The room next to Beulah Ralph’s office is a shrine to the glory years of Frederick Douglass School.
Dust covers trophies from the ’40s and ’50s. Photos hang from the room’s east wall in a glass case. The images are stirring. Move through each school year. Take in each smiling face, each still and perfect moment. There are prom photos and banquet photos. There are images of science fairs and art exhibits.
There was a time when Douglass School held May Day festivals and awards banquets. But then Columbia’s Board of Education voted to desegregate five days after the Supreme Court’s ruling of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. The ruling — and the vote — were celebrated among African Americans in Columbia. Desegregration had begun.
But in the birth of integration came something unexpected: Douglass School and its role as a social center for Columbia’s black community would slowly die.
Over the 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Beulah Ralph has watched the death of the school she loves, and she has held on to the stories of Douglass’ former teachers and students. Her presence, like the room of memories she keeps, is a reminder of the deep ties that she and many others have to the old Douglass School.
The shelves in this room sag with the weight of time, but if someone took the time to sift through them, that person might find lost grade books, copies of The Douglassonian and the hand-me-down textbooks the segregated school used.
Find George Brooks in this room and you will find the story of a coach who mentored his players and fought segregation. Find Charles Allen and the Rev. Raymond Hayes and you will learn the stories of two men who voluntarily transferred schools and the pressure they felt to achieve. Find Michael Richardson and you will know the story of an athlete who starred at Hickman High School when few other Douglass athletes continued with sports.
Mrs. Ralph, as she is known in Douglass’ halls, is a small woman with a tinge of blonde hair who speaks and moves with the energy of a person half her age. Her office is a social hub for teachers, students and administrators. Stacks of papers litter her desk.
She has worked at Douglass for 57 of her 77 years, and she spent 12 years at Douglass as its student.
“What does the school mean to me?” she asks.
“It means home.”
It is a common sentiment.
“The school was the focal point of a lot of activities: band concerts, athletic contests, plays, those kind of things,” says John Kelly, former Hickman High School assistant principal and Douglass student. “Everything revolved around the school, and the community felt that it was our school.”
Says Charles Allen, who voluntarily transferred from Douglass to Hickman in 1959: “My best days, I still say, were at Douglass because of the fact that the relationships that you had at Douglass you can’t touch anywhere else.
“It was a social as well as an academic environment. The teachers at Douglass, you knew that without a doubt, they wanted you to succeed. There were expectations that you would work to your maximum.”
Ralph describes herself as a homebody. She says she wanted to be a teacher. She says she attended Lincoln University for two years, but she left school to take a secretarial position at Douglass.
“The money looked good to me,” she says. “That was important at that time.”
Her voice softens for a moment.
She talks of the things beyond money when she says she also took the job because she was friends with Douglass’ faculty and its principal at that time, William Wynn.
Ralph worked as a secretary for the next 20 years, but when desegregation took hold of Columbia’s public schools, and the closing of Douglass School became imminent, she became an unlikely player in Columbia’s desegregation process. She bridged the gap between Columbia’s white and black communities, questioning the school’s parents on their feelings about the school’s closing. She fought to keep the school open, and she eased the social loss that Douglass School’s closing created.
“She helped me see what kind of struggles that the African American youngster was going to have,” says Hank Steere, former assistant superintendent for Columbia schools. “She helped me see what we needed to do in order to be successful, and she went right into the homes with the parents and worked with those kids to draw those people into the school. ”
Steere says integration was voluntary at first because there wasn’t enough room at other schools for growth and desegregation. Eventually, though, Hickman could accommodate the influx, and Douglass High closed.
But before integration was mandatory, the process moved slowly. Only 20 black students integrated for the 1954-55 school year, three of whom went to Hickman.
“We had a group of students who attended Hickman High School, and it was rough for them because they just went right on in,” Ralph says.
Despite some problems with name-calling and slurs, the number of transfers grew.
John Kelly, who voluntarily transferred to Hickman from Douglass in 1958, says he changed schools to be better prepared for college.
“The books at Douglass were the books that Hickman discarded,” he says.
“We had 40 kids in a science class with three microscopes, and so with my goal of going to college, to have access to those things that Douglass didn’t have and probably wouldn’t have over the time that I was going to be in high school, it just wasn’t there. And so, to be a little bit better prepared and to have access to better libraries, you had to move.
“In hindsight, it also prepared me better because I was in a situation much like I was going to be when I got to college.”
But Kelly also says the act of transferring “weakened” Douglass School. The students who transferred were the ones most likely to attend college.
“The teachers didn’t want to lose their better students because you had the athletic awards and honors and those kinds of things that were kind of down the drain as far as Douglass was concerned, and it weakened the student body when some of us chose to go to Hickman,” Kelly says.
By 1960, only 69 high school students pre-enrolled at Douglass, and the high school program closed. There was little support for Douglass students during the transition. Many struggled academically.
“I was an honor student in history and social studies and, by God, I found out when we made the switch that my grades weren’t so good,” says Bob Redmon, a former Douglass and Hickman student who did not voluntarily transfer.
“Because of what I had been taught by the literature before, it didn’t jive. And that’s my only major thing that I had against (integration) is that if you are going to consolidate schools, make sure we are all on the same page.”
Says the Rev. Raymond Hayes, who voluntarily transferred from Douglass to Hickman in 1958, “After they closed down Douglass School, and everybody had to go and went in large numbers, then they started having problems.
“Not everybody wanted to be there. Not all the parents were happy. There was not a lot of preparation — as I understand it — for that big change.”
Two years later, when West Junior High opened, and only 10 students pre-enrolled at Douglass Junior High, that program also closed.
Douglass’ elementary program remained open until 1967, and its enrollment hovered around 300 students, all of whom were black.
Ralph says there was little motivation for the parents of the black children or for the schools to push desegregation. She says the building was at the center of Columbia’s black community, and the education level was similar to that of other elementary schools. The school’s faculty was integrated, one reason she says she pushed to keep the elementary school open and to integrate it with white students.
“Though the students had a separate but unequal school, they got an outstanding education at Douglass,” says Eliot Battle, Douglass assistant principal 1956-60.
“It was the interaction between the teachers of the black community (and the students) because everybody had to live within the boundaries of what was designated as being the black area, so all the teachers were all in the same neighborhood.”
Early in the 1966-67 school year Superintendent Robert Shaw had privately urged the school board to begin phasing out Douglass Elementary School. At the same time, two black MU law students, James Rollins and Harold Holiday, began a campaign to close the elementary program. The law students felt the school’s equipment and materials were substandard to that of other elementary students.
In response to Rollins’ and Holiday’s campaign, Columbia’s Board of Education asked Ralph to contact the families of Douglass students to find out their feelings about closing the school.
Although she disagreed with the school’s closing, she did the job. School records show 95 percent of the parents Ralph spoke with asked to have their children assigned to another school.
“I was against it not because I was so ignorant that I didn’t think that we needed to integrate, but I did not want to close Douglass School, and I tried my best to keep it open,” she says. “I think really what happened was (school board members) were listening to the families, and they were minorities, African American families, who thought, ‘Well, we didn’t have all of the things that the other schools had and this was a time to integrate.’ ”
Douglass Elementary School closed in 1967, and the next year it became a special education building. Ralph stayed on as its secretary.
“It was not a mistake to have integrated the schools, and I don’t think it would have been possible to continue Douglass as a separate high school and still integrate the schools,” Battle says.
“Because of the number of students who were attending Douglass, it would not have been feasible to have kept the school open, but to have kept the school as an elementary school, I think that it would have been a more desirable thing to have occurred, looking back on it.”
The closing occurred at the same time as urban renewal, and the combination of the two deeply disrupted Columbia’s black community.
“In the whole process of urban renewal, blacks from different parts of town were compressed into a much smaller area and housed very densely in public housing,” Hayes says.
“With Douglass being closed down, wow, you can’t destroy something of value without replacing it with something of equal or greater value and that’s what happened. By both of them taking place at the same time, I think it had a very negative impact about the whole process of desegregation. We just lost our sense of community.”
The school district bused Douglass students to other elementary schools, and Ralph says they were having trouble adjusting.
“You can understand going to the classroom, and you’re the only minority African American sitting there; most of them were scoring lower than the other students,” she says.
“So parents felt they weren’t being treated fairly.”
Again, Columbia’s Board of Education asked Ralph to play the role of intermediary between the school district and Columbia’s black community. It marked the beginning of the Home School Visitors Program.
“I would go around to the schools and check to make sure they were comfortable,” she says.
Since 1967, Douglass has housed day care for children of high school students and classes ranging from electronics to nursing. It has changed names, and changed back again. It has become home to a new, accredited high school providing alternative forms of education. But, for better and for worse, the Douglass School of 50 years ago exists only in memories.
Says James Nunnelly, who attended Douglass School in the late ’50s, “The school was essentially the hitching post for all of our lives. School was it. That’s what you did. Some went to church on Sunday, but for the most part of your life, everything that happened to you — at least good — happened at school. You saw the doctor. You saw the dentist. You played in the summer there. That’s where you met your friends. That’s where the ballgames were.”
After all these years watching hundreds of children, both black and white, move through Douglass’ halls, Ralph’s thoughts on integration remain mixed.
“Some people were ready for (the school’s closing),” she says. “Everybody wasn’t ready for it, but it looks like we go backwards sometimes it seems. But you don’t go backwards.
“You move forward.”