A Prom Dedication

May 29th, 2020

Annual 2

(published in The Daily Memphian)

You remember high school ... mine was in the 60’s but there are some timeless qualities.

What you wore mattered, who you were with, where you went. What you did, what you didn’t do, and when would you do that, and would you ever do that again, and let’s please do that again. Pimples and shaving, and baby fat and insecurity, and friends and love, bad decisions and discovery – all that came and went and came back.

All that mattered. And then it didn’t. Because I’m a senior now. Because I don’t know what’s next, really, and I don’t know who I am, really. And just when I was getting to know these guys, I’ve got to start all over again somewhere else. Really?

And somebody I know, somebody who was just here, a senior just a year ago, just died in Vietnam.

A lot of high school was really pretty terrifying.

But we had the prom. The defining party that is both end and beginning, celebration and launch. At least we had that. 

Or not.

There was no prom for Johnnie Anderson or Ira Jackson. No rented tuxes and boutonnieres for James Dukes, Ray Leuellyn, or Louis Allen. No long sleeveless dresses and corsages for Jeanne Crutcher, Annie Wilburn, Catherine Exton, or Rosetta Dukes.

They are all African American. They were all in my class, the Class of 1967, the first integrated class to graduate from White Station High School.

There was no prom for all four hundred or so of us.

I began this column by asking you to remember high school and its abundant angst. Now imagine you’re entering your senior year, your one year at the top, and the powers that be close your school. You and your fellow seniors will be spending your final year in high school with complete strangers. 

Now imagine that it’s 1966, the handful of you are black, and every one of the several thousand students in your new school, and every one of your 400 or so fellow rising seniors is white.

I can only imagine the courage that took.

Those students I mentioned above all had the following after their names in my high school annual – yes, I still have my high school annual – “T.W. Patterson High 1, 2, 3.” T.W. Patterson was the all-black school, elementary through high school, that was closed and its students moved to White Station. It stood where a post office and the Assisi Foundation stand today at the end of Erin Drive in the heart of East Memphis. The neighborhood most or all of those kids came from was called Truse-McKinney, where Home Depot and Kroger stand today between Eastgate and Mendenhall. The close-knit neighborhood famously stood together as one for years, refusing to sell their homes individually and holding off powerful interests until they got their price for the whole thing in the 80’s.

The parents of those students had guts, too.

I got a message last week from Susan Adler Thorp, consultant, former political reporter and commentator, and fellow Spartan from the Class of 1967. Susie (I can call her that; she calls me Danny) was suggesting I should write about this in this No-Prom Time of Plague we’re in. A fine writer, she could certainly do it herself, but she knows that The Daily Memphian gives me space every week and that I should use it wisely. Susie can be direct.

As I’ve thought about those students over the years, I’ve always been proud of our class and school. There were no incidents, at least none that I heard about, and none in my circle – and I had people far from angels in my circle – did anything to or even talked about the new arrivals.

But I was wrong. We weren’t heroes. Exercising common decency, rare as it may seem, doesn’t deserve recognition.

Those kids passed a test none of us were given against odds none of us were asked to face.

Which brings us back to the prom.

To all the high school seniors missing their proms this year, it sucks, but you’ll get over it. A disease took it from you, and I’m confident a vaccine for that disease will be found, and you now have a story to tell.

A disease took our prom from us, too. Those infected were so concerned that we might mix and mingle with each other, black and white, that untoward things would occur – you know what music and dancing leads to – and so sure that fights and ugliness would break out, they cancelled our prom. Shared joy was never given a chance in the spring of 1967. That disease is racism and there is, extant, no vaccine in 2020.

You brand-new graduates should dedicate yourselves to finding the cure.

I would like to dedicate the prom White Station didn’t have in 1967 to our classmates – the students of T.W. Patterson High – and to their quiet courage and inner strength. You are an example for the ages.

You mattered.

I’m a Memphian, and Onward Spartans.

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