Gregory Coffin and Neil Sullivan discuss civil rights and school integration; part 1
BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 00:32:00
Interviewing school superintendents Gregory Coffin (Evanston) and Neil Sullivan (Berkeley) who discuss school integration and civil rights.
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Studs Terkel The title Superintendent of Schools is a very fascinating one to Chicagoans, particularly in view of of recent history. Superintendent of Schools, and naturally we in Chicago think it's a job that is overwhelming, indeed it is, in its complexity and can one really integrate schools of a city? Just the other day, one of the local members of our-- one of the school board said, "You know it's a very difficult thi-- there re-- there really is no one solution to it. It's very, very difficult indeed." Dr. Neal Sullivan, my guest this morning, and soon we'll be joined by his colleague, Dr. Gregory Coffin, the Superintendent of Schools of Evanston. Dr. Sullivan is a very celebrated educator, indeed. At the moment he's Superintendent of Schools of Berkeley, California. We hear that story. For that, his name, in a sense is connected with history. Superintendent of Schools of Prince Edward County, Virginia. That name rings a bell to many listeners, I'm sure. Prince Edward County where there was no school at all. No free school for four years. And Dr. Sullivan was called in from-- Let's begin! And his, an au-autobiography you might say, "Bound for Freedom," is a terribly moving story of how he and colleagues, and indeed, the people both black and white there succeeded in Virginia. Let's see-- how did it begin, Dr. Sullivan? You were Superintendent of Schools at a rather posh community in Long Island?
Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes, probably the richest community on Long Island. The Gold Coast, close to Old Westbury and Oyster Bay. And I had this marvelous school system where people wanted excellence. And I was brought in to try to develop it with them and we did. I grew tired of it. I became involved in civil rights. I was a friend of the Kennedys dating back to post-World War II. And they asked me if I would become involved in education. And this was through Robert Kennedy, I was delighted to do it. And they gave me an assignment.
Studs Terkel That story. Now that story. You were doing pretty well even the way you begin that story, "Bound for Freedom." You're doing pretty well, your man was asking about being [con]tributing editor to an educational magazine. Life was pretty good. You're going on vacation. Then came the call from Washington. And-- tell us about Prince Edward County.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Well, Prince Edward County is is located in Southside, Virginia. And they call it Southside because that's where the Negroes are, close to Appomattox, a stone's throw away from Jefferson's birthplace and Monticello, the home of Patrick Henry, incidentally, not too far away from Lee's birthplace and all the great heritage of of Virginia is wrapped up in this in this county, in the surrounding counties of of Appomattox and and the Lee area. So, rich in cultural background, poor however as far as the Negro and in his economy is concerned. The average Negro family in that area earns less than 1500 dollars a year.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Tobacco country, but poor tobacco count-country not cigarette tobacco [Studs Terkel makes affirmative sounds] but pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco. That isn't going too big in the country these days. So they are very poor people. Destitute. Incidentally they are still in segregated schools in rural Virginia. There is no integration. Despite the th-the Brown decision and despite changes in the educational philosophy in the state. Southside, Virginia is still a segregated country. So I'm talking about poor people, but people who are rich in heritage people who've made tremendous contribution. I'm talking about the Negro people, now, because these were the people incidentally who slipped through Lee's army of northern Virginia and joined Grant's army and many of them died in the Civil War.
Studs Terkel This is a fascinating history here you're telling--rich in heritage--these a-again, here's Dr. Sullivan, Superintendent of Schools, with his own insights that there were Negroes, very heroic and fought for the Union army as free soldiers. Freed themselves and escaping. We come back to Prince Edward County. This became, of course, celebrated because the establishment in that area decided rather than abide by the Brown decision of 1954, integration, they would hav-- all schools, all public schools cut out.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Absolutely. It was an incredible decision. One that was devastating to the Negroes for a generation in the area and unpardonable. The men who made that decision, as far as I'm concerned, should be in jail.
Studs Terkel Yes. In a moment we're going to be joined by Dr. Gregory Coffin, the colleague of Dr. Sullivan, who's the Superintendent of Schools and a very de-- a very remarkable one, here in Evanston and the mo-- perhaps even-- Dr. Coffin, will you sit down and join us? Dr. Sullivan was telling us the story of his life and you-- we're just sitting here talking, Dr. Coffin, sitting here talking. Perhaps some day-- before we finish this conversation, it might be a comparison of, the shall we say the gracious quote unquote "heritage" of Prince Edward County and of Evanston, Virginia and Evanston-- I think there's a connection in my mind somewhere. But continue the story, Dr. Sullivan, about Prince Edward County.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Of course the thing most people do not realize, we all know about the Brown decision of 1954, it was Brown et al, Brown mainly because it was first in the alphabet from Kansas. The-- There were three other plaintiffs in that case, one of them was Griffin. Griffin the the Baptist minister, dynamic president of NAACP chapter in Virginia who had a son, Skippy, five years of age, and he enrolled Skippy in the public school. He had the courage to do that. Skippy never attended a school. Skippy grew up and was with me in the Supreme Court chambers in 1964 when the Supreme Court ordered the board of supervisors to reopen the the public schools. But this all started, you see, in 1951 in Prince Edward County when a thousand Negro kids said "We're fed up with what we have. We're going on strike." This incidentally was the first student strike that I know of in the United States. It led to the Brown decision. It led to the closing of the schools in Prince Edward County in 1958. It led to strife, it led to violence. It led led me to Prince Edward County in 1963.
Studs Terkel So that posh easy job ended [Dr. Neil Sullivan laughs] and you came to Prince Edward County. Dr. Coffin, I know you know this story, too. And here Dr. Coffin's own story of Darien, Connecticut and his own experiment there. These two are related indeed. You're both New Englanders, too, which is no accident it would seem to me. But if we can return to Dr. Sullivan, more of Prince Edward. You were down there. Now you accepted the job to what? This as a job-- there were no schools, except white kids who were able to could go to paid schools.
Dr. Neil Sullivan That's right. But in the meantime, this became the cause [celeb?] in the South and the the southern racist poured millions of dollars into Prince Edward County to fight NAACP and the in the case in the Supreme Court. It went to the Supreme Court, incidentally, on three different occasions. But during this period the South built beautiful schools in Prince Edward County for the white children. They built a fabulous secondary school, they called it Prince Edward Academy. They bought beautiful buses. They had fine equipment and they took care of their children.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Poured in. And in addition the state of Virginia, in its great gratuitous fashion, gave each parent state aid. We all pay taxes in Virginia, but the the money went in in Prince Edward to the white
Studs Terkel And yet when eventually that great moment came for convocation at the free public schools that you opened integrated of primary Negro children. It was Governor [Colgate] Darden who made that commenc-
Studs Terkel -ment
Dr. Neil Sullivan Well, we found youngsters who had lost the ability to communicate. Children who didn't know they had a second name. Children who would learn to read in 1957, who had lost the ability to read by 1963. Young teenagers who had migrated across the country and slept in the subways in in New York City, who came back to the opening of school. Frightened young animals who had been on farmland and had never ridden a bus, they'd never been been to Farmville, the county Capitol. This is what I found. Destitute youngsters wh-wh-who were afraid to speak, who couldn't read.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes.
Studs Terkel And we're going to ask Dr. Sullivan more about how-- 'bout some of the teachers and some of the few white kids that went there, and their parents, and this experience. And also, of course, of your current work at Berkeley, California with its own challenge. We'll switch now-- later on we'll keep both free flowing, both of you. Dr. Gregory Coffin, on your case you came to Evanston. Not at all like Prince Edward County, but you came from Darien, Connecticut. And there you did something quite unprecedent. Dr. Gregory Coffin, we think of Darien. You, what did you do with teachers? Ev- D-Darien was much like a Dr. Williston-- [laughs] Dr. Williston. I I'm thinking Dr. Sullivan's Williston tenure-- Darien pretty well-to-do.
Dr. Gregory Coffin Yes, Darien's a very affluent suburb about 30 miles out of New York, inhabited by management people from New York. The average income, according to one study, is 20,000 dollars a year. A unique feature of Darien, however, is the fact that it's one of the few communities, I expect in the country, where a gentleman's agreement still prevails. So that Darien is inhabited by a homogeneous population. There are no Negroes in Darien. According to one survey there are 50 Jewish families, but when a friend of mine got together one night try to count them, we could only count about ten. And so
Dr. Gregory Coffin Primarily WASPs and there are there is a a small, relatively small, Italian element which is Catholic. And I used to kid about the fact that they couldn't build a wall around Darien to keep them out because they were the people of three generations ago made the railroad, and so they're really natives, and there wouldn't be a Darien had it not been for the people who built the railroads.
Dr. Gregory Coffin Yes we started a couple of programs, both teacher and student exchange programs, with Harlem. I think the genesis of this may be of some interest in that I lived about a block from school, I had four youngsters in school, and my youngsters would go to school in the morning and go by a bus stop and the bus would come in and unload and half a dozen to a dozen Negroes would get off. And then at night when they came home from school, they saw the same people on the buses and getting on the buses. And this was really their only contact with Negroes and so despite what we try to teach them in school through the curriculum about the equality of people and about the whole idea that people could achieve, given an opportunity to achieve, all of their direct experience was contrary to their vicarious experience. And of course direct experience is a far better teacher than vicarious experience. And so after this experience and this was probably a year or so after I'd gone to Darien, I decided that this was wrong, that we ought to do something about this. And I was talking about this with Cal Gross, who was at that time superintendent in New York City, one time and just musing about how we could change this because I like Darien, but I didn't like certain parts, certain aspects of life in Darien, especially for my four kids. And so we came up with an idea that we might exchange some teachers initially so we could demonstrate to youngsters in a very visible way that given the opportunity, a Negro could achieve the same professional status that the whites in Darien achieved. And then we carried this a step further and exchanged youngsters later on.
Studs Terkel So, they, what was the reaction first, when you first made this and how this idea that Negro teachers would come from Harlem to teach the white kids, materially privileged, I say materially privileged white kids in Darien as-- and some of the Darien teachers would go to Harlem. What was the reaction of the good people of Darien?
Dr. Gregory Coffin The Board of Education adopted this program on a nine to zero vote initially. That is, when we proposed the program for the exchanges, the board was unanimous in its agreement that this was a good idea. After we started the program, we started to get some kickback or some some backlash, I guess, and gradually there was a swelling amount of backlash. However all of the people who were directly involved in the program, that is teachers and the students that these teachers were teaching, and the parents of these youngsters were all very enthusiastic about it. So that we managed to move along actually for two years and then it was after that that I left Darien, but we ran the program for two years, expanded it [clanking in background] in the second year for both teachers and youngsters. But there was some growing resentment, not so much growing resentment in terms of more people, but many of the apathetic or totally uninformed people were beginning to come to the fore and make noises. So we had big crowds at board meetings and in board elections. In two successive board elections, people who were anti this program got onto the board. So that when I left Darien, instead of the nine to zero vote, we had a a thin five-four vote supporting any kind of a program of this sort. And my [screech in background] guess is that after this last election last November, the vote would go the other way.
Dr. Gregory Coffin Yes
Dr. Gregory Coffin The youngsters were tremendously enthusiastic, even after having these teachers for just four or five weeks, they came in for four or five weeks in a stretch, and youngsters were tremendously enthusiastic about the teachers. Obviously these teachers were very carefully selected. This is very important to the success of the program. Our teachers that went into Harlem were very enthusiastic about their experiences there. We broke down many stereotypes on both ends.
Studs Terkel So hold for a mo-- this is interesting, so hear [throat cleared] the case of the teachers and the students, both in Harlem and in Darien County, being obviously rewarded and exciting, but from the outside, parents th-the question of-- th-that veil of ignorance descended. Ignorance. Just of really not knowing.
Dr. Gregory Coffin Yes it became, it's very obvious that if we could do things throughout the country, and lots of the these kinds of things are being done now, but if we could do these things with the present generation of school kids hopefully the next generation won't create the Dariens. There'll be no reason to do it. And so we'll have a totally different attitude toward what a community should be.
Studs Terkel We'll return to Dr. Coffin in a moment, incidentally, I'd like it if both could, Dr. Sullivan and and Gregory Coffin both, if you would just talk even some experience of yours as the other is talking so it's conversation rather than, you know, continue. But we we so we leave as they do in soap operas. [chuckle] So we leave Gregory Coffin just leaving Darien to come to Evanston, which is as we know for many years has been home of the WCTU [Woman's Christian Temperance Union] a sort of a rock-ribbed conservatism indeed, as Superintendent of Schools. Hear about that. So we'll return to Dr. Sullivan now, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. This is rather interesting. And D-Dr. Coffin was talking about the the problems that are arising there as a result of his integrated teacher-student program. Now we come to Prince Edward, so you came-- the the kids had been away from school four years, shy, frightened terrified, most of these are the Negro kids you're talkin' about.
Dr. Neil Sullivan That's correct. Th-The Negro kids, that was the student body. We had four frightened white youngsters, too. S'matter of fact only three, one of the four children was the son of the dean of the teachers college in the community, who was a very articulate Caucasian.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Right. Right. The Abernathy's had one daughter, Leticia, seven years of age and the Abernathy's decided that t-to them right was right. And therefore they would not go to this private academy that had been set up. They believed in free public education. So when the free schools were opened, the Abernathy's registered Leticia, seven years of age, and then that trouble started. All the problems that could be heaped on one poor farmer by his neighbors went on for this period o-of of a year when I was there. And it has continued over the time. They have long memories, these Virginians, in rural Southside, Virginia and they made life almost unbearable for these wonderful people. However I think the Abernathy's were the great gainers because they found friends in the Negro community that they never had had before. Leticia had more friends than all [Studs Terkel makes affirmative noise] the Caucasian kids in Prince Edward County put together.
Studs Terkel This raises a question, though, a key one, this experience of yours in Virginia. The poor white, 'course he was a loner, and there was another, there was another farmer, too. And yet they represent if they c-- overcome this fears this man, this poor white had his child go with the poor Negroes. Wanted to.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes, definitely did. And the poor white in the South, I certainly have great sympathy for because they too are the are the great losers. Their education is is neglected, but they're militant as far as the Negro is concerned and as far as as integration is concerned. They're the great losers in this struggle.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about your recruiting of teachers. Here to-- 'course the story that Dr. Sull-- Dr. Coffin, sorry Dr. Sullivan, tells that you know well is coming there and finding neglected schools and how to recruit staff and among them was this elderly white teacher who was retired, Etta Bailey?
Dr. Neil Sullivan Oh
Dr. Neil Sullivan Miss Bailey, 72 years of age, retired in Richmond, eminently successful, recognized by her peers as one of the truly great innovators in the in the South. What she indicated to me when she came out to be interviewed was th-that she was a loser all her life because she had never had an opportunity to work with Negro children. Richman was a segregated city. Could she have that privilege? And of course the doors were open wise to the Etta Bailey's. This was a Peace Corps type of of operation. We didn't care how old they were whether-- w-where they went to school or what type of certificate they had or if they had one. We were looking for people who had a commitment to this cause. Etta Bailey, 72 years of age, was typical of my staff.
Studs Terkel And
Dr. Gregory Coffin Oh, it was an interesting sideline on that, Mr. Sullivan's not aware of this, but he had some of the same kind of flack in the backwoods of his East Williston community that I was getting in Darien-
Dr. Gregory Coffin Bef-before he went to Virginia, well, while he was in Virginia I happened to be taking a course, a seminar at the Harvard Club in New York. And a man from East Williston, a business executive, I've forgotten just what company he was with, I-- one of the major companies, was in the course. There were about 12 people in this. And I was talking at the time about some of the things we're doing in Darien, and this fellow took off one night on their superintendent. This guy, Sullivan.
Studs Terkel Neil
Dr. Gregory Coffin Neil Sullivan, [Studs Terkel chuckles] who was down, and they hope to hell he'd stay down there [Studs Terkel laughs] in Prince Edward County and not come back to East Williston. [Studs Terkel laughs] So he had some of the same people going in the backwoods that I had going for me in Darien.
Studs Terkel This is fascinating [Dr. Neil Sullivan coughs] While you're while you're talking Dr. Coffin we return to Dr. Sullivan in this incredible moment, this experience in in Prince Edward County and then to Berkeley. So you were invited here in our neck of the woods, the largest small city in America, really, the largest suburb, Evanston. Now, how did this Evanston offer-- here you di-- you had a reputation. Now you did something quite unprecedented in Darien County with this exchange of teachers black and white, and now Evanston.
Dr. Gregory Coffin Well I think it was a very logical thing because I think, from what you had said before Mr. Terkel, you you have a stereotyped image of Evanston which is not an accurate image. Evanston-
Dr. Gregory Coffin It's-
Dr. Gregory Coffin Yes.
Dr. Gregory Coffin They, Evanston maybe a rock-ribbed conservative kind of community. But this has not been my experience there. The, Evanston is a very proud community. It's it's quite heterogeneous, it's very proud, and it's very anxious to solve its problems. It would like to solve its problems by itself without the state or the federal government or any outside participation. And so I think one of the reasons I was invited to go to Evanston was because the people in Evanston felt, or the board, the school board felt that maybe I could help Evanston solve its problem which was a problem of rather tight de facto segregation in the center of the city. And this is why I went to Evanston.
Studs Terkel Just a year. Perhaps ask about your observations thus far. The fact, I think the fact that the the committee who chose you, chose you, Dr. Coffin, I think is interesting in itself isn't it? I mean that that they chose Dr. Co-- that is, well Tristan Coffin.
Dr. Gregory Coffin He's
Dr. Gregory Coffin They were concerned, I think, with two things. They they're anxious to solve their de facto segregation problem and had been working on this for five years before I came. So that I I wasn't the champion to step in and and solve this thing. Actually I just moved in at that time when we were right on the brink of a solution. But they're also interested in the kind of high quality education, for all boys and girls, that we were offering in Darien. Darien, despite its limitations and certainly its limitations revolve around this whole problem of of of race and of prejudice, things of this sort, but despite this, Darien's educational system and educational output in terms of the achievement of boys and girls an' what they did with their educations afterward rank very high. And Evanston aspires for all of its kids, it's, both Negro and white. We have 21 percent Negro for all the kids, the best possible education. So this was a combination they were looking for and they thought I had it. I hope this proves to be the case.
Dr. Gregory Coffin Sure.
Studs Terkel Free, back and forth. You left Prince Edward County. The teachers by-- the story itself "Bound for Freedom" is published by Little Brown and it's it, I think it's not just a moving story, it's a very very full of incredible insights. S-so-so germane for now, you're talking about when you left the situation, then you were invited to Berkeley, California but first first Virginia.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Well, we we of course had a fantastic year any time, [Studs Terkel coughs] as Dr. Coffin knows, you have a faculty that is willing to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, you have it made. And these people [Studs Terkel clears throat] are committed to the education of children. The salaries incidentally were low in Prince Edward County. We were paying them on an average of 5000 dollars a year. They came there to teach children. They came to try to erase this terrible sin that had been committed. They gave a year of their lives. They didn't regret it. I don't regret it. And the accomplishments were were fantastic. Now I'm not a-a-a salesman for compensatory education. I don't think it's the answer to the Negro problem in America. I think that that, you know, you must go all the way with compensatory education. We haven't gone far enough. But this was truly an effort in compensatory education to make up educational blight for four years. And we succeeded as far as the achievement was concerned. These kids achieved, however, their attitudes they still lived in isolation. They were desolate youngsters and while we enrich their lives by giving them the type of program that has never been given in in American public education, after all these kids, it was not unusual for them to spend a week at the United Nations or or in Washington and their friends were the Kennedys. You know, it's rather nice to think that that Jackie will drop in and see you. And [laughs] so it was
Dr. Neil Sullivan It was it was romance at its best. But it was also great compensatory educational achievement. Test results indicated we were successful. However we didn't change the power structure in Southside, Virginia. We were spending somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 dollars per capita on these kids. When we left, they reverted to an expenditure of about 125 to 175 dollars. Our class size was in the neighborhood of 15 to 20. It s-suddenly jumped the next year to 35 to 40. All the courses, the enriched courses we gave the youngsters in in the fine arts were eliminated, the fine language courses were eliminated. So I am not optimistic about education in the rural South. I tend to believe that the federal government must play a larger role. I was-
Dr. Neil Sullivan More active, I was terribly dismayed when Doc [Harold] Howe [the Second], our U.S. commissioner, is not going to have the authority to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. I think that this is a horrible
Studs Terkel Yes.
Studs Terkel Chicago.
Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes.
Studs Terkel So. Neil Sullivan here is raising a point that even though there are people involved directly concerned-- oh, and one of your lectures speak of the concern, the involved teacher and student. And you said you're not for compensatory education as a rule. In the case of Prince Edward, here was act-- here was an actual gap of four years of no education. You don't [unintelligible] about changing a kid's cultural patterns saying, "this is wrong," like "I-I is going" w-- "I-I is going" somebody says, "Oh that's wrong," says the teachers. "I am," whereas the good teacher says, "there's another way of saying it,
Dr. Neil Sullivan E-E-Exactly. There there are two languages we have to teach. A-and one is we accept the child's language. We begin there. And we work with him and, you know, not for him. And through this the development of of an esprit de corps that starts with the child. And he's a member of the team.
Studs Terkel Say doesn't this lead to [another?] question, Gregory Coffin, this point. If we could just-- let's-- just for a moment. I will just turn over this tape in a moment. This matter of who is disadvantaged, you know, are "they" quote unquote the Negro to be like "us" the majority, Caucasian group or is it a question of mutual learning of the richness of both backgrounds?
Dr. Gregory Coffin It's it's certainly both and of course this was the whole thesis of the program in Darien. They, there was an element of cultural deprivation in their rather thin culture of Darien and the associations they had as they grew up. And of course Tom Pettigrew and-