by C. Sligh
“It wasn't Little Rock” was the response that black students in Arlington, Virginia often gave when asked about their experiences in the newly racially desegregated public schools of the 1960s. It was short-hand for we might have problems but we are not being subjected to the unspeakable hatred that was showered on black students when they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. White students spat on, beat up, yelled insults, destroyed black student lockers, threw flaming paper wads at them in the bathrooms, and even threw lighted sticks of dynamite at and sprayed acid in the eyes of a female black student. To Arlington students, Central High in Little Rock provided the standard for what they might face when integrating their county’s formerly all white schools. This, however, did not occur in Arlington or in Virginia. And without that drama, the integration of formerly all white schools in Arlington and in Virginia seemed like non-events. Yet the lives of the Arlington students and their families were affected in ways that impacted their lives forever. Their bitterness continues to this day. As adults, they ask questions such as, “What good did it do?” “Are blacks better off now than they were then?” These questions are transcriptions from videotaped interviews made during my residency at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) and Pyramid Atlantic in Washington, D.C in 1992. I planned to create a text-based installation. Entitled “Witness to Dissent: Remembrance and Struggle” it evolved through recollection and investigation, interviews on audio and videotape of numerous people including my family, neighbors, Congressional men and women and other former civil rights activists, and searches through libraries and archives for old news and images that were buried in my psyche. Years later, in 2004, I revisited the boxed contents of the installation and set about creating an artists’ book for the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education. My focus, however, shifted to the question of what motivated my mother, a quiet, reserved, seemingly passive but determined “colored” woman who grew up in the South, to offer up her own children as plaintiffs in the Arlington school class actions suits? Fragments of stories, told to me by my mother, were interwoven with an exploration of my experience as the lead plaintiff in the 1955 school desegregation case in Virginia (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board) and with excerpts from news clippings, legal documents and interviews with my sisters, brother and daughter. The narratives reveal change, transformation, and complications. Ethel Mozell Thompson was the daughter of sharecroppers from North Carolina. Through revisiting her personal story of struggle, anger and pride, reality is shown to be stranger than fiction. Her family’s tragedies make it seem that her decision to enter her children into the Virginia school desegregation suits and the newly integrated schools was inevitable, a matter of intersections of time and place. Although I work a lot with text, it is the oral rather than print origins of black culture that is a great influence on my work. In the neighborhood where I grew up, stories were told at family and social gatherings and in the songs and music which were a big part of our lives. It is this quality that I try to create in this work. The size of the book, 11 x 8 inches, is approximately the size of spiral notebooks used by students today. The shiny white paper and laminated cover take on the quality of a hybrid school text and composition book and can be easily handled.
It Wasn't Little Rock
themes: Family history and the desegregation of schools in the United States. [T. Shaw]
artists' book (local)
community: workshop Visual Studies Workshop [T. Shaw]
manuscript type: other
location: artist's archive