Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Educational Experience in the North

BOND: But then you go to Massachusetts and you have this experience.

HRABOWSKI: Oh, and it was intellectually, academically rich and socially devastating because they would never speak to me, not even the teachers. Nobody would speak to me. I came to understand -- I was thirteen -- I’ll never forget my mother having me read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is an awful feeling for a child to feel ignored completely, invisible. It was worse than being hated. I didn’t exist.

BOND: That you’re not even important enough to be hated.

HRABOWSKI: Oh, yes. I mean, there would be times when somebody in a math course, in a literature course, in a chemistry course, somebody would -- the teacher would ask a question and nobody could answer it, and I’ve have an idea and I was so curious and just this fat little kid loving it, I’d raise my hand to try. And nobody else would have their hand up. And he would just ignore me, over -- he, in two cases, and a she -- always, and even the kids. I mean, I started off being -- I mean, southerners speak. We speak and so I’d come in, “Hey, how you doing? I’m Freeman,” and they looked at me like I was crazy -- and I learned from that first day -- they kind of smiled. They were not nasty. They were not mean. They just weren’t comfortable.

BOND: You were the only black child?

HRABOWSKI: I was the only black child in those classes and yet I could see the level of rigor was more impressive than I’ve ever seen before. It was great. I loved the academic work, and the teacher was fair, critical but fair, and that was okay. Didn’t get any praise when I did really well, but very critical -- but I learned from it. It taught me to be tough. It taught me -- but I’ll always remember that feeling and it taught me so much about life and preparation and thinking about my philosophy of education. The worst thing we can do to children is to ignore them or make them feel like they’re not special, because you never forget that feeling. A child never forgets that feeling.

The only thing I had going for me I should say is that my teachers in Birmingham were saying, “Boy, you are special. You can do anything. You just have to be twice as good.” That’s the term we always used.

BOND: Yeah. What do you know about your parents discovering this Massachusetts program and what they -- how they got you to it?

HRABOWSKI: One of my godmothers was an educator there in Massachusetts and had taught there with my mother in Birmingham and had moved there, gotten married there. And she had suggested that if Mother wanted us to have -- she was going to send my cousin and me -- my mother and father wanted us to have the integrated experience and the reason, first of all, was that there had been opportunities for children of color, colored children, to go and live in the North to go to integrated schools. One such person who did it was Angela Davis and her sister. And our families were close. And so the question was whether or not my parents were going to send me and there were wonderful programs, Quaker programs, Friends School and places, and Mother was very impressed that people would be willing to do that, but quite frankly she was not going to leave her child’s education to anybody whom she didn’t know and especially white people, not because she didn’t think they were good people. She just didn’t know their ways, you see, and or how I would be raised, that kind of thing. And so I was bothered because I wanted to go and see if there’s a better way. I wanted to see it and know it and so the compromise was that her friend said, “Well, let them come for the summer,” and so my cousin and I went and, “Let him have this experience here,” and it was very helpful, very helpful, in many ways. It strengthened my math and science background. It reinforced the importance of literature and reading, something I did a lot of with my mother anyway, but it showed me how rigorous the work was. It showed me how well prepared some of those children were. But it also showed me I could do it, too.