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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 >>

White traditions win out; light-skinned blacks gain acceptance

Tapia describes the way in which the traditions of the white school she integrated continued to dominate student life. She faced expulsion for refusing to stand for the school song, "Dixie," and the school mascot was a Confederate soldier. She also faced personal acts of discrimination, such as shunning in the cafeteria and in the classroom. As she remembers one particularly hurtful act of discrimination, she reflects that light-skinned African Americans gain acceptance more easily than their dark-skinned peers.

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 can remember almost getting expelled because I didn't stand up for the school fight song, which was Dixie. You could sit down at my school that first year when they played the national anthem, uhh, and nobody would say anything, but if you didn't stand up for Dixie, that was grounds for … expulsion. Also when I was at North, the school mascot was the Confederate soldier and flag. And the students, while we were doing what they called a rebel yell, we were the Rebels, the North High Rebels. And it wasn't until my sister came through which was about five years after I was there that the students had become a little more militant, and they tore, we had a life, bigger than life-size Confederate soldier and the flag on the wall in our gymnasium. Well five and half years after I was at North the students tore that off the wall and built a bonfire with it out in the parking lot. Which started a period of police being present at the school in full uniform, umm, for quite a while. Umm, I think the thing that was, I also remember, at North they like to give seniors an opportunity to practice marching, and so anytime we had assemblies or programs in the gym, the sophomores, and the freshmen would go in, I mean not the freshman, we only had tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. Sophomores and juniors would go in, and we were to sit in the bleachers, leaving the bleachers closest to the floor for the seniors. And then the seniors after everybody else was in, they'd play the school alma mater and everybody else would march in to that. Well, I noticed the first year, when there were only six black students in the senior class, if those six black students - one or all of them - would happen to come up to get in line behind a white person, the person would run. So there was, you could sit and watch them marching into the gym, and you knew when the black students were coming because there would be this gap, or they would come and there would be a big gap behind them. But it was like a lot of the students didn't even want to be near them. But again, like I said, football players, athletes were treated like demi-gods, you would have thought they had been there since forever. You would see people socializing with them, laughing with them, but not other blacks. Same thing would happen when you'd go in the cafeteria, uh, if you put your tray down at a table, it was suddenly like you had a sign: "I'm oozing with the AIDS virus, come near me you'll die of AIDS," because you go to sit down and people at the table just jump up and run. And in adolescence, that can be very, very dis-settling because one of the things that mark the adolescence period of our life is sensitivity. An adolescence can get a tiny pimple on their face and to them it looks like Mt. Everest; someone can walk by you and not speak, not because they're mad at you or they don't like you, but because their mind is somewhere else, and as an adolescence you will have a tendency to interpret it as: "Oh, what's wrong with me, why don't they like me, what did I do wrong?" when none of those things are going on. So to have this type of treatment … and for me it was hard because my mother went to great extents to shield us from whites that were not liberal - no, I don't want to say liberal. Whites who would not treat you like a child of God, whites who believed that everybody was equal regardless of race, color, or creed. So, I was there for about three months, because of what my mother had taught me and how she had shielded me from certain types of whites, and then watching the athletes be accepted. It took me three months to realize that people were not running from me and treating me the way they were because I was ugly, but because I was black. Beause I remember the first day I walked into my chemistry class, this girl had gotten to class before me and put her books down and ran to the bathroom. She came back from the bathroom and saw me now sitting behind her, this girl stopped dead in her tracks in the door, looked at me, and just let out this blood curdling scream. You would have thought that I was Freddie from the Nightmare movies or something, Friday the 13th. And the teacher did not reprimand her or anything, I mean he went and like calmed her down, and he came over, picked up her books, and like took them over to a desk on the other side of the room away from me. Of all the things that happened, the one that really hurt me the most was a really trite one. After that year of waiting to participate in extra-curricular activities, umm, I went out for letter girl, and it just so happened, my girlfriend's brother was on the football team and there was a white letter girl that really had a crush on him. She tried to make friends with his sister, my girlfriend, we told her that we were going out for letter girl, she said: "Well let me teach you our routines." You know, so … and she explained to us that the way they handle the selection was that you would come on like a Monday when they designated, and the letter girls would work all week teaching you their routines, and then on Friday, everybody would come, you know, try out. Well this chick had taught us all the routines a whole week before the tryouts, before we went to start learning them. So on the first day that we were there the letter girls were working with us and stuff, and my girlfriend and I faked not knowing them for a while, then we got tired of faking, so we just started doing them. They were like, Oh wow, look, oh they already know! So they then sat down, and for the rest of the week, they would come and laugh and talk and spent time with each other while we taught the recruits the routine. So naturally, because we were teaching everybody else, we assumed: "hey, we done made it, you know." And so that Friday, umm, just before I was getting ready to leave my house to go to the tryouts, another girlfriend of mine came by, and she wanted to go to the movies afterwards. So I told her, look, I've got go to these tryouts, you know, and then we'll go to the movies. So she went with me, and after everybody had tried out, one of the letter girls came over to my girlfriend that was going to the movies with me and said, Carol Ann, why don't you try out? Carol Ann was like: "Well, you know, I don't even know your routines, I wasn't thinking about letter girl, so I didn't come. I don't know any routines." She said: "Well let me show you a step." So she showed her a step and then she had her to try out. Well, that Monday, you know, me and Sylvia, we couldn't wait to get to school, we knew we had made it. We almost didn't even go look at the names on the list because we were sure our names were on there. But we decided, you know, just so we could lord it over the people who were standing there looking and being disappointed to go and look, and we didn't make it, but my girlfriend Carol Ann did. And it wasn't until the first football game when I'm sitting out in the stands looking up at the letter girls, I realized why she made it and Sylvia and I didn't. My girlfriend Sylvia is like three shades darker than me. We had to look for Carol Ann. "Oh yeah, there she is." But if the two of us had been out there, you would have not had to go through any moving of the neck, head, body, we would've stood out. And it was very much like some of the things you saw in integration of the media, the first anchor people, very light skinned. The first black Miss America, they always start with the ones you have to like: "Is she black? Well, maybe, only some of us can tell, you know."