed the district’s response to the Palmer Park situation, suggesting the district had put children’s health in harm’s way at buildings throughout the district.

Vitti acknowledged that the condition of district buildings is poor.

“I still am horrified by the overall condition of our buildings, specifically at certain locations,” Vitti said. “But I will continue to say that if you look at the day-to-day operations and use of these buildings, children are safe.”

When the audience yelled “nooo,” Vitti defended himself.

“I have nothing … to offer but integrity. My name is attached to this work,” Vitti said, noting that he has four children enrolled in the district. “If there is a child that is in harm’s way … then I will act immediately.”

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations.

But that timeline isn’t fast enough for one school board member.

“The building assessment won’t be ready until it’s almost time to return to school for the 18-19 school year,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. He blasted the Palmer Park situation as a “public relations nightmare.”

“If we don’t put in some damage control and get ahead of this, people will have a poor perception of the district, not only at Palmer Park but in its entirety,” he said.

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.