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White Girl

A Story of School Desegregation

Clara Silverstein

Publication Year: 2004

This poignant account recalls firsthand the upheaval surrounding court-ordered busing in the early 1970s to achieve school integration. Like many students at the vanguard of this great social experiment, sixth-grader Clara Silverstein was spit on, tripped, and shoved by her new schoolmates. At other times she was shunned altogether. In the conventional imagery of the civil rights era, someone in Silverstein's situation would be black. She was white, however--one of the few white students in her entire school.

"My story is usually lost in the historical accounts of busing," Silverstein writes. At the predominantly black public schools she attended in Richmond, Virginia, Silverstein dealt daily with the unintended, unforeseen consequences of busing as she also negotiated the typical passions and concerns of young adulthood--all with little direction from her elders, who seemed just as bewildered by the changes around them. When Silverstein developed a crush on a black boy, when yet another of her white schoolmates switched to a private school, when she naively came to class wearing a jacket with a Confederate flag on it, she was mostly on her own to contend with the fallout. Silverstein's father had died when she was seven. Another complication: she was Jewish. As her black schoolmates viewed her through the veil of race, Silverstein gazed back through her private grief and awareness of religious difference.

Inspired by her parents' ideals, Silverstein remained in the public schools despite the emotional stakes. "I was lost," she admits. "If I learned nothing else, I did come to understand the scourge of racism." Her achingly honest story, woven with historical details, confronts us with powerful questions about race and the use of our schools to engineer social change.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

...This story is true to the best of my ability to remember and retell it. I have changed the names and some identifying details of most of the people within it to protect their privacy. For historical background and statistics, I am indebted to...

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Prologue. Bedtime Stories

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pp. 1-2

...My four-year-old daughter, Martha, pulls the pink comforter up to her chin and asks the same question she asks every night: “Could you tell me a story from when you were little?” I turn off her reading lamp and snuggle next to her. It is more than five hundred miles from this bedroom to the yellow one in which I...

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A School Bus, a Mother’s Tears

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pp. 3-4

...A school bus looms ahead of me, blocking out the shafts of early sunlight. I hurry my two children along. Today, for the first time, they are taking a bus to elementary school because the building they normally walk to is being renovated. When they peer out the...

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Joined Hands

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pp. 5-7

...informed most of my education. The other event that profoundly affected me was more personal: the death of my father in 1968 due to a heart attack. He kissed me good-bye as I left for second grade one morning and he was gone by the time I came home for lunch. I was seven years old; my sister...

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My Father’s Last Moments

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pp. 8-11

...I wonder what my father was thinking the morning he died. Did he notice any squeezing or burning in his chest as he shaved? Did he continue lathering his face anyway, thinking he could push it away, the way he scraped the stubble away with his blade? He had lived...

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Ann and Lee, Mom and Dad

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pp. 12-13

...My mother, Ann, never wore black because she called it “an old lady color.” Her favorite color was blue, and she wore it almost every day — navy cardigans in the winter; baby-blue, sleeveless blouses and cotton skirts in the summer. She kept her black hair short and...

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Packing It In

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pp. 14-15

...After my father died, my mother piled his clothes onto an old couch in the basement, the cleaner’s bag covering them like a shroud. She had taken everything out of his closet to give to Goodwill, as if any evidence of his earthly presence was now worthless. She set the...

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You Talk like a Yankee

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pp. 16-18

...On my first day at Mary Munford, my new public elementary school in Richmond, Mom walked me to the front entrance and snapped my photo. The two-story, brick building sprawled across an entire city block. An enormous field — something we didn’t have in...

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pp. 19-23

...I made friends with other tomboys, who flouted the southern politeness and decorum that I found oppressive. Annemarie Patton had frizzy, blonde hair and thick glasses. She walked to school with her collie, who was named Colonel John Singleton Mosby to honor the...

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Freedom of Choice — Yes! Busing — Never!

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pp. 24-26

...In the spring of 1970, my fourth grade year, I was playing Monopoly with Annemarie in her basement when I came across a red bumper sticker next to a punching bag. “Freedom of Choice — Yes! Busing — Never!” it read. “What’s this?” I asked. Annemarie shrugged. “My father put that there.” I told my mother when I got home. I expected her...

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“Model” Schools

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pp. 27-28

...One alternative to busing was the John B. Cary experimental school that my cousins, Larry and Phyllis Zeller, helped to start in 1969. Larry, my mother’s first cousin, led his household with a booming voice and brusque instructions to his children. Phyllis, who had been...

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Interim Integration

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pp. 29-31

...My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Wallace, had once taught my mother and, more recently, my sister. Her stooped shoulders accented her crooked teeth. Her southern accent was so thick she sounded like a 45 RPM record being played at 33. Mom and Suzanne both praised...

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Busing Hits Home

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pp. 32-36

...“They have the new school districts drawn,” she said, pointing to the front page. I snapped off the TV and came into the kitchen, where she had spread the newspaper on the table. Tracing the lines on the map with her forefinger, she said, “That’s good for Suzanne...

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pp. 37-41

...Desegregation was a concept that my grandmother Hanni could barely fathom. Comfortable with the established social patterns among her long-term Richmond friends, she seemed to float above the hurly-burly of my life. I remember her as a smiling but distant...

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Jim Crow’s Legacy

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pp. 42-47

...My grandmother’s friends called the black women they hired for domestic duties “the help,” and they all seemed to employ at least one “girl” for their housework. Hanni used a day worker named Amelia. Following the southern custom, Amelia was always addressed...

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Liberal Teacher, Southern Lady

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pp. 48-51

...At her job at the Grace House community center, my mother was “Miz Ann,” the teacher for black kids, white kids, and a Vietnamese brother and sister whose parents were refugees from the war. Most came from low-income families, though the NAACP lawyer who...

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The Buses Roll

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pp. 52-54

...I remember my mother walking me to the bus stop — August 30, 1971, the first day of busing in Richmond, a few weeks before my eleventh birthday. I was glad that she had made special arrangements to go into work late, but I was embarrassed, too...

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No One Wants You Here

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pp. 55-56

...The first few months of middle school I remember in a physical way: I kept my head down, body stiff, and shoulders hunched forward so I wouldn’t have to look at anyone. To be friendly was to invite a reaction like Vanessa’s. Every time I walked through the halls, which was...

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Black Is Beautiful

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pp. 57-60

...As a white person, I was automatically in the out crowd at Binford. The coolest kids in the school were black. They wore metal spoons hammered into bracelets and carried plastic Afro picks or metal “cake-cutters” in their back pockets, the handles wiggling as they...

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pp. 61-63

...No matter what the court said, separation was the operative principle at our school. When widespread busing began in 1971, the year I started sixth grade at Binford, Richmond middle schools cancelled after-school activities, including sports, clubs, and dances. The reason...

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Separate Soundtracks

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pp. 64-66

...The soundtrack for the black kids at Binford came from Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Aretha Franklin. The students celebrated the soul music that was finally crossing over...

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In the Classrooms

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pp. 67-69

...In a way, the schoolwork was the easy part. It was abstract, something that required concentration, something that distracted me from feeling so white. My mother expected me to take school seriously and make good grades, just as she had done. She was always...

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My Flag, My Shame

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pp. 70-71

...Maybe if one of my teachers had explained the African American view of the Confederacy instead of shunning topics with any hint of racial controversy, I would have been prepared to resist the sales pitch of the man in an Allman Brothers Band T-shirt. I was at the...

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Girl Talk

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pp. 72-73

...In the dark, in the wooden seats of the auditorium at Binford, the film jittered through the projector. All the girls were watching, the boys sent upstairs to their own special assembly with the male gym teacher. On the screen, a girl in a plaid skirt and saddle shoes...

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Ebony and Ivory

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pp. 74-79

...Like most twelve-year-old girls, I schemed incessantly about how to find a boyfriend. Desegregation brought a whole new level of complication to the possibilities. Virginia’s miscegenation laws had been taken off the books in 1967, just four years before I started...

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The White Boys

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pp. 80-81

...Billy, one of my white classmates, and I sat on the floor of the hall at Binford, banished from seventh-grade library time because we had switched the radio from Muzak to WRVQ, the new FM rock station. Alone, away from the banter — his teasing that my baggy, corduroy...

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Filmstrip in the Dark

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pp. 82-84

...Walter sat in front of me in seventh-grade American history, his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter as he drew cartoons in the margins of my textbook. He often slipped me cough drops and sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, contraband in the classrooms. He kept his Afro short and tidy instead of letting it fl atten on the sides or catch...

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The Fox-Trot, the Cha-Cha

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pp. 85-92

...My mother was acting more like a southern lady than a liberal teacher when she signed me up in 1972 for ballroom dance lessons at Miss Virginia Davis’s Cotillion. Dance lessons had been part of my mother’s upbringing. In an old-fashioned way, she thought I could...

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pp. 93-98

...In the eighth grade, I was reassigned to Hill Middle School, the same school that my mother had attended in the 1930s when it was all white. The Binford building could only accommodate sixth and seventh grades, so all of us had to attend eighth grade elsewhere...

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Voice of Loneliness

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pp. 99-100

...In the early 1970s, my mother and my cousins helped start a new, ultraliberal synagogue named Or Ami. Our family membership there gave me a welcome escape from Hill, the school I had started calling, without too much of stretch, “Hell.” The services avoided...

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The Liberals

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pp. 101-103

...I envied my cousin Naomi, who had continued her education in the model public schools her parents had started. She attended Bellevue, a racially mixed middle school. It was in Church Hill, one of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods, not far from the site of...

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Legacy of Defeat

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pp. 104-108

...The Zellers were the financially successful cousins. The Great Depression haunted the rest of my mother’s extended family the way The War Between the States haunted other Richmond families. The...

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No Yearbooks, No Good-Byes

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pp. 109-110

...My middle-school years ended not with a graduation ceremony or a yearbook — our school didn’t offer either — but with a threat. It started during our eighth-grade fi eld trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. I sat in our chartered bus with Liz and another white friend, Janine...

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Singing “Dixie”

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pp. 111-115

...Every summer from 1971 through 1974, my mother sent me away to Camp Mountain Laurel in the mountains of North Carolina, near Asheville. When she was growing up, she had gone up north to a camp in Maine every summer. She believed that camp was just as...

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The Open High School

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pp. 116-120

...When I started high school in 1974 right after my final summer at camp, I always carried a book ready to shield the front of my face. I was all brains and skittishness. Not knowing what to do with my woman’s body, I hid it under jeans and a baggy smock. I let my hair grow long, thick, and ropy. I had reached what would be my adult...

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I Surrender!

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pp. 121-123

...I began spending the time between classes at the Richmond Public Library, just across the street from Open High. I started out sitting in the cushioned yellow chairs of the carpeted reading room, but I was often interrupted by snoring homeless men. I then began sitting...

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Belonging and Not Belonging

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pp. 124-125

...At the Open High School, I felt like I usually received a silent rundown when I tried to make conversation: “Who are you? Do you get high? Are you cool enough to talk to?” I felt far more welcome in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, a group for Jewish teens. At the...

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Driving Lessons

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pp. 126-128

...Because the Open High didn’t offer a driver’s education class, I signed up for a class at TJ in 1976, the year I turned sixteen. The atmosphere there felt like middle school all over again. Two boys were the only other white people in the class — and the only other...

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Preppie Envy

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pp. 129-130

...I had not realized how much I resented desegregation until the day during our junior year that Andrew and I went on a one-day student exchange to the Collegiate private school. The ride along River Road seemed to take forever. The school, surrounded by athletic...

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A Shell Tossed into the Ocean

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pp. 131-132

...One of the few times I felt connected to the Open High was during a camping trip in the spring of my senior year. I rode down to Virginia Beach in my teacher Lynne’s yellow Chevy Vega, listening to the Paul McCartney and Wings tape loop around her eight-track...

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The Education Mom

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pp. 133-135

...Because my mother left early for work, I usually didn’t see her until dinnertime, when she would push through the front door, a book bag filled with teaching magazines in one hand, a swim bag for her daily laps at the Jewish Community Center in the other. She kept...

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Racial Differences Still Evident

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pp. 136-139

...the newsroom, phones were ringing, typewriters were clattering as reporters filed their stories, and editors were yelling questions across the room. The energy in the room hummed through me, making me feel more alert. Richmond’s news nexus seemed like...

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Was This a Good School?

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pp. 140-142

...their high-school yearbooks. I expected to laugh at everyone’s goofy senior pictures, but instead I found myself squirming. Next to the chronicles from the Madeira School, Concord Academy, Loomis- Chaffee, and Beverly Hills High School, my Open High yearbook...

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My Father’s Words

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pp. 143-146

...The closest I ever came to hearing my father talk to me as one adult to another was the day after I had graduated from Wesleyan, when I found his old diaries in my mother’s basement. Here was the account of his U.S. Navy service when he was twenty. He sailed to...

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I Am Lee’s Daughter

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pp. 147-149

...I was just a few years shy of forty-two, the age of my father when he died, the weekend I flew to West Virginia for the 125th anniversary of Temple Israel. My father had worshipped at this synagogue, along with the rest of the Silverstein family. At the hotel, I put...

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Splinters of Glass

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pp. 150-153

...My husband and I look as white as anyone else and blend right into the liberal Boston suburb where we moved to raise our children. I realize that we’re here because we have the money and the skin color to fit in, and at times I do feel guilty about it. But I also...

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Epilogue. Binford Middle School, 25 Years Later

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pp. 154-155

...Some of the old, throat-choking fear wells up as I step out of the car in front of Binford Middle School and help my son and daughter out of the backseat. I haven’t walked into the building since leaving in 1973. I wrap my arms around my children’s shoulders to steady...

E-ISBN-13: 9780820345888
E-ISBN-10: 0820326623
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820326627
Print-ISBN-10: 0820326623

Page Count: 168
Illustrations: 12 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2004

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Silverstein, Clara, 1960- -- Childhood and youth.
  • Children, White -- Virginia -- Richmond -- Biography.
  • Middle school students -- Virginia -- Richmond -- Biography.
  • Girls -- Virginia -- Richmond -- Biography.
  • Whites -- Virginia -- Richmond -- Biography.
  • School integration -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History -- 20th century.
  • Richmond (Va.) -- Race relations.
  • Richmond (Va.) -- Biography.
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