Pint-Sized Pioneers: Stories Of The Memphis 13
The first day of school can be exciting and scary all at once. It was all that and more for a group of Memphis elementary school children in the year 1961.
The first day of school can be exciting and scary all at once.
It was all that and more for a group of Memphis elementary school children in the year 1961.
Years after segregation was outlawed, the Memphis chapter of the NAACP went door to door asking African American parents to allow their 5 and 6 year old children to integrate city schools. The idea was to prevent the violent resistance other cities experienced when schools were desegregated.
Students who were chosen became known as the “Memphis 13.”
The day was October 3, 1961 when police officers stood watch as Joyce White, then Joyce Bell, stepped into Rozelle Elementary School, and Dwania Kyles walked into Bruce Elementary School.
“I’m sure our mothers prayed that night. I’m sure,” White said as she sat in her home, “I remember there wasn’t many of us that looked the same.”
“I’d gone from this space of safety to what is this? Because this doesn’t feel right,” Kyles said as she sat inside the Withers Collection Museum Gallery.
Kyles, White and 11 other African American students integrated 4 Memphis schools. Some white parents took their children out early, but the resistance was peaceful, compelling President Kennedy to praise the city.
Yet, the coming days were tough on the children.
“I know my name. My name is Joyce. But you know you get to the place where you think that other name is yours and it’s not…and they could say some ugly things to you,” White said.
“Oh I can sit here and talk about the hurt and the pain you know the children thinking I had a tail,” Kyles said, but added she remembers enough, “I just don’t need to flood my consciousness with it because at that point it won’t make me feel so good. I’m not interested in not feeling good.”
Both women say the hardest part was not being accepted in their new schools or by other African American kids.
White left Rozelle after 3 years.
“I was tired. I was tired,” White explained.
Decades since the children desegregated Memphis schools, their story was made into a documentary, sparking discussion of the pint-sized pioneers. Historical markers were installed at the 4 schools the students integrated, and the Memphis 13 continue to be recognized for their contributions and sacrifices.
As turbulent as it was for these young children Kyles and White said they are proud.
“Would I do it again? Oh without a doubt. No hesitation at all. Would my parents do it again? It’s like my daddy said, ‘Somebody had to do it,'” Kyles said.
“Not knowing that I was going to have a daughter but it insured my daughter, my nieces, my nephews and my family a better education and that I could be thankful for,” White said.
Today there are more than 80,000 African American students attend Shelby County Schools.