Elner McCraty, Tape to David Koren
December 3, 1968
We had an overseer in slavery and that’s what we have to have now, because we ‘re like children and we have to be looked after. So our overseer was there from the State, and his crew, to watch us. And everything was going along in a very tense and very electrified atmosphere, but it was going along and there were no confrontations.
One guy came up to my room and said: “I just can’t get over this,” he said “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. You can feel the tension in this room.”
“I hope,” I said. “I want you to believe it that it is tense.”
I guess he was really surprised to hear me say it, but I came right out and said to him, “I’m very unhappy. As long as those teachers are in this building, I will be unhappy, and my children will be unhappy. We will never forget it.”
But we went ahead and swallowed it. Of course, as far as I was concerned they could blow that damn school up, because with Mr. Harris out, it was no school. But everybody was scared. I didn’t realize it, but that’s what it was – everybody was scared for their jobs. So everybody was taking it. I’m far from being a leader in this movement, so I didn’t say anything. But I came in Thursday morning– I call it Black Thursday because it was the worst day of my life. I’ve been in the movement a long time, but that was a hard day to take. The day before, one of the union teachers broke a boy’s thumb. That Thursday I came in, there were about thirty parents standing outside the door, and two teachers from other schools who had been active in political organizations with me last year, and they said, “You’re not going in, are you?”
“Of course not,” I said. I’m going to stand out here. No, I will not!”
“We’re blocking union teachers today,” they said.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I have only ninety pounds to block with, but those ninety pounds will be used.”
So we did. We really did. It’s amazing what a little faith can do. They say only thirteen people started the American Revolution. But I wasn’t about to let my parents see me going in, you know. I couldn’t see this. But most of our teachers did go in, even the Afro hairstyle girls and the dashiki fellows. They just went right on past us. One guy said, “Are you kidding? I’m not going to put my job on the line.”
“Are you kidding,” I said. “Before we’re free, we’re going to lose a lot more than our jobs.” I couldn’t believe it. Any they couldn’t believe it when they saw me take this stand either. But everybody was surprised, because I don’t say anything. But the reason I don’t say anything is that I don’t want to get involved with leading this fight, because I’ve been through that before, and that no enjoyment. I want to have a life, I don’t want to live, eat and breathe. I want some other kind of life, too.
So I’m purposely quiet. But when they saw me. . .but I was mad. I just couldn’t hold it back any longer. This was my freedom they were fooling with now. To me it was a complete slap in the face. It was saying, “You are under my boot and you’re going to be there whether you like it or not.” And to accept those teachers back in way saying, “”Yes sir, boss.”
I just couldn’t do it. I wish I could. I thought a lot about those teachers going in there Thursday. I wish my Mother hadn’t taught me this, but all my life she has told us, “You can only die one time.” That’s the only thing they can really do to me. That job cannot be the end of my life. I can’t be afraid for a job. They can’t kill me but once. Sometimes, I wish I could crawl, but I can’t do that. I’m just not made of that kind of material. And I certainly could not face those children. We’ve been teaching these children all these months that black is beautiful and they should be proud of being black, and then here they are watching you crawl.
And so we stood there and held the door, the few of us who would hold it, until about noon, and they started immediately having negotiations with the overseer to try to work out a deal. And what made me so mad was the Governing Board and McCoy and his office was obviously trying to make a deal, and the four teachers who were suspended were worrying about a deal–a deal. We needed their support in order to rally more people to come out there and put their heads in front of those police clubs. You couldn’t do it unless you had these people to stand there and say, “Yes, we’re going to fight for our jobs because we’re right. ” We’re not going to have a sell-out and we’re not going to make a deal, because this Man’s been making deals with us ever since 1619, and I don’t see where we have benefited anything from these deals. Now we might as well stand up there and fight. If you’re going to kill us, you might as well do it now.
So they kept backing down, backing down, and around eleven o’clock they started telling us, “Cool it. Cool it.” A union guy tried to come in and we were going to stop him and a man from McCoy s office said, “No, no. He’s got some reason for going in. And then they came out and started telling us, “Let the children handle this. We ‘ve got some big children in there. Let the children take care of this. ”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “We are men and women and you want us to hide behind our children? You want our children to see that we are scared to stand up there and face these people? There’s something wrong with you. I can’t go in there and tell these kids that we’re proud to be black. I just can’t do it. ”
So I guess they thought – you know we really had been brainwashed in slavery. We really think that if we treat this man right, he’s going to give us a break. I mean, you know, that black people in America are a long way from realizing that they got to take care of their own business. Nobody’s going to take care of it for them. They a long way from that. They still feel that Mr. Charlie is really good at heart, and if we just be nice, and if we give him time, he’s going to work everything out for us. I think that they must have thought that the four teachers were going to get back in and that Harris, our principal, was going to get back in.
Well they pulled us off those doors and I was ready to fight those policemen. But I was really hurt when it was our own people who pulled us off those doors. Around Noon they pulled us off those doors. When they finished, the only thing they got was. . .oh, I forgot to tell you the real reason we could have the confrontation was one of the union teachers broke a boy’s thumb the first day the teachers were back. And that father said they’ll have to kill me to get that man back in this school today. This was a big issue that we could rally people around. But the only thing that we succeeded in getting in the negotiations that day was that this man, whose name is Nauman, would be transferred to another office. He would not be allowed to come back in the school. Now, of course, he did come in the next day and they did work something out. That day he was told to report to the district office, and nothing else. Everything else was supposed to continue.
So I came in. I just couldn’t believe it. I could not talk to those people. I said, “Here I’ve heard you stand up there and scream and shout and cuss and threaten that you were going to fight since September, and you’re scared for your jobs.” I just can’t get over this.
So on this day, my children. . . I was so downhearted, in the afternoon, after the confrontation. I went up to my classroom, and it was obvious that I had been through something, and they [my children] thought that I had been hit or something and they knew I’d been standing on the door. I didn’t tell them, but they made plans what they were going to do the next day. What they were saying was, she’s not going to take it by herself. These kids have learned an awful lot in two months. They learned a whole lot more than would have learned out of any books.
So my children came out; they came to class in blue jeans the next day, ready to fight. They understand the issues, much better than these adults do. And my Afro-American history class got together that night and bought equipment and made signs. They were gonna picket before school and they were gonna picket in the hallway and when they had a union teacher they were gonna hold the signs up. And I’ll have you know that our faculty members called them in, chastised them, sent them on home to change clothes, locked their signs up, later destroyed them, and then called me in.
So I said, “Well, I’m sorry. We were talking about two different things. I was talking about not being free and your were talking about something else, so we got our wires crossed up.” And this woman said, “What?” She was one of those Afro haircut ladies. And I’m supposed to be so damn bourgeois, because my dresses come from Peck and Peck and my hair is straightened and on top of that I’m married to a white man, so I’m supposed to be so Uncle Tomish that you can’t even talk to me. So, this woman, with her earrings dangling, she’s black–black for real—she tells me this.
So I said, “The only thing I can say is, yes, ma[‘a]m, and I won’t do it again,'” very sarcastically. I walked out. I don’t know if I got my point over or not, but I think she felt a little silly afterwards.
So the situation got bad because we had only one administrator in the whole building, the assistant principal. The principal was gone, and all the other assistant principals, and it’s impossible to run a school without administrators. And a lot of our teachers were absent – I mean the whole thing has collapsed. It got so bad that it was almost dangerous. I mean because the kids were getting all out of hand, and you can’t tell the children something in one class and then not in another. You see, all my discipline had gone, and some really bad children came back – they were out during the strike, but they’re here now, and they were setting fires and things and cursing you. You just couldn’t believe.
But that is what it is like in a ghetto school. If you cannot be free, they are going to rebel; they know, see. You can’t seem to get this over, because you be running an orderly school in the situation that they’re talking about. The only way you can have an orderly school in the ghetto, the kind we had in September where you had teachers who were free and we had administrators, we had community people. Well, anyway I think they learned their lesson, because the situation got progressively worse each day.
Plus, the fact that part of the agreement imposed on us was to extend the school day 45 minutes and take away most of the school holidays. They were supposed to be back in school the day after Thanksgiving, and all the Christmas holidays were gone, and all this kind of business. The high school students said, “Hell no, we won’t take it.” They had rallies. (I was out of town -I went up to Rochester to see Eleanor). They had rallies over the weekend. And I don’t know who ever got the guts to do it – because a lot of these same people who said, “Lets take the schools,” on that Thursday I was describing were awfully meek and awfully quiet and wanting to make a deal. But I guess they found this man wasn’t going to make a deal you can live with, because he’s not going to compromise, he’s going to have it all or nothing. When I got back to town – the news was yesterday, Monday – they were going to take the school. There was no two ways about it; they were going to take it.
They called me up: “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to wait and see what they’re going to do,” I said. Because I know one person can’t take that school, and I’m not going to be standing out there by myself.
Well, when I got there Monday morning, the police were hurrying people along; they weren’t allowing people to stand around. Now, it wasn’t as bad as the day you went. They didn’t have that many barricades. You could get up to the school before you reached the first barricade and they had about six policemen standing across the front. One person from our school was standing in the back to let him know who were teachers and who were students, and that was about all. But the two girls I was telling you about who were at that door on that Thursday were there when I drove up, but by the time I parked and came back, they weren’t there anymore. So when I got to the door I thought, “I guess they put a stop to this. They aren’t going to let anybody in.” Well, how do you take a school if you’re not there?
So I went upstairs and got ready for classes. The first period, which was about an hour later, I came back down to check on things, and it was quiet. It was the same old observers and State people and people, people, people – I don ‘t know where all these people came from – some of them were plainclothesmen. The same thing. However, they were restricted to that area around the auditorium, the lobby. They weren’t in the classrooms and hallways like they had been sometimes. Things seemed to be really quiet. So I had a hard day Monday; I had to teach five classes straight through, except for a break for lunch. Well, at lunchtime I did go down, and I was shocked. When I went down there,l, there must have been a hundred people in that office. Now, McCoy has been suspiciously silent for the last week or so; in fact, the last we heard of him, he was trying to find a job. But the Governing Board chairman, Reverend Oliver, the minister, has really been great. He was arrested one day for trying to bring one of the suspended principals back, and he has consistently said that we are right, that we should run our schools, that we have been completely tread on, we have been slapped in the face, we have been insulted, we have been emasculated before our children, and that these teachers should come back in. He has never once moved from that position, whereas a lot of these people have kind of vacillated back and forth, but he has consistently come out with that.
When I saw him, I knew this was business, he was down there. And one day, the next day they arrested him. He came back with about ten ministers and they had on their collars. There is not really too much you can do to a man who is pastor of a church in the community; because these people say, “There’s my minister. There’s Reverend So-and-So. ” Now, how can you say these people are extremists or these people are hard. These are respected men in the black community, and I guess in the white, too. A minister is a respected person. You can’t call him a name and get away with it. He’s a black minister.
So Reverend Oliver was there with his ministers, and I don ‘t know where these people came from – there must have been a hundred of ‘em. So I went up to one of the teachers and said, “What’s going on?”
He said, “Johnson’s closed the school, but he can’t find anybody to close it. He came to me and asked me to close it, and I said, ‘No. ‘”
“Whaaat?” I said. Then I went on to lunch, and I came back and it was just turmoil and turmoil. I said, “What in the world are these people trying to do?” People were going in and out of the principal’s office. What in the world is happening?
I had to teach again, and I didn’t finish until the eighth period. When I got back one of the Governing Board parents was having a tantrum, like my mother and I don’t know how to have, and I can have some tantrums, but she was one for real. She was screaming and cursing and throwing things. “I mean, God damn it, everybody get out of this office!”
And she put all the State people out, she said they were leaving, this was her school. She was sitting in Harris’s chair herself. I said, “No. I didn’t believe it. They did it. ” How they got in the building, or why, I don’t know, but they took that school.
And now there’s been all kinds of reports. I think I will send you this article so you can read it yourself. I don’t know how much of this is true. We never get a fair shake in the news. Never. It’s gotten so bad now, we don ‘t even let the news people in. There’s reports that Johnson was actually locked in a closet to be prevented from closing the school. I don’t know that that is true. Because I heard that they won’t let him have the microphone – they won’t let anybody have a microphone. This I know. But they don’t have to lock you in a closet. Those secretaries down there’d knock you down before they’d let you do that. I would push you out the way before I would let you do that.
You’ve never seen people who say, “No, I’m not going to do it!” People have never seen that before. It takes a pretty strong man who would come up and hit a woman, especially a white man hit a black woman in a situation like this. So I don’t think they had to lock him up. Another point that was brought up in the [New York] Times is very true: How can they lock him up when he has plainclothes guards and patrol guards, all policemen around that building? I don’t see how he could be locked up. But they’re reporting- and this part is true – that some of the parents hit the union teachers.
Also, yesterday, the high school children walked out of school, in protesting the [schedule] extension of schools, and like the teachers had, walk out and leave them. So the high school kids have been tough, because those applying for colleges, most of them have lost their chance for the top schools. They have been thrown into all kind of turmoil. So they said, “No, we’re not going to stay in here so you can make up the money that you lost by screwing on us. ” So about 400 of them descended on our school. And I mean it got bloody. In fact, I got kind of scared, because I don’t go for getting my head beaten or anything like that. The police beat up a newsman, but we didn’t know that he was a newsman or that the police had done it. All we saw was this man coming in bloodied and everyone was scared. It was a very tense situation toward the end there.
In any case, we did leave at three o ‘clock, and the school wasn’t closed.
But then last night on the news – the poor overseer has had it; he had such a day yesterday, and the two weeks he s been at Ocean Hill, that he had resigned. Now, he told us before that things were going smoothly, and he knew things could be worked out, and when he was assigned there he said “We’ll handle the situation, we’ll get things together.” But after yesterday he asked to be removed. Now we have a new one, and he’s coming in rough and ready to say what he’s done and so forth. But Johnson resigned and now we have a new overseer. And 271 has been closed.
This morning my alarm went off. I had planned to get there early, but knowing that I don’t have to be at work, it’s hard to get up and be about early, so I was a little late getting there. We went over to McCoy’s office and they don’t want to have anything to do with us. Now it’s the 271 faculty, it’s just 271 who’s the rebels. All the other people, there’s no one else out there – Reverend Oliver was out there; he s always going to stand by you, he was there – but most of the community people were absent today and all the principals. It’s amazing. They would not let us meet anyplace. We were standing on the streets. We can’t get in the school. We’re standing on the street. It’s pretty warm now, but it’s too cold for me at least to be standing in the streets.
So I went over to McCoy’s office, but they won’t let you near him. They start immediately when you walk in the office, “Oh, are you from 271? Well, there’s a room down there for you to sit in.” They don ‘t want you around him.
You know I told the magazine, “You’d think we had leprosy the way people are running from us today.”
By the way, 271 faculty has been very meek ever since those four teachers were suspended. Not us. The Governing Board and the community people have rallied to their support. We went in there and sat for a while. Mr. Harris—who’s out too; now we’re all out–said he would arrange for us to meet at somebody’s school. Well I knew we couldn’t meet at one school, because the principal’s scared of us. One teacher there, a friend of mine, said the principal there would have a heart attack if they knew 271 faculty would come near him. But this Chinese principal, we thought maybe well he might help us a little bit.
I went over there. When I walked in the door a policeman and another man asked me if was from 271.
And I said. “Yes.”
They said, “Oh, you can’t come in.”
I said, “What’s wrong with you? I’m not going to do anything. I just came here because my principal, Mr. Harris, said we were coming here for a meeting”
And this policeman – he had the braids; he was the general of some kind- starts telling me, “No, you can’t come in this door. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You can’t come in this building. ” This man was from the Board of Education. I just looked at him, and I laughed to myself, “You know that I’m from 271 and you think that somebody from the Board of Education is going to make me move? I thought you knew better than that. You’re wasting your breath with that.”
So they got all uptight and everything. I was calm I said, “Look, you ought to be humane for once. It’s cold out there. I’m not gonna stand out in that cold. They told us we were going to have a meeting. I’m not going to do anything to this school, and no one else is. I’m not here to make any kind of trouble. I’m not going to stand out in that cold. You said that Mr. Lee is coming down. Why don’t you let me stand here and wait for Mr. Lee?”
Well, the Board of Education man ran. I’m not joking; he ran. I’m standing here alone, in my loafers, no lipstick, and my trench coat and my pocketbook. Now, I know that if you don’t look at me very close, I don’t even look like I’m an adult. So he ran from this little person standing there. And this big general, this policeman, went out and got a patrolman to watch me. So they couldn.’t make me leave the building. They got someone to watch me. I went and stood by the door, me and my paper. And so funny. This guy went to make a phone call, and when I changed feet – I was standing on one leg, and when I went to shuffle on another foot – and turn my paper, you should have seen him run. He ran out to see what I was doing.
Then the Board guy came down and said, “We have gotten Mr. Harris on the phone and told him that you – he – cannot have a meeting at this school.”
So I said, “Okay.”. At that point no one else had come, so I just left. I went over, and it was pitiful: our whole faculty was standing out in the streets. There was no place. We can’t go in McCoy’s office. We can’t go to any school in the district. We’re just standing out in the street. Fortunately, our kids- most of them- didn’t show up. I’m very happy because I didn’t want them to see this side of what was happening.
Harris said, “Oh, no. This can’t be right. No. We’re going to get in one of these schools.” He went around to a few of them, and he came back and said, “No, we sure can’t get in them.”
I said, “No, we sure can’t. I can tell you right now they aren’t going to let 271 people anyplace near any of these schools.
Finally McCoy and them opened up a room in the basement, a boiler room; no chairs, not anything, just a room. At least it was warm. So we went in there. Harris said we’ve got to talk to this new trustee, because he’s the one who put the rule out that we couldn’t get in any school. Now, what I can’t get over is that they are really letting us sink, that they are letting us drown alone.
Now these principals! How can one man run your school? That’s why 271 had to be closed. Because when these people come in to our school they don’t run it. Nobody, the children, the teachers, the assistant principals, the principal – nobody does what they tell you to do. If somebody tells you to do something and you don’t want to do it, they can’t just replace you, especially if you’re a professional. They can’t go right out and get somebody else to do it. They can’t do that. You just stand around and say, “Hell no, I’m not going to do it. ” But these principals didn’t do this. They wanted to get 271 completely isolated, away from everything.
So we have our little meeting, and I walked out of it cursing. Because, I don’t know, David, how to say this, but most of the white faculty members are going to go with us up to a point, but most of them have turned back now, because they feel that we ought to now try to educate our children. We can’t get the point over to them that we are fighting for something that is so important to us, something that they have and we don’t have. We can’t get them to see this. They keep talking about improving our schools. We cannot improve our schools unless we have freedom in our schools. And the fact that those teachers are back in there is a complete, contradictory, a contradiction to the fact that we’re free. We’re not. We’re still slaves. We can’t get the white people to see that. So they start taking up a whole lot of time with: What are you interested in? Politics or educating your children?
So, I said,”Fuck you!” and walked out.
Tomorrow I’ll go down to the Board and ask to be transferred over here. It just isn’t worth getting up, traveling for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening for that bullshit those people are talking about over there. I just can’t be bothered with it. A lot of the black teachers – black people are so pitiful –you talk about racism, what it has done to both peoples, both races, it’s so pathetic. First of all, there are those who are scared. I don’t understand you being so scared. I remember the days when I first started sitting in, and the police would come in – this was in the South – and I would be afraid. But I have never been so afraid that I wouldn’t act. I’ve never been that afraid. My knees might be shaking, but my voice was steady, my eye was steady. I always looked them in the face. And of course, my size was quite a help, because you don’t just pull your brute force on [someone] less than one hundred pounds. I guess I’ve always used that. Anyway, I just could not be afraid. I just could not. I feel like there is something I could do. Hell, I could teach in Biafra before I would be afraid, and Lord knows, I don’t want to go to Biafra. There’s always something. I just couldn’t be scared.
But these people are afraid of their jobs. And then a lot of them are caught up. They just don’t understand. I’m sure if I talked to them they’d start saying, “Well, we’re working with the masters.” They just can’t see this whole thing we’re in together. I always make this analogy, and people forget it as soon as I say it: In Germany back in 1939 there were Jews who went around talking about politics. “I don’t want to be involved in that. Oh, no. No. I don’t know anything about politics.” This is the way the professors in the University of Munich were talking. Sure enough, the people selling vegetables on the corner were being picked up, but this doesn’t affect me. I’m not involved in politics. But before it was over, everybody went. They don’t ask you how many degrees you have. They didn’t ask you how clean your nose is and how many white ancestors you had. In the final analysis, everybody’s going to go. If they’re not free down there in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, I’m not free sitting up here in a Midtown Manhattan apartment, with a white husband, you know. I mean, I’m still not free.
I don’t understand that this is the way people think and look at things. But they don’t understand this. They feel like, ”I’m just the victim of a circumstance. ” So I don’t see anybody over there, white or black, that I can work with. In fact, those who are taking a stand are so crazy – they’re just so unreasonable, they’re just so crazy. They are so affected, too. So I haven’t found my little niche as far as people are concerned. I’m going to just find me a job. I hope to do day-to-day substitute. I don’t want to take a regular job, because, after that beautiful school we had for that two months, I’d hate to go back to the same old 66, you know. But I’ll probably do that.
Well, that s enough bad news from Ocean Hill-Brownsville. It’s pretty bad in a way. But one thing about it, I finally made them come down in the end. Stand and fight like men. If you’re going to die, do it like Biafra.
I have an awful lot of tape left. I can’t do like you. I can’t take forever and a day to say something. I have a tendency to want to get things over with. I need to fill up this tape and I don’t have any music here. I want to mail this right away, so it might be kind of empty. Is there anything else that has to be said?