|Going to school in black and white|
|New book shares DPS desegregation stories|
|Published Friday, August 18, 2017|
DURHAM – The summer of 1970 was tinged with anticipation for LaHoma Smith Romocki.
The rising eighth-grader in Durham Public Schools awaited the arrival of a letter assigning her to a new school as part of the court-ordered desegregation of schools.
“The knowledge that the unwanted school reassignment was coming hovered over me like a pesky fly, ruining the summer,” Romocki said.
Thousands of envelopes containing one-sentence letters with handwritten school assignments swarmed through the city on Aug. 7, 1970. Romocki was assigned to Whitted Junior High, Durham’s much older, black junior high after having spent the prior two years at the newer, predominantly black Shepard Junior High.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, white student Cindy Waszak Geary, a rising high school freshman, was sent to the predominantly black Hillside High School, a turn of events that she described as disappointing but not surprising. Both young women were sent to schools they never expected to attend during the crux of desegregation in Durham, and their lives and perspectives on race forever altered.
Many years later Geary and Romocki met through work. A friendship formed, but it was not until a writing class in 2014 that they realized both had attended Hillside High at the same time. As they talked through their experiences during desegregation in the South, the women realized they had strikingly different perspectives about what had happened.
Three years later, and Geary and Romocki have co-authored a memoir told from alternating perspectives of a white and black student attending school during desegregation. Set to be released on Sept. 26, “Going to School in Black and White” examines Geary’s and Romocki’s experiences, how it impacted their lives and how these lessons can apply to the current challenges facing public schools.
A Labor of Love
Researching and writing the book was a major undertaking for the two women, both of whom work full time. It took three years of planning, outlining, soul searching and writing to create the memoir.
Geary moved to Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, making the joint venture even more challenging. Nevertheless, the women pressed on, determined to create a piece that would appeal to a broad audience and facilitate conversations about race in our country today.
“We spent a lot of time digging deep into our souls,” Geary said. “There were things I remembered one way, but when I started to look harder, I realized it was not like that. There were more complicated feelings about race, education, class and gender than I remembered. A lot of times we would read something the other wrote and say, ‘Oh really? That is how you felt?’ It was eye-opening and liberating to unlock the memories.”
For Romocki, writing the book and working with Geary brought to light a side of desegregation she had never considered – the perspective of the white student.
“I will be honest. It never entered my mind that the white students had a story that was different than mine,” she said. “I have talked about high school with my black classmates and always thought about my experience from my friends and my perspective, but never from that of the white students who were forced to go to a new school.”
Romocki and Geary gained a new appreciation for each other’s experiences and the long-term benefits of integration. Research indicates that the desegregation effort in the ‘70s and ‘80s had positive outcomes and leveled the playing field, with black students showing improved academic performance post-integration and white students performing at the same level.
From their perspective, the benefits of desegregation were long-term, too. “You have these experiences at a young age that give you a sense of openness to people who are not like themselves,” Geary said. “Desegregation didn’t create one big ah-ha moment, but instead it leads me to think a little differently about one situation, then another, and another… It adds up.”
After high school, Romocki attended Duke University, a predominantly white university that had also recently integrated. She admits the desegregation experience unlocked opportunities that she would never have considered had she not attended an integrated high school. Geary attended UNC-Chapel Hill.
The book concludes with both women reflecting on how their experiences 47 years ago parallel with the current state of public education, which is evolving back towards de facto school segregation with the rise of publicly funded charter schools and the slow dismantling of integration policies.
“Today, the Durham Public School district is predominately black,” Romocki said. “I wanted to know where are all the white families are going and what happened to integration? … I think that today we are reverting to the same old practices that the fear of the unknown creates. We try to peel back those fears in the book.”
Added Geary: “I think in a very simple way [this book] shows that this is what we went through, and it was all OK,” Geary said. “We all had a good education with minimal disruption, and then went on to do good things.”
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