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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Brenda Tapia, February 2, 2001. Interview K-0476. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A black student at a formerly white high school encounters discrimination

Tapia was one of the first African Americans to attend North Mecklenburg High School. Here, she remembers this traumatic experience. She left her black high school after a successful, engaged sophomore year, pressured by teachers anticipating the school's closing. Isolated both by her race and her academic ability, Tapia felt "almost invisible." She also experienced discrimination in the classroom, from both students and teachers, and relates some examples here.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Brenda Tapia, February 2, 2001. Interview K-0476. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I understand that you were, that you went to a predominantly Black high school.
For the first ten years of my formal education I did, and then for the last two years I was one of the first blacks to integrate North Mecklenburg High School here in North Mecklenburg County, in Huntersville, which it is now.
How was that experience?
That experience was traumatizing and in many ways, I still to this day feel the effects of it. But you … and you probably can't imagine as young as you are. Being able to go to a school where everybody that you saw looked exactly like you, where you were treated like a human being, not as something exotic, or something undesirable, or just totally ignored. Ummm … and especially for it to happen right after my sophomore year in high school because my sophomore year in high school I was very involved in all the extracurricular activities of the school. In fact I was president of almost every organization except student government, which you had to be a senior to be president, so I was vice president of the student government. I was a majorette in the band and I belonged to all the other extracurricular activities at the school. Everyone knew me, teachers and students alike. The tenth grade year was just the best year of my life, and then the following year, at the end of the tenth grade, near the end of my tenth grade year being asked by my teachers to volunteer to transfer because they knew that that fall they were going to close the tenth grade at the all black high school that I went to and they would have no choice, they would have to go. But Juniors and Seniors would have an option of going, so they really pushed a lot of us in the top of the Junior and Senior classes to go on and transfer because they knew at that time that the following year, our senior year, the black school would be closed totally so we wouldn't be able to graduate from there, from the high school that we'd started at. They thought it would be better for us if we went on and adjusted to the school by going our junior year. So there were actually six people, uh, from Torrence-Lytle that went with me, none of them were from Davidson, so what that meant was that I would ride the bus everyday, thirteen miles on an all-black bus, I'd walk into North Meck and because I was, even among the six, one of the only ones who was on a college track everybody else would go one way and I would go another. Because my schedule was college bound it meant my lunch period also had me isolated, and umm, so it was really a very trying experience in many ways. I don't think - at the time it was just confusing, and frightening, it's been with age and other experiences a growing awareness that it was actually a painful experience. Because like I said, I went from everybody knowing my name and being very popular and very involved, to, uh being almost invisible for the most part. North treated us very unfairly as blacks. Our athletes were able to transfer and immediately start playing football and basketball. I don't know if that meant, if that had anything to do with the fact that North's athletic teams at that time were not doing so well and with the addition of the guys from my school, they suddenly started winning. But we were told that you had to be at the school for a year before you could participate in any extracurricular activities, yet I saw the white students, that I eventually discovered had just transferred to North from other places, they were immediately welcomed to any organizations or anything they wanted to participate in. In fact, there was a young man who was going to be president of his student …he was, had been elected president of his student body the spring before and his father moved because of a job and he was made co-president of our student government, but he hadn't been there a year, but that courtesy was not extended to us. In classes, many times I was the only black student. And I remember I had two classes out of six where I wasn't the only black. In my U.S History class there was one other young man who had transferred with me from Torrence-Lytle, and we were in the history class. Unfortunately it was United States history so we had to deal with the humiliation of getting to that one page in our U.S history book that dealt with slavery, not even African American history, but slavery in the United States. Half the page is taken up with this picture of black folks in the cotton fields smiling and picking cotton. And naturally, the teacher turns and is like: "Brenda, Tommy, why don't you tell us about the black experience, or why don't you tell us about slavery." I had just finished reading Frederick Douglass's autobiography the summer before she asked that question, and so I started relating to her about slavery from what Frederick Douglass shared in his narrative, and I was interrupted by a North Mecklenburg student who happens to be a professor here at the college who said: "Oh Brenda, that was Northern abolitionist propaganda, slaves were not treated cruelly at all, in fact slaves were a part of the family. And they were taken care of, and they were loved, and that brutal stuff was just Northern abolitionist propaganda." And the teacher agreed with him, and they would have won if it had not been for another student in the class whose father was a professor here for many years, he's now retired, who got up and challenged both of them, who got up and said: ‘Why are you saying that, you know what she's saying is true, why would you tell her that, why would you say that it is not true?" And the teacher at that point just got up and changed the subject to something else. I remember, umm, in the other classes, because the other class I had where there were African Americans was my French class and unfortunately I had what I call a liberal for a French teacher. I called her a liberal because she gave you a B for being Black. I started suspected that that was what she was doing but one day we had a test, and the questions were written up on the board, and you know you turned your paper in. Well, all I put on my paper was "French Test" and signed my name, all of that was in English. My paper came back with a B on it. Now how did I get a B and I didn't answer any of the questions? Unfortunately at that point I was so young and naive I felt like, at that point: "Oh well I got over without applying myself." So why say anything, but it was really a tremendous disservice because what that meant was that I got credit for French one and two in high school, and went to college and had to enroll in French three, and when I walked into my French classroom, the first thing teacher said was, you know, no more English. And I was totally lost. So as a result of that I ended up being what we call a fifth-year senior, and completed everything for graduation except French in four years and so I had to stay a fifth year just trying to pass French. In the classes where I was the only Black, I really felt like I was a fly in buttermilk. I would often be the first to raise my hand, the last one to be called on. If I was called on the entire class would stop, everybody would turn and stare at me. Umm, which I'm sure you've probably experienced, as a student even if you do know the material, you know the answer, you can sometimes feel intimidated, especially if you're shy, and I am somewhat shy to offer an answer in class. And so to have everything stop and everybody staring down you throat is even more pressure. Umm, I had teachers who, when I would answer a question, would paraphrase it, and, but they would do it in such a way, you were left thinking: "Well, I think that is what I said, I'm sure that's the right answer," but it was the way the answer was paraphrased back, or re-said by the teacher that always left you feeling that you were somehow incompetent, something about your answer wasn't right. I can also remember passing in A papers and having them come back with C's on them and no correction marks and going up asking the teacher: "Could you explain to me what I have done wrong, there are no marks on here and I have a C." And being told: "Do you want to go to the office," you know, "Are you challenging my grading?" It's like: "No, I come from a house where you're not allowed to bring home anything less than a B, and my mom's is going to want an explanation, so I need to be able to explain to her what it is I got wrong so I can work on getting it better." And the teacher was like: "Look, either go to the office or take your seat." Well I know better than to go to the office because again I come from a household where teachers are like demi-gods and anything they say, even if they're wrong, my mother always sided with the teacher. So there was, I felt no support.