Social Change / Work

The social change that impacted my work life most was the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was an elementary school art teacher in a predominantly black school district in Washington, D.C., near the Jefferson Memorial. Just about all the children were black, as I recall, and most of the teachers. I was fascinated by my older colleagues who, because of the era in which they’d gone to college, benefited from a program by which black teachers from D.C. could go to the best schools in the East. The music teacher, Emma Mitchell, was a Harvard graduate and a brilliant pianist and teacher. She wore a long reddish wig of straight hair and was slightly deformed, like a hunchback. She had a wry sense of humor and no end of patience.

We met every morning for breakfast at a local diner, sat on the high round stools at the counter and ordered fried eggs over easy with toast, hash browns, and a few cups of coffee. I just loved Emma, just like the kids did. She was my first really close black friend and it was the sixties at the height of the civil rights movement. As teachers in Washington, we were on the cutting edge of radical change and recognition of black culture in education.

My husband and I went to jazz clubs and were the only whites in the crowd. We never felt afraid anywhere. Once when I was walking down the street with one of the children, another child passed us and said, “Miz Kinsley, is that yo’ daughter?” I got such a kick out of that. I was proud to be teaching in that neighborhood; the kids were so refreshing, so fun, so all-over-the-place, and their creative work was wonderful and free. They won a beautification contest with their colorful posters and we got invited to the White House for tea with Ladybird Johnson, where we were all on “best behavior.”.

Then one night while in New York City during a school break, my mother and I had been to see a Broadway play and stepped out into Times Square afterwards. Everyone was staring up at the marquee where the news goes around and around in huge letters. It read:

MARTIN LUTHER KING ASSASSINATED

The details went round and round and my head was spinning along with it. Tears flowed from my eyes, from my mother’s eyes. Everyone was crying by then. I knew it was the end of an era, that there would be riots, and that it was the end of overt friendships between
blacks and whites in predominantly black neighborhoods—at least for some time. I worked the rest of that school year, then we moved to rural Massachusetts where my husband went to graduate school. I got a job teaching elementary school art, but never again had such a rich experience as I did in Washington.

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