Teacher remembers working during integration process

May 09, 2004|GARY MOYERS

Helen Fisher Frye is a walking, talking history book when the topic is school integration in Danville.

Born in Danville in1918, Frye attended the segregated school system for 12 years, received her degree from Kentucky State University, then came back home to teach at Bate School from 1948 until it was integrated by the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision in 1954. Then she moved into the integrated system and continued her teaching career there, serving in the interim as president of Danville's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founder of Danville's Human Rights Commission, and many other posts.

She will serve as one of the panelists at Tuesday's forum on the decision, and said the opportunity to participate in commemoration ceremonies has brought back memories of the time.

"You know, it's appropriate that we stop and take a look back, because we have come a long way, and we have a long way to go," she said. "I think we take the integration of the schools so much for granted now, but it wasn't always like that. We need to remember how it came about, and we need to make efforts to keep it moving forward in the places where it's lagging behind."


Frye said the decision to integrate schools, and the actual implementation, was handled relatively smoothly in Danville.

"The children took right to it," she said. "It's always easier for children to adapt to changes, and our chairman of the board at the time (Chauncey Newlin) was a progressive thinker and a fair-minded Christian man who practiced what he preached. He worked out in the community to decide the best way to integrate. He came up with a plan to start with seniors who volunteered to move from Bate to Danville High School, and then we did it a few grades at a time from then on."

After the high school was integrated, the first grade came next

Once the high school was fully integrated, Frye said the system began integrating the first grade and moved upward.

"I think that decision was so wise," she said. "When you expose children to something at an early age, it becomes part of their routine. Those younger students thought integration was the way it had always been, because that's all they knew."

Frye said there was resistance, but mostly on the part of some adult members of the community.

"Adults tend to have a slower acceptance for change," she said. "It wasn't perfect; there was opposition, of course. But as I remember it, we didn't have major incidents in Danville during that time, which ended up being six or eight years to fully integrate. Most people handled it pretty well here.

"Danville was among the first schools in the state to integrate completely and successfully," she said. "Bate African-American School closed down completely in 1964, and was no more. We were fully integrated at that point."

But, she said, integration did not change her teaching methods.

"Oh, no, students are students, and they learn the same way, react to the same challenges," she said. "We all realized what a momentous decision Brown v. Board was; it changed what had been a way of life. We could see in all the papers and on the television the impact it had across the country, but here in Danville, it didn't seem to cause that much of a disturbance."

Integration precess still not complete

The integration process took time, she said, and is still not complete.

'We still have de facto segregation all over the country because of housing patterns and things like that," she said. "But the enduring legacy of Brown v. Board was the fact that it outlawed, made it illegal, to segregate the schools because of race. It didn't just say it was bad, it said it was illegal. It gave people who were victimized by segregation hope because now they had a legal avenue to fight it."

Frye said lessons learned in 1954 are applicable today, because of the need to remember.

"It's so easy to forget how things were, that segregation was acceptable," she said. "But, we have to remember how it was in order to avoid falling back. The young people of today who benefited from that court case need to know how it was.

"It wasn't easy to bring about that change, but it never is," she said. "But when something is right, when you know in your heart it is right, you don't worry about how hard it is. You just keep working to change it."

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