Hamlet Goes to Jail: Life Changing Experiences that Occurred in 1959

 

Story Summary:

 The Chicago Public Schools were almost totally segregated in the 1950’s when Gwen’s participated in an accelerated English program and first integrated a South Side High School. She succeeded in getting an “A” in the class but had an encounter with the police that threatened to overshadow her academic accomplishments.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Hamlet-Goes-to-Jail-Life-Changing-Experiences-in-1959

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were some of the factors that kept the city of Chicago from integrating its schools before the 1960s?
  2. Discuss some reasons why many young people endured hostility and violence to integrate schools and other facilities. How were they were able to overcome their fears?
  3. Why did Gwendolyn feel that she was representing her race when she attended the all white high school? Have you ever felt this kind of pressure?
  4. Have you, like Gwendolyn, made a decision to do something you know is not what you should? What were the consequences?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Gwen Hillary.

Now, when I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, in Chicago, Chicago had been labeled as the most segregated northern city in the United States. Children in black neighborhoods often went to school in double shifts. Some in the same family would go at different times. Some would go early in the wee hours of the morning, and the second child might go starting his school day mid-afternoon. Other children were educated in mobile units that were housed on the playgrounds. All to keep the school segregated in those overcrowded communities. In 1957, something happened that changed the whole educational system in the United States. The Soviet Union successfully launched the first Earth orbiting artificial satellite into space.

It was October 1957. There was a fierce competition that ensued between the Soviets and the United States. There was an increased emphasis on scientific research, space exploration, and the schools had to step up. Now, between 1956 and ’60, I was a student at Englewood High School, an all-black school on the southside. And in spite of the school being totally segregated, I had caring, nurturing and totally competent teachers. A new program was devised at my high school, a college preparatory high school, and I was placed in that program. Boy, oh, boy! No longer could I take typing and sewing and cooking and home economics and sewing, all those classes that supposedly would prepare me for life. Huh. I was programmed into chemistry, physics, foreign languages, and there weren’t those easy A’s. Now was also an important time in my high school career, when in 1959, I was going into my senior year. A special program was created that would be conducted at an all-white high school, South Shore High School 76th and Constance.

Now, any participating school could send two of their promising students to attend this enrichment summer program. We were going to study a fall semester of college literature and get credit for it too, in that 8 weeks. We were going to read many works by Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other works. It was going to be very intensive and I knew that I, not only was representing my school, proving myself academically cable… capable, but I was representing my own race. And so, I went there, determined to do my best and to excel. It seemed that the first day we walked into the school, that there was such a big shock to see us. There were four black students. No black student had ever set foot in that school. There were no black cooks. There were no black custodians. Everyone was shocked, but that was the first day.

The next day, the shock was on us. You see, when we left that building at the end of the school day, there were boys waiting for us on the corner. And they had rocks in their hands and they began to throw rocks at us. And I actually ran, scared to the bus stop. I did that Day 2, which was Tuesday. Day 3, Day 4, and by Day 5, on Friday, huh, I had had enough. So, when Monday came, and we left school, and those guys were standing there ready to pelt us with those rocks, I ran with my companions, and they got on their respective buses but not me. I had had enough. And so, I watched and I saw that they went into a school store, near the school, where everyone would congregate. Guess you could buy ice cream and school supplies. I boldly walked into that store. I found the guys I was looking for, and I walked up to them and I said, “I’m here now. What are you going to do, face to face?”

They were so shocked and embarrassed, the whole store got quiet. And each one said, “What are you talking about? I don’t know you.”

I said, “Oh, you know. But it’s going to stop today!” And guess what? There were no more rock throwing incidents. I thought the summer was gonna go pretty smoothly. But back on the home front, in my own neighborhood, huh, something else happened.

You see, it was a sunny afternoon and I had been out selling Avon products. My mother would let me keep all of the money I earned to buy my clothes and other incidentals. And I had money in this pocket, and in my other pocket, I had a paperback copy of Hamlet. We had to study hours and hours each night to keep up with the amount of work we had to do. And as I was standing there, some friends came up and they said, “Gwen, we’re going to go riding on the back of some motor scooters. Want to come?”

Now I knew. I knew there was no way I should have gotten on the back of those motor scooters. What would my mother think, sailing down South Park Avenue with my arms wrapped around some boy? And no helmet either! Huh! I was tired of always being the good one. So, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

I thought we’d be back in time and my mother would never know. Oh, I climbed on the back, and wrapped my arms around, and it was wonderful, the wind blowing. All of a sudden, a police officer pulled over the young man on the first motor scooter and said, “You don’t have a license plate on your bike, young man. And you’re going to have to come down to the station.”

Well, the other guys started protesting, trying to help him. And he said, “I tell you what. All of you would go down to the police station.”

Now that’s when I got off and I said, “Sir, I’ve got my carfare in my pocket, and I’ll just get on the bus and I’ll…”

“Nah, huh. No, young lady, you are with them and you going to go down to the station with them.” Me? Going to jail? I couldn’t imagine! What was my mother going to say?! What was she going to do?! My mother did not spare the rod. And so, I cried, I pleaded, I begged.

But he said, “You’re going with the rest of them.”

We got to the station. And at first, I would not even give him my mother’s phone number. But I did. And when he called, I could just imagine her on the other end of that line.

And finally, she said, “I don’t drive, but I’ll send someone to get her.”

Oh, I cried, I cried. I was just so upset with myself. But then I realized, I had homework to do. So, I took out my copy of Hamlet, and I started to read. Police officer noticed that I was reading this book, and he said, “What are you doing?”

And I told him all about the course, and all about the work, and how exciting it was. He said, “What are you doing with these other guys? You don’t belong with them. What are you doing with them?”

I didn’t answer. But I did question what was I doing with them. You know, Hamlet had to get himself together in that book, you know, “to be or not to be.” Well, I’ve made some decisions about how my life was going to be from that point on.

My mother sent my aunt. When we get home, oh, I was so afraid. What was she going to do to me once she opened that door? But the mother I saw when I entered, was one I had never seen before. Her eyes were so sad, and she was silent. She looked so tired. And it upset me so much, that I vowed I never wanted to cause this much pain to my mother again. My mother didn’t speak to me. Not then, not that night, not the next morning. But after school the next day, she did say to me, “I hope you will reflect upon that incident yesterday and what changes or decisions you’re going to make in your life.”

One decision I made was that I was going to get an “A” out of that course. I had worked and worked, and I can say, that I was one of the few students who received it that summer. You see, that’s what I wanted my mother to remember. And not that it was the summer that I and Hamlet went to jail.

When Summer Came: Summer Vacations in the Segregated South

 

Story Summary:

 During the 1950s, Gwen’s mother, like many African American parents, ritually sent their children down south for the summer. Gwen remembers the rich experiences with her grandparents on the farm but also many painful and dangerous racist encounters which greatly impacted her.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: When-Summer-Came-Summer-Vacations-in-the-Segregated-South

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would African Americans send their children back down South in the summertime, after they had left behind the discrimination and mistreatment they often endured while living there?
  2. Have you ever experienced or seen others experience racism or discrimination of any kind?  Describe the experience and how you reacted or coped with it.
  3. What are some ways that people can become advocates or builders of acceptance of others who are discriminated against in our society?

Resources:

  •  The Gold Cadillac By Taylor, Mildred (Ages 10 And Up.)
  • Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday By Erin Goseer Mitchell. (High School)
  •  The Rosa Parks Story – DVD (2002)

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

My name is Gwen Hilary.

When summer came to Chicago, when I was a student in elementary school, I never got a chance to spend summers there. Each summer I was sent South to be with my grandparents and to spare… experience life on the farm. Now, during those years, when summer came, my mama worked from midnight until 8 o’clock in the morning. She would get home in time to see us off to school, and then get up again at 12 o’clock to fix lunch, and again at 3 o’clock to spend some quality time with us, from 3 until 7. That meant that she rarely got more than five consecutive hours during those working days.

So, when summer came, my mama got a chance to rest. She would prepare us a big shoebox full of food; chicken, bread, and cookies, and other things to take with us. But we didn’t know it was because she knew there would be no place along the route where we could purchase something to eat. I remember, one summer, when we were going South, that my sister and I had ridden the Greyhound bus for so many hours that we had to go to the bathroom, desperately. We bolted off the bus and rushed into a waiting room so we could get something to drink after going to the bathroom.

Now, we noticed that as we walked through, the men lowered their papers and some looked over the top of their glasses. When we got into the bathroom, the women stepped aside to let us go in, we thought that was quite nice. And then, we went to the bathroom, and we went to the stalls, and we washed our hands, and fixed the hair. Thought we looked kind of cute, as a matter of fact. And then, we walked through to where we could get something to eat and drink.

When we got to the counter, the waitress looked at us as we approached and said, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

Your kind? And we looked around and realized we had gone into the white only waiting room. We were so embarrassed and a bit afraid and we asked, “Where do we go to get something to drink?”

“The colored waiting room was around the back, over yonder.” And we walked out and saw an old dilapidated waiting room that said “Colored only.” And that’s where we purchased our beverage.

When summer came, we experienced racism in the South that we had never known. But there were wonderful days. You see, we went to school all year long. Black children in the South didn’t get out of school during the summer. Their school day ended or their school year ended, at the end of September maybe in October. It was then, that they would harvest the crops, pick cotton, and help the family raise money. My grandmama was a teacher in one of those schools down South. A one-room schoolhouse that housed students from grades 1 through 8. There were long benches and each grade was assigned a bench. And there was a potbellied stove that would keep the students warm in the winter. And over in the corner, was a table that held a bucket full of nice cold water and you could get a dip if you needed it. Now, there was also something else in that room.

There was a switch. Now that switch would make sure there was no disorder. But it also made sure that you attended to getting those lessons done. The worst time was when you were called to the front to spell those words that you had to learn each night. If you missed a word, you got a lick, smack, right in your hand. There were some mighty good spellers coming out of that school. When integration came, that one-room school was closed and all of the black children boarded yellow school buses each day, to ride to the brick, large schools in town.

When summer came, racism occurred in a way that I never knew existed in the South. I remember, that Emmett Till went down South with me. We were in the same school. Now, I don’t know if we were in the same homeroom, but we had classes such as art or music together. My name was Tarpley and his was Till. And as we sat in alphabetical order, he would have sat behind me in the seats that were bolted down. Six rows of eight seats, in each class room. I remember his eyes. Oh! Beautiful, beautiful brown, light brown eyes and a big smile. And he was jovial, always happy. Everyone liked him. But, you see, he had never gone South before and didn’t really understand what the South was like and the rules, that were very strict, for black child growing up in the South. His mama didn’t want him to go, but he begged because all of us were going. This was a ritual for many black families who had come North from the Great Migration to make a better living for themselves. They would send their children back to the farm, back to the family, to experience life. And so, Emmett Till went to Mississippi. I was in Arkansas that summer.

Now, while I was in Arkansas, my grandmother had sent me inside of the drugstore to purchase some items for her AND told us we could get some ice cream. Oh! It was so exciting! My sister went to purchase the items and I sat on a little, red stool, spinning around. And I said, “Black walnut, please.”

The young, white boy looked at me and he didn’t serve me. So, I spun around and I said it again, “Black walnut, please.”

Just then the door burst open and my grandmother rushed in and took both of us by the arm and she said, “She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know any better. We’re leaving, now.”

I couldn’t imagine why my dignified grandmother, who was a teacher, would give such respect to this white, teenage boy. She told me when we get outside, “Baby, baby, I should have told you. You can buy your ice cream in that store but you can’t sit down in there. You have to eat it outside.”

I remember we would go down to Mr. Tucker’s store on the corner. Mr. Tucker was a nice white man. But Mr. Tucker did not understand why we would not say “Sir” to him when he spoke to us. And I would say, “Mr. Tucker, I want a whining ball. Give me a red one.” Those were big, hard candies.

He said, “And?”

And I would say, “And, please?”

“And!” But I would never say “Sir” but he would always give me my whining balls.

When summer came, we had a chance to spend so much time with our eight cousins in our big frame house. We would make mud pies, roll car tires down the road. We could race each other and they’d look like big black donuts. We would grab the branches of the weeping willow trees, and swing out onto the water, and fall in with a splash. We would take lightning bugs, and put them on our ears, and we also would play with frogs. But when that lightning and thunder came, we children were told to sit absolutely still on the enclosed sunporch. My grandmamma said God was doing his work.

Well, those days are long gone, but will never be forgotten. The black community in the South was a special, nurturing place. It was a place where the wealthy and the poor, the highly educated and the illiterate, and those who were pillars of society and the derelicts, lived together in a community that nurtured and took care of each other. Now, the houses are gone. The barns have been torn down, and the land has been divided among the heirs. And we now rent that land out, and people raise soybeans and other crops on it. I’ll never ever forget those special days in the South when summer came.