Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Dr. Pinn, thank you for joining us at Explorations in Black Leadership. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision in 1954. You were a teenager, but do you remember what it meant to you at the time when you first heard about it?

PINN: Well, I’m embarrassed to say I think we sort of heard that this decision was made but it didn’t have any immediate impact on our school system or what we were doing and its true relevance and true importance really only struck me, I think, years later as we began to see changes in the school system, the beginning of integration in my hometown. After being in a segregated system all the way through my high school years —and I actually didn’t finish high school until 1958, which was four years after that decision — I think the impact had not really hit us as to what its true significance was because it hadn’t changed things where my every-day experience was.

BOND: Do you have any memories of what you thought it might mean, what it could mean, to you and your family?

PINN: Yes, I came from a family of mostly school teachers, and I had been exposed to things that my relatives were doing in other cities where they did have more opportunities than we did in our limited, segregated system, where I saw the schools were better equipped, where the teachers had more opportunities to support students. So it did suggest that perhaps one day soon that we would have better opportunities, better education and a better opportunity to advance our lives in terms of our educational support and our opportunities.

I’m not sure the true, real impact for me at that age really struck me until later — until I went away, until I went to college in the North and met students who’d come from other parts of the country including the South and the North and the West, and then as I witnessed changes begin to take place in my hometown years later — I think that’s when the significance really began to hit me.

BOND: Now looking back from today’s perspective, what do you think it has meant?

PINN: I guess as I think about it within myself, it has meant that there truly should be opportunity for anyone, regardless of color, to have access to educational opportunities that can further his or her lives as they move forward. I guess I get mired in the fact that there was so much turmoil and there was so much resentment and seeing the resistance of so many factors and seeing what we overcame that I still get into that mode of thinking about the change. But then seeing what’s happened since and seeing the wonderful opportunities that have happened —

I have to say that, you know, I went to a segregated school and I used to comment that when I went to college and went to an advanced chemistry lab, which I was required to do because of my grades in high school, and here was this fancy lab with all this equipment and when I thought back to my high school, my laboratory experience had been bending glass over a Bunsen burner and not having access to all of the equipment or the kinds of lab — I think we maybe had two or three labs during the whole chemistry class — that I realized how much I was not getting that others in other parts of the country were getting regardless of their color or where they were. And so, I guess as I thought about it personally I thought, "There won’t be people like me who will be lacking when they’re supposed to have the educational opportunities and have the educational exposure, they will, in fact, have an opportunity to at least compete on a level with others they’ll be facing as they move forward in their education and careers."

But, on the other hand, I always felt I may not have had all of the equipment, I may not have had all the facilities, I may not have had all the fancy trappings, but I was always grateful for my high school education even though it was a segregated experience because we got a lot of nurturing from our teachers that I think made up a lot for what we didn’t have in terms of fancy labs and equipment and other opportunities. And it meant that if you wanted to succeed, you really had to stick with it. You had to study, you had to work hard because it wasn’t given to you. But we were really taught if you were going to go far, you really had to apply yourself and you had to be dedicated to the educational process and that’s something that stuck with me so I guess I haven’t been as resentful of the fact that I didn’t have all of the opportunities and all of the educational accompaniment that many others had, but I’ve been very pleased to see people coming behind me who have had an opportunity to benefit from that decision to really have better — not just facilities, but better educational opportunities and the ability to go to the schools that are the best schools and to not be caught up by some of the distractions that we had to face.

BOND: Now, although this had no effect on you by the time you graduated from high school in ’58 —

PINN: That’s right.

BOND: How has it affected you in the larger sense from ’54 until now? What has Brown meant to you over this period of leaving high school and moving about in the world?

PINN: It has shown me how our country can change. I look back at my hometown and how it has changed. I look at my younger relatives and sons and daughters of friends who came along with me and see that they really have not had to endure some of the hardships that we faced prior to that decision or that people who lived during the transition and who were part of the battle had to face. And sometimes I wonder if the young people of today really realize what the leaders of the country and the leaders — I mean, the every-day people who were on the streets, who were in the schools, who were in the communities, who were fighting these battles who may never be in history books but who were really there making the change and struggling to make the changes come about — I wonder if the people, young people of today, really recognize what we went through and appreciate those efforts.

I do. I had left the South and was in college at the time that the changes really began to take place in my hometown. I was in Boston which was “integrated” although we know that during that time there were some major battles related to segregation in the school system in Boston that I sort of lived through to some degree being in the area, but looking back over the past years of my life and looking at where I am now, I guess I’m grateful for having witnessed and been a part of that movement that brought about change and having benefited from it and seeing that the youth of today and maybe some who are not so young now, since that was a number of years ago, have all benefited from what happened and at least we don’t have to be back in the times when we really got second-class educations and got the leftovers, even though with the leftovers, we certainly have seen many wonderful people excel and go far.