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Seven students who were part of the process recalled how uneventful it was.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Lorain Myer (from left), Andre Peery and Stuart Finley discuss their school’s integration Monday night at an event hosted by the Salem Museum and Historical Society. The three attended what was then Andrew Lewis High School.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the desegregation of Salem’s schools was that, in many ways, it wasn’t noteworthy. The papers didn’t pay much attention, and if they did, there wasn’t much to report anyway.
Seven students who experienced that integration firsthand — most of them as students at what is now Andrew Lewis Middle School — agreed with that assessment Monday night, given by the head of the Salem Museum and Historical Society.
“As I’ve been researching the subject of integration in Salem, I have reached the conclusion that the most interesting fact … is how uninteresting it was,” said John Long, the museum’s director.
Long moderated a panel at the former Andrew Lewis High School, where those students — now in their mid-60s — said the most memorable thing about their sophomore, junior and senior years during integration was how unmemorable much of it was.
“The way my parents acted like, it was no big deal,” said Stuart Finley. “And because they didn’t act like it was a big deal, then I didn’t act like it was a big deal.”
Salem, whose schools were then part of the Roanoke County system, began integrating black and white students in 1962 after a federal judge ruled that the county was in “flagrant disregard” of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education and a subsequent order that public schools across the country be integrated with “all deliberate speed.”
Less than a month after the judge’s ruling to speed up the process in Roanoke County, school administrators had a plan to integrate the system within six years, Long said. They would later finish two years ahead of schedule, in 1966.
But unlike in other places across the South — and later in neighboring Roanoke — Salem’s process seemed to go off with very few hitches. There was little friction, little violence and little coverage in the local media, Long said.
“They didn’t broadcast that we was coming,” said Douglas Saunders, one of the former students. “The newspaper didn’t have a chance to look into it because we were already here, so it was too late.”
Saunders and others had been attending an all-black school at the corner of Fourth Street, at what is now G.W. Carver Elementary. In 1962, school administrators brought black students from Carver to Andrew Lewis, while white students were brought to Carver.
Andre Peery, who graduated from Andrew Lewis in 1966, said he accepted the administration’s offer to attend the school out of a sense of curiosity.
“I was just interested,” he remembered. “I wondered what they’re doing up there.”
Peery said some kids at Andrew Lewis would bump into him and the other black students, or they’d stick out a leg in an attempt to trip them. But overall, the process was smooth.
“We were very good at maintaining our composure,” Finley said. “If you don’t acknowledge something, sooner or later it goes away.”
The white students already attending Andrew Lewis didn’t consider their new classmates to be different, said Lorain Myer. Integration at the high school was a “nonevent,” she recalled.
“It was just like they were always here,” Myer said. “They were just part of us.”
The seven panelists agreed that they didn’t — and still don’t — view themselves as pioneers.
“I always thought, ‘Let me just make the best of this opportunity that I have,’ ” Peery said.
One woman in the audience, who said she graduated from the all-black Carver in 1949, spoke up and thanked the panel for leading the way for others.
“I remember as a young child walking past [Andrew Lewis] thinking, ‘What is so different about this school?’ ” the woman said.
About 25 people attended Monday’s event, which was hosted by the historical society. A few kids of varying ages asked questions.
The panel told current students to focus on their education.
“Color does not make any difference,” Saunders said. “When you’re dead, you’ll be 6 foot under, and there’s no colors there.”
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