Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education: Segregation and Integration

BOND: Let me ask you about the difference between a relatively integrated life in Brooklyn, attending a majority – overwhelmingly white high school, and then entering into the segregated environment of Morgan and Baltimore. What kind of transition did you have to make, if any?

GRAVES: Well, you attended an African American school like I did also, Morehouse, and there was a sense of bonding, there was a sense of the professors at Morgan at that time, and I think they still do, gave you a sense of the fact that there was something you could achieve. They certainly believed that integration was coming, because it was in the fifties – I started in '53, '57 I graduated. That's not totally – I graduated '57 and a half was my class because my dad passed away, I stayed another six months so I could finish ROTC. But I'm still very much a part of the class. Had I not done well in my class of '57, they'd've said, "No, he was in the class of '58," but they take credit for me in both classes. So that, success comes with that, also.

But I arrived on campus – first of all, I'd really never been away, to be on my own and all of that, and so all of a sudden I arrive in this dormitory and they're still have freshman initiation-type rites, where they hit you with paddles and all that. Well, that in itself was a wake-up. I knew that – I had visited the campus, I knew I was coming to an African American, all-black environment – I felt quite comfortable with that and I felt even more comfortable because it was, if you will, we were in an oasis. It was an oasis where you ate on that campus, I didn't have a car to get off the campus. Where you did – you were involved in sports, you studied, you went to the library, and so everything you needed was there. When you walked to either one of the shopping centers, you knew that you – and I mean, that it would have been inculcated by that time that I was probably going to meet some racism. And there wasn't racism because they realized that their income came from both of those shopping centers, the income came from the black community. It was really how I got started with only two businesses. I was the flower representative for the – there was a flower in the northern part of the campus, off campus. And there was a florist in the eastern part of the campus, where again, and those were the only two florists anywhere around. And I became the representative on campus for both of those florists.

But in New York, I lived in a black community, but we – if you – I went to high school in an all-white high school. There were 7,500 students at Erasmus Hall High School when I went there and graduated in 1953. And of those students, no more than twenty-five were Negroes – we were Negroes at that time – and 7,300 were Jewish students at least. There were about a hundred Irish students and maybe about a hundred Italian, and the rest were all Jewish. And so the joke used to be among the Jewish kids, they would sit in the cafeteria and they'd holler, "Where are there more kids in high school Jewish?" And the other end of the high school would holler back, "Israel," right. Because other than, and that was something they were very proud of, that there were more Jewish kids in the high school at Erasmus Hall then there were literally in Israel at the time. And I thought that – and I have friends that I still have – the class of '53 still has reunions, and as crazy as this sounds in Scarsdale where I now live, there are at least ten students who were in that class of '53, and I think two or three of them have died, so maybe we're down to eight. So you know it's one of those things where we all get together once a year and have a drink to see who's still alive. And we have our, let me see, I think we have our fiftieth, yeah, we have our fiftieth anniversary of having graduated from high school coming up next year because they're trying to get me to be chair, one of the chairs of the committee.

And one of the issues which has come up has to do with your integration you're speaking of, of course, an excellent question because I was angry when we had our reunion forty-five years ago that they did not want to have the reunion on campus, and now the question is why do we not want to have the reunion on campus. Campus, I mean we actually had a campus at Erasmus. It was an enclosed quadrangle of four buildings which surrounded and closed with gates at either end. And now that [inaudible] used to be all Jewish, right, it's now all African American. Now for the most part, it's a seed bed, if you will, of West Indian people who are here from the West Indies. And in many instances, many of the people who have come into the high school now literally have to take an English course because they come from some country in Latin America or South America. But literally that Erasmus Hall, which I graduated from in 1953, has flip-flopped from being all-white to all-black. And the graduating seniors of my class, who are now having their fiftieth anniversary, did not want to go back to the campus because they were, in quotes, "afraid." And so I've told Judith Handelman who was the – it means nothing to your audience – but her husband was mayor of Scarsdale and she was in that class – I said, "Judy, if I'm going to be on the committee, we have to go back to the campus and we have to have our reunion again." And it's a beautiful campus. The only hesitation is among the graduates is, "Can we go back to the campus?" and I have assured them they are not going to have man-eating lions at the campus when we go back. And so the integration is still an issue.

And you're talking about what happened and how was it that affected me in '53. I felt quite comfortable being an all-black campus and I think what has been the saving grace for the African American schools in addition to really just giving us an excellent education is the sense of camaraderie, sense of togetherness, a sense of somebody who cares about you. And if whether or not you a Morehouse that you went to, it took you four years to graduate. I got my degree in a half hour. I made a speech and sat back down and two hours later I was out of there. I can't understand why it took you four years. But any event – said a little tongue-in-cheek cause I enjoy doing graduations around the country today. But there was a real sense that people said to you, "You're going to be somebody." Dr. [Winfred O.] Bryson, who I will honor at this twenty-fifth anniversary you mentioned, was my economics professor and he challenged me to be better. He challenged me to be good. He challenged me to search the – my area of study was the steel industry when I was in – at Morgan now. There was no one working for U.S. Steel. There was no one working for Republic Steel. And yet my area of interest was what was the steel industry doing, what did it mean, what's happening with the unions, what was happening with the Japanese when Algoma started to manufacture steel? The World War II was over and they were going to start to become a very industrialized nation. And we were going to find out that their steel was going to be cheaper. That's S-T-E-E-L, not to steal, and it went on. And so that was different.

But I felt quite comfortable on the campus as it was. And when I came back, I didn't have to change personalities to say "I'm free to walk all over New York," because it's just a part of what I was. And then, you know, Baltimore's a very urban community also. I didn't go to school somewhere in Louisiana where, you know, it would have been the deep woods. I mean, Baltimore is a very cosmopolitan town. You could go into the stores downtown as I said, if you – in some of the stores you put something on, you didn't have to buy it. And others where they were a little bit more backward, that was the case. But Baltimore was a – and I found that kids at Morgan's campus, I mean, they really dressed like it was a college campus. Not unlike the University of Virginia in the old days. Now the kids get up and whatever – they put on their pajamas and – keep their pajamas on and come to class. But that's part of the culture which I'm against. And everybody wears a tie in my office and come back to that leadership later. So the answer is, I think, to move from one society to another society quite comfortably.