Saturday, July 6, 2013

My Experience with Frederick Douglas High School

Sam Walton was a strong community advocate for the Harlem Youth.  As a youth himself, here is just one of his experiences that shaped his beliefs.  

Frederick Douglass High School was four blocks from my house in the middle of Harlem.  On the first day of school, I had mixed feelings about being there; I was happy and fearful.  I was happy because I was leaving behind all the bad experiences of my elementary education, and I was hoping my new school would help me forget some bad memories.  I also liked the idea of it being an all boys' school.  The school was going to represent a challenge - we were going to see if we could "save face" .  Could we survive the hazing?  That school had a reputation of bullying new students.
      I heard stories of many fights at Frederick Douglass High School.  As time went on, things were not as bad as I heard.  The administration had stopped most of the bullying by the time I arrived, and was, in fact, trying to make gentlemen out of us.  They accomplished this in a number of ways.  Some teachers were very tough in drilling into our heads the concept of being gentlemen.  We had to wear ties, clean shirts, and pressed pants.  The tough dean enforced all the regulations to keep us mannerly.
      In grade school, teachers stressed we were only children; now our task was to become young gentlemen.  However, in the classroom, there was always chaos.  I can remember one teacher who looked like the three stooges - Moe.  While "Moe" was on hall duty, we always threw books at each other and sometimes chairs.  When he came into the classroom, we would calm down for only a minute and then start back up again.  When the dismissal bell rang, we all ran out like wild men. I went to this school three years, and finally the system was changing a bit.  New teachers were coming in who didn't share the same values as the older teachers.
     On a serious note, Frederick Douglass High School taught us NO black history.  This was a shame because it would have solved some of  the discipline problems and promoted self-identity.  In early 1963, some new neighbors moved into the building where I lived.  They were a group of black and white students who identified themselves as the Harlem Education Project (HEP).  They told us they received a small grant for their project.  One day, one of these boys, who was dressed in overalls, was washing the windows outside their apartment.  I stared at him for a moment and then started a conversation.  He said his group was there to do whatever the community needed them to do.  It was refreshing knowing someone had come to help the community.
      At this time, my friend and I was fourteen years old.  Despite being young, the boys at HEP invited us to their storefront office.  They told us each day they held a meeting, and they were interested in us.  They listened to our problems, our ambitions, and our interests, big and small.  They let us hang out in their office and use the typewriter. 
      This was one of the many experiences in my youth that made me want to be an advocate in my community for other youths, so they could learn their past and appreciate the experiences of their elders who came before them.